Here’s a question I’m sure you’ve never thought about before:
What is the meaning of life?
And even more specifically, what is the meaning of your life?
That might sound like an empty platitude — the stuff
of fortune cookies and bad self-help books.
But research has found that having a purpose is incredibly important
for almost every aspect of someone’s life.
So if you feel like you know what your purpose is, awesome.
And if not, well, not all hope is lost:
Researchers have also figured out ways to find one.
Welcome to SciShow Psych.
We’re going deep today. First, a disclaimer:
There are a lot of ways to think about purpose,
and many of them are rooted in religious or philosophical beliefs.
If you have questions about that kind of stuff,
this episode can’t answer them for you.
What we can tell you, though, is how psychologists think about purpose.
When they use that word,
they’re referring to the feeling that your life has meaning
and direction and that you’re living up to your potential —
or at least, you feel that it’s possible to reach your potential.
They study this in a few ways, but the one we’re going to focus on is
the eudaimonic view, since that’s probably what most people think of
when they consider purpose.
This is actually an idea from philosophy,
and it says that true well-being
is found not when you’re only seeking out pleasure,
but when you’re doing what’s worth doing.
You can probably relate to this
if you’ve ever finished a degree or raised a child.
Those things aren’t always pleasant —
and they’re sometimes downright stressful —
but there’s a deep satisfaction in knowing that your efforts are
going toward something greater than the task at hand.
And pursuing those things isn’t just
a motivator to get you up in the morning.
Studies have found that eudaimonic well-being is linked
to good mental and physical health, too.
Several studies have found that elderly people with the strongest
feelings of purpose in life had the lowest risk of death.
That is, people who felt their life had purpose were less likely
to die during the study period from any cause.
People with a greater sense of purpose have also been shown to get better sleep,
have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva,
and have more HDL, or so-called “good” cholesterol.
A 2013 study of more than 1500 people
with coronary heart disease
even found that those with a greater purpose
in life were less likely
to have a heart attack during the two-year study period.
That being said, scientists aren’t totally clear
on which direction this goes.
In other words, it’s not clear
if meaning in life gives you good health,
or if good health makes you feel like life has meaning. Alternatively,
the relationship between these things could just be correlational
— meaning that one doesn’t cause the other. Still,
it does seem like when you feel your life has worth,
you might be more likely to take care of yourself.
And even when your health isn’t so great,
meaning does appear to be useful.
For example, a 2015 study from the Journal of Clinical Oncology
examined group therapy for more than 250 cancer patients.
It found a greater boost
in well-being when that therapy focused on
developing a sense of meaning than when it simply offered emotional support.
Purpose also has other benefits, though.
Take a study published in 2014, where researchers had
338 ninth-graders complete
a roughly 30-minute computer lesson.
For the control group, that lesson was about how high school
and middle school are different.
But for the experimental group, the lesson helped them reflect
on their purpose and meaning in education. Like,
one question introduced the idea
that many students want to do well in school
so they can make the world a better place. Then,
the prompt asked students to explain their own academic motivation.
Over the next few months, the students in that group significantly
boosted their GPAs in math and science
— two typically tedious subjects. So,
all that to say, purpose does seem to mean something.
And when it comes to actually finding your purpose in life,
that’s easier said than done.
Thankfully, researchers haven’t left us hanging.
They’ve looked into this, too,
and they’ve found some reliable ways to make it happen. First,
they suggest shifting your mindset.
A 2013 study found that
a greater sense of meaning was associated
with thinking about the future or the past, but not the present.
The idea is that thinking about the past makes you realize
where your life has led you,
and that when you think about the future,
you consider where it’s going.
Both of those things seem to add more meaning to the present.
Studies also suggest
that reading can help you forge a sense of meaning,
and that’s especially true of poetry and fiction.
Reading about others finding meaning may help you find it in yourself. Now,
it is worth noting
that “ meaning ” isn’t exactly the same as “ purpose ”,
but it is a part of it.
So finding more meaning in life is a good first step
toward figuring out purpose, too. Finally,
a tried-and-true path to help you with all of this is
helping others and expressing gratitude.
In a study published in 2015, researchers found that people
who reported engaging in more altruistic behaviors like volunteering
and giving to charity also reported greater meaning in their lives.
In another experiment, they had 84 people write notes —
and those who wrote notes expressing gratitude reported
a significantly greater sense of meaning than the other groups. So,
if you’re like most of us and are still searching
for your life’s purpose,
you could try reading a book,
volunteering for something you believe in,
or starting a gratitude journal.
You’ll hopefully start to see a little
more meaning in the world around you
— and your sense of purpose might not be far behind.
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Thanks to all of you who support SciShow!
We hope that helping bring free educational content to the Internet
gives your life at least a little purpose.
If you want to help us keep exploring topics like this,
your support would mean a lot to us.
You can learn more over at patreon.com/scishow.
Here’s a question I’m sure you’ve never thought about before: