How Finding Your Sense of Purpose in the New Year Can Add Years to Your Life
The inhabitants of Nicoya Peninsula, in Costa Rica, call it “plan de vida.”
People that live in Okinawa, Japan, call it “Ikigai.”
But in both languages, the premise is the same—it’s the reason you wake up in the morning.
And in both Okinawa and Nicoya, the inhabitants have some of the lowest rates of middle age mortality and some of the highest concentrations of centenarians in the world. Experts say that reason for waking up—that sense of purpose—is one of the several reasons they do.
“Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy,” says Dan Buettner, the founder of the Blue Zones Project, which studies what makes certain groups of people live longer.
Purpose, in fact, is one of the Blue Zones Project Power 9 tenets.
That premise is backed up by some solid statistics.
In 2014, Patrick Hill and Nicholas Turiano, psychology professors at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and the University of Rochester Medical Center, respectively, published a study that looked at data gathered from asking more than 6,000 people questions related to their sense of purpose.
Fourteen years after the respondents answered those questions, they found that people who had a greater sense of purpose and direction than their peers were more likely to outlive them—in fact, they had a 15 percent lower risk of death.
Their analysis of the data took into account other factors that can increase longevity, like age, gender and emotional health, and found that a sense of purpose still gave the greatest increase in years of life.
They also found that it didn’t seem to matter when the respondents found their purpose and direction—it could be in their 20s or even in a more advanced age like 70 or more.
Hill and Turiano are now looking to see whether that sense of purpose spurs a bigger yen for good health—like the tenets of the Blue Zones. The question they’re posing is “Does having a sense of purpose lead to a desire to entertain other lifestyle changes that can lead to longevity?”
In 2014, a study in the medical journal the Lancet also found that people who believe their life has meaning and purpose live longer than those who do not.
Researchers studied 9,000 people over the age of 65, measuring wellbeing through a questionnaire designed to see how much control they felt they had in their life, and if they felt what they did had a purpose.
Of the 9,000 participants the researchers followed, the happier individuals lived longer. Over the course of eight years, just 9 percent of the people ranked as being the happiest died, compared to 29 percent among those ranked as being unhappier.
But how do you achieve this sense of purpose? Author Richard Leider, who also curates content for AARP’s Life Reimagined Institute, says that even small acts that make a difference for someone else can provide it.
“Giving to others makes us feel happier,” he says. “I get a happiness boost by making a small, unexpected difference in one person’s life every single day. I look for the ‘purpose moments.’”
And those purpose moments don’t have to be grand gestures.
“Listening is arguably the most important skill we possess,” he says.
And for those searching for purpose, Leider suggests what he calls the Napkin Test.
“Take out a napkin and jot down this formula for purpose: G + P + V,” he explains. “Are you using your most enjoyed gifts (G) on things that you feel passionate about (P), in an environment that fits your values (V)?
“If not, it’s time to go back to square one and figure this out.”
In an interview with Blue Zones, Leider explained what the average person can do to achieve that sense of purpose.
“Answer the core purpose question, ‘Why?’” he says. “Why do I get up in the morning? Envision the possible ‘purpose moments’ in the day ahead. Purpose drives meaning. When you have a reason, an aim in life, you’re motivated to make things happen.”