We may be missing another important element of good health; we need to have a positive purpose.

When we think of becoming healthier, we usually think of good nutrition, exercise, and stress reduction.  However, we may be missing another important element of good health; we need to have a positive purpose.  Having something we want to accomplish that can help others may, in the long run, be one of the best things for our own health.


          Many years ago I read an article about purpose and its effect on our health.  The author believed that human beings are meant to have purpose and, in fact, one way or another we will have some kind of purpose, said the author.  Now that I am older, and maybe a little wiser, I think the author of that article may have been onto something.


          He (or she) said when we have built our life around something that we are obligated to do, such as making a living, raising children, or a meaningful career, we have purpose.  We are accomplishing a goal that is important to us.  When the purpose, that we have pretty much dedicated our lives to, comes to an end as in retirement or the empty nest, it is important that we make a conscious choice of another purpose.  If we don’t make a conscious choice, our subconscious will find a purpose for us because we must have some kind of purpose.  It may be that we will fall into self pity, meddling in the affairs of others, gossip, trying to control others, or even developing a sickness for which we have as our purpose going to doctors, operations, medicine, etc.  Then we have a purpose that is not in our best interest.  


          New studies are showing that if you have a purpose in life, whether it is ambitious or modest, you will live longer.  I recently met a man who after his retirement started reading a series of books.  These are old books, difficult to find, and they have become an inspiring purpose for him.  Even though he has many disabilities, his eyes light up when he talks about the White Indian series of books.  There are twenty nine in the series and he has purchased and read most of them, there is one that he simply cannot find anywhere.  Finding and reading these books, along with watching football games, takes him beyond his handicaps and has become a positive purpose for him.  Not only are they helping keep him alive much longer than would be expected with the severe disabilities, they are giving him joy in living.


          Dr. Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center and an assistant professor of behavioral sciences at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, and her colleagues studied 1,238 adults whose average age was 78.  All participants were dementia-free when the study began.  Even after controlling for such factors as depressive symptoms, chronic medical conditions and disability, when comparing scores, she reported, “We found that people who reported a greater level of purpose in life were  only about half as likely to die over the follow-up period — as compared to people with a lower level of purpose.”  The follow-up period averaged nearly three years.


Some people find their purpose in volunteering for a worthy cause.  The Boyles study agrees with another recent study done by others, in which the researchers found that retirees older than 65 who volunteered had less than half the risk of dying during about a four-year follow-up period as did their peers who did not volunteer their time. 


          Much other research has been done that found having a purpose is crucial to maintaining good mental health.  Now we know that it is also important for physical health as well, and can actually help you live longer.


          Dr. Gary Kennedy, director of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in New York said he often sees the effects of not having a purpose among older patients.  “I see a number of people who have lost that purpose,” he said, “Their health declines.”


          Research published in Psychological Science, concluded feeling that you have a sense of purpose in life may help you live longer, no matter what your age. Lead researcher Patrick Hill of Carleton University in Canada concluded:  "Our findings point to the fact that finding a direction for life, and setting overarching goals for what you want to achieve can help you actually live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose.  The earlier someone comes to a direction for life, the earlier these protective effects may be able to occur."


          Viewing all the evidence, early retirement may not be all it is cracked up to be.  It is important that we not wander aimlessly through life with the next television show being our greatest goal.  If we want to live healthfully and maybe even longer, we need to decide what we can throw our heart into that brings meaning to life.  Whether we live longer or not, we will surely have more fun!


(Janice Norris lives in Heber Springs, has a B.S. in home economics from Murray State University, owned and operated health food stores in Illinois and Heber Springs, and wrote a weekly column in Illinois for 15 years. She can be reached at janicenorris34@yahoo.com)