How Finding Your Purpose Protects Your Brain: A Neuroscientist Explains
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What is your purpose in life? Your passion. Your bliss. Your calling … Whatever you call it, we’re all searching for it to some extent. Mastin Kipp’s words sum it up for me: “Your bliss and your purpose are the same thing.”

If finding your north star is an elusive task, then perhaps taking a scientific approach to defining and measuring "purpose" might work as a discovery strategy.

Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist who specializes in Alzheimer's research defines "purpose in life" as: “the psychological tendency to derive meaning from life’s experiences and to possess a sense of intentionality and goal directedness that guides behavior.”

To measure purpose in life, researchers from the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago asked over 900 older folks living in residential communities to rate their level of agreement from 1 to 5, to each of the following statements:

  • I feel good when I think of what I have done in the past and what I hope to do in the future.
  • I live life one day at a time and do not really think about the future.
  • I tend to focus on the present because the future nearly always brings me problems.
  • I have a sense of direction and purpose in life.
  • My daily activities often seem trivial and unimportant to me.
  • I used to set goals for myself, but that now seems like a waste of time.
  • I enjoy making plans for the future and working them to a reality.
  • I am an active person in carrying out the plans I set for myself.
  • Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.
  • I sometimes feel as if I have done all there is to do in life.

The researchers found that a high purpose in life score was linked to many positive health outcomes including:

  • Better mental health
  • Less depression
  • Happiness
  • Satisfaction
  • Personal growth, self-acceptance
  • Better sleep•longevity

Startlingly, in the seven years of the study, 155 of 951 people developed Alzheimer’s disease. A more detailed analysis showed that those folks with high purpose in life scores had:

  • Reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease
  • Less mild cognitive impairment
  • Slower rate of cognitive decline in old age

Explaining her findings to Science Daily, Patricia Boyle explained: "Somehow, having a purpose allows people to cope with the physical signs of Alzheimer's disease."

So what might be is the biological basis linking purpose and passion with brain health?

The researchers in this study weren’t 100% sure, but neuroscience tells us that a lack of purpose in life is associated with the follower indicators of poor health:

  • High levels of the stress hormone cortisol
  • Markers of inflammation
  • Low high-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels (the "good" cholesterol)
  • Abdominal fat

We know these factors probably combine to diminish the brain’s resilience to degeneration and aging. Brain resilience is also referred to as "brain reserve"—its ability to cope with increasing damage while still functioning adequately. So, if you’re still searching, neuroscience might just be able provide some pretty compelling evidence about why you should foster your purpose and passions. And maybe thinking about the questions posed to the older folks might just guide you to your north star.

If you're totally lost when it comes to your purpose, this piece may offer some pointers.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

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To learn more about happiness, check out our video course How To Create More Happiness & Meaning In Your Life.
About the Author

Dr. Sarah McKay is a neuroscientist with a PhD from Oxford University. After moving to Australia in search of sunshine, she spent five years conducting neuroscience research before deciding to follow her bliss of talking about science rather than doing it. Now she combines raising her two little boys on Sydney’s Northern Beaches with writing about science, health and medicine, and blogging about neuroscience. Sarah specialises in breaking down neuroscience research into simple actionable steps to improve brain health. She provides neuroscience education to health and wellness professionals, blogs about intriguing neuroscientists and their work, and runs the Walking Book Club.

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