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The Protective Effect of Having a Purpose in Life

Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Thu, May 24th 2012

Last weekend, I attended a class at my church during which we were each asked to introduce ourselves and identify one of our passions in life. The responses varied from "I'm passionate about being a mother," to "I love motorcycles." My own answer was, "I'm passionate about writing." My passion is driven by the belief that my writing ability is a gift that God gave me as a way of helping people.

live on purposeI noticed a common denominator among everyone's responses - all of the declared passions provided ways for people to spend their time in a purposeful way. When I write, I feel great satisfaction about how I'm spending my time because I feel it's worthwhile and (hopefully) helpful to my readers. The woman whose passion is being a mother has found a reason to get up each morning and make a difference in the lives of others. Even the man who professed his love for motorcycles has found something that brings him peace and happiness, whether he's spending time working on his motorcycle or appreciating the beauty of nature while riding it through the sunshine.

You could almost say that by having us state one of our passions, our pastor was helping us identify purposes in our lives. Knowing - or finding - your purpose in life is not a new concept. But what does "purpose in life" really mean, and why should we have one?

Funny you should ask. I happened to read in the Chicago Tribune just yesterday about a fascinating study connected with the Memory and Aging Project at Rush University. The study found that having a purpose in life acts as a protective function against the debilitating effects of health problems such as Alzheimer's disease and related cognitive disorders. Patricia A. Boyle, a neuropsychologist and lead investigator in the study, defines purpose in life as "the tendency to be intentional, to engage in behaviors that one wants to engage in and thinks are important."

In the study, older people were followed for close to decade and asked to rate themselves on items such as how much meaning they derived from their activities and to what extent they felt they were goal-directed or purposeful. Participants also received clinical evaluations along with neurological and cognitive testing.

The results were fascinating. While having a purpose in life did not necessarily prevent the onset of Alzheimer's disease, it helped people who developed Alzheimer's function at a higher level for a longer period of time. For instance, when two people were compared who had similar levels of changes in the brain due to Alzheimer's disease, the person with a higher purpose in life functioned much better cognitively over time.

Boyle recommends finding activities that are meaningful to you and that engender a feeling that life is purposeful. I couldn't agree more with the assumption that purpose and meaning are related. In fact, the name of this very blog is Finding Meaning through the Many Windows of Wellness.

But finding a purpose in life is not as easy as choosing what to have for dinner. I've often thought of it as "knowing" or "discovering" more than "choosing." Finding it is a matter of opening yourself up to possibilities and experiences that will allow your purpose to reveal itself to you. And once that's happened, the wonderful gifts of focus, inspiration, drive, and gratitude inevitably follow.


Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.

Itís a true blessing to have you visit my blog on mental health and wellness. I also write blogs on faith and caregiving in addition to teaching part-time for Columbia College of Missouri. For more information about my background and writing, visit my webpage at

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