I‘m thrilled that more and more study is being devoted to evaluating the impact of elements such as passion, purpose, meaning and having and expressing an authentic voice in our lives … even if the results often seem like a statement of the obvious. It seems almost self-evident, for example, that people who feel more engaged by their jobs, or believe that their job is important, or matters, show less job stress and perform better in those jobs than people who don’t. (I’ve even written about the importance of believing that what you do matters in previous posts, here and here .) Or even that people who feel that their lives have purpose live longer (the psychiatrist and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, came to that conclusion back in the 1940s, after observing concentration camp survivors).
Nevertheless, it’s helpful to have scientific support for some of those ideas. And as scientific research methods and capabilities have expanded, some interesting, and very specific, data has emerged. Take, for example, a recent study by the Rush University Medical Center researchers, quoted in an article in this month’s Atlantic magazine.
To quote the article, “Researchers at Rush University Medical Center have found that a third of people whose brains, upon autopsy, display the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s never exhibited memory loss or intellectual impairment. The best predictor of whether someone would escape these symptoms was whether they felt strongly that they had a purpose in life. Those who did were two and a half times as likely to be unafflicted as those who didn’t.”
I couldn’t verify any source for the statement that 1/3 of people with pathologic evidence of Alzheimer’s don’t exhibit symptoms. The Rush University Medical Center study I found that seemed the most likely source of the article’s data didn’t mention that. But it did show some pretty impressive graphs showing a dramatic difference in cognitive function (from a survey sample of 246 people studied before death and autopsied after death) between those that reported a high sense of purpose in their lives and those that didn’t–especially in those people whose brains, upon autopsy, showed significant amounts of the tangles associated with Alzheimers. So the general point–that having a strong sense of purpose in your life can protect you against the cognitive symptoms of Alzheimers–seems valid.
If that’s not enough to make you rethink how engaged you feel in your career/job/life/activities, and to contemplate ways to increase your sense of purpose and meaning, if you don’t already feel your life is imbued with those things, consider this: another, related Rush University Medical Center study, from the same project, also found that purpose in life was inversely related to a person’s waist/hip ratio. In other words, having a strong sense of purpose in your life also apparently helps keep you thin.
None of this addresses the issue of how, exactly, one goes about finding purpose and meaning if those elements aren’t already present in your life. And, in truth, the answer to that is far too long for one post. (Not to worry. I’ll be writing about it for some time to come.) A good guideline to start with, however, is that purpose and meaning rarely revolve around ourselves or the accumulation of wealth and stuff. Think about ways you might engage in improving something for someone else, and you’re probably closer to meaning and purpose than wishing for your own private tennis courts.
Sometimes, as I say to corporate groups I’ve talked to, it’s possible to reframe how we look at those things we’re already doing so that we see purpose and meaning in them that we didn’t think about or notice before. But there are also soul-sucking jobs, relationships, environments, and even social circles that really are worth considering dumping in favor of something that engages us more joyfully and fully. Even if there’s a cost to the switch.
The problem with that, of course, is that as we weigh changes that have costs associated with them, we tend to put far more weight on the negatives than the positives of the change. Change is hard, scary, and uncomfortable. As I’ve said many times, the closer any of us get to leaping, the more attractive that nice, safe, solid cliff edge beneath us begins to appear. So perhaps the most important role of scientific/medical data showing (for example) links between a sense of purpose and avoiding cognitive decline is to add some weight to the “pro” column as we weigh the pros and cons of making a change in pursuit of a healthier, happier, and more meaningful vision and life.