Here’s Your Jeopardy Question:
The category is: Life & Death
Here’s your Jeopardy question:
“I’ll take Life & Death for $600, please.”
The answer is:
“If you have one of these, you’ll probably live longer.”
And the question is:
“What is a Life Purpose?”
Researchers recently examined data from nearly 7,000 adults on the relationship between mortality and life purpose. The age of the participants was between 51 and 61. During the five-year study period, people without a strong life purpose were more than twice as likely to die.*
This was true regardless of the person’s race, gender or education level. It was true regardless of the person’s financial situation. The study found that the impact of PURPOSE on life and death is so dramatic that it appears to be a more important factor for reducing risk of death than drinking, smoking or regular exercise.
This isn’t the first study to come to this conclusion. In Japan, where the average life expectancy exceeds that of U.S. citizens by about five years, participants in a study were asked if they have “ikigai,” which is defined as “something to live for, the joy and goal of living.”
Higher life purpose scores were clearly associated with longer survival.
A paper published by researcher Alan Rosanski, in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine (2016), examined data collected from ten studies which indicated that a strong life purpose was associated with reduced risk of mortality and cardiovascular problems, such as heart attacks or stroke.
“The need for meaning and purpose is No. 1,” Rozanski adds. “It’s the deepest driver of well-being there is.”
The Japanese concept of ikigai (meaningful purpose) has become more popular in American literature over the past few years. It’s a concept that I’ve used regularly when teaching Japanese Psychology, particularly Morita Therapy. In a recent interview, I was asked to characterize the differences between Japanese Psychology and traditional Western therapy.
“In Japanese Psychology we’re trying to help people make a shift from a “feeling-centered” approach to life towards a “purpose-centered” approach. Many people’s lives are driven by their feeling-states. If you feel motivated, you take action. If you don’t feel motivated, you don’t take action. If you have a craving, you have a piece of chocolate cake. If you feel anxious, you avoid speaking or performing in public. It’s as if our feelings were the director of our life play. They run the show.”
“In Morita therapy, we’re not trying to get rid of feelings altogether (which isn’t really possible). They still have a role in the play. But they’re no longer the Director of the play. Our purpose, or purposes, becomes the Director. Purpose becomes the driving force in our lives, rather than feelings. We learn to coexist with feelings (like anxiety or depression) and still take action.”
In most cases, people with little or no devotion to Purpose become too focused on their feelings. The desire to feel comfortable, happy, content, peaceful, confident, or calm dominates the person’s energy. Purposeful activities are avoided if they are viewed as likely to stimulate feelings of discomfort.
For example, public speaking is one of the most common fears in our culture. But there are times when speaking, performing, or even being interviewed in a public forum could be a necessary step in accomplishing something important to you. Someone who is primarily focused on feelings will often try to avoid the activity because of the discomfort it produces. But someone who has a clear purpose, is more likely to speak in public and be willing to put up with that discomfort.
It’s not that people who speak or perform in public are always confident and calm. Most of them, including myself, are not. Leonard Cohen, Judi Dench, and John Lennon all admitted to having stage fright. It’s been reported that Henry Fonda would actually throw up prior to many performances because of anxiety. These people found ways to coexist with uncomfortable feelings, because their overall purpose was paramount.
I’ve been teaching Japanese Psychology for 30 years and I have seen how important Purpose can be to a person’s mental health. We each need something that gives our lives meaning – a sense that we are using our precious time to do something worthwhile. Yet, I was still surprised to review this study and see such a strong association between life purpose and mortality. The conclusion of the study was:
“CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE This study’s results indicated that stronger purpose in life was associated with decreased mortality. Purposeful living may have health benefits.”
If your life is already anchored by a strong life purpose, then you’re in good shape. But our lives evolve. What may serve as a source of purpose during one phase of our lives, may not be a good fit for subsequent stages. My two daughters, ages 21 and 20, have launched themselves into lives that go beyond their core family and home. Consequently, my role as a father has changed dramatically. Our children going off into the world, retirement, or the death of a loved one are examples of pivot points where we need to discover new purposes in going forward. Otherwise, we can find ourselves rudderless and confused.
To be honest, I don’t think living longer is a valid purpose for finding a purpose. It’s more like a fringe benefit. The deeper value of finding purpose goes right to the heart of our lives: What am I here for?
*JAMA Network Open, May 2019, Association Between Life Purpose and Mortality Among US Adults Older Than 50 Years. Published: May 24, 2019. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.4270