Having a sense of what you want to do with your life can help you live longer, slash your risk of disease and improve your sex life – and it’s easy to do
There’s a proven way to live longer, slash your risk of heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s, curb anxiety and depression, and improve your sex life. Simply develop a sense of purpose for your life. But how do you find your life’s meaning?
1. Picture your headstone
One way to recognise what you want to achieve is to think about your death and what you would want said at your funeral or written on your headstone.
Victor Strecher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, author of the book Life on Purpose, suggests identifying different values and goals for four domains of your life – family, work, community and personal. For example, Strecher’s purpose includes being an engaged husband and father, teaching his students as if they were his own daughter, helping others create purpose, and enjoying love and beauty.
This can be particularly important later in life. After retiring from work, some people struggle to see a purpose to their lives. But thinking about how you will be remembered by your descendants can provide a daily purpose in such times.
Although we may regard pondering death to be morbid, the Stoic philosophers of 2000 years ago considered the possibility of death daily. “In doing so, they would live a bigger life,” says Strecher.
2. Start now, it’s never too late to have an effect
If thoughts of death remind you of its proximity, take heart – developing a sense of purpose can help delay death and add years to your life, even if you don’t start young.
Patrick Hill at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, has found that rating one’s sense of purpose as one point higher on a seven-point scale decreased risk of death by 12 per cent over 14 years.
And benefits were seen in people of all ages, from those in their 20s to their 70s, suggesting that realising your purpose is advantageous at any age. “It’s not the case that you’re ever too late to benefit from finding a sense of purpose,” says Hill.
3. Focus on others
Meditation can help you find your purpose, especially if you think about others. In his book, Strecher prescribes a simple “loving-kindness meditation”. The 20-minute exercise begins with focusing on your breath and wishing yourself to be happy and free of suffering. Then you imagine telling others – starting with your loved ones but progressing to those people that get under your skin – that they may be happy and free of suffering as well.
Extending that kindness to people in real life can also improve purpose; people told to perform random acts of kindness a few times a week for a month experienced increases in eudaimonia – a type of well-being that includes purpose. The well-being boost lasted weeks, even after people stopped performing the kind acts. Volunteering has been shown to have similar effects.
In fact, other aims you have might come back to thinking beyond yourself. If you view work as just a way to pay bills, it won’t seem as meaningful as if you frame it as working to provide for others or contributing to society in some way.
Shifting the focus to other people, whether through meditation, charitable acts or considering the impact your life will have – even once it’s over – may just strengthen your purpose and let you reap its many benefits.
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