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Meaningful Living

Find Purpose, Live Longer

Add years to your life by adding life to your years

For 77 years Marge Jetton had identified herself proudly as a doctor's wife and found meaning in the work she did to support her husband, James. Their partnership was magical, says Marge, a former nurse, but it all ended abruptly the morning Marge found James on the bathroom floor of their Loma Linda, California, home, the victim of a fatal fall.

Marge grieved for a few months, then regrouped and got back to the business of living: she started volunteering again at her church, worked as a fundraiser for a gospel radio program, and delivered used magazines to elderly hospital patients. “I realized the world wasn’t going to come to me, so I went back out into the world,” Marge recalls. “I reconnected with old friends and felt satisfaction from helping the community. I guess you could say that I recharged my purpose batteries.”

That was five years ago. Today, at 104, Marge says she owes her can-do vitality to her religious faith and her fervid belief that as long as she's around, she can make a difference.

A growing body of research suggests she may be onto something. A 2005 study that followed 12,640 middle-aged Hungarians found that those who felt their lives had meaning had significantly lower rates of cancer and heart disease than did those who didn't feel this way. Another study of some of the world's most long-lived people, the Blue Zones project, discovered that having a sense of purpose—or “having a reason to get out of bed”—was a common trait in many of the world's centenarians. (That project, spearheaded by this writer, tracked the lifestyles of people who had lived past 100 in Okinawa; Costa Rica; Sardinia; and Loma Linda, California—and will soon extend its research to a tiny Greek island. See box at right.)

“People who feel their life is part of a larger plan and are guided by their spiritual values have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, a lower risk of heart attack and cancer, and heal faster and live longer,” says Harold G. Koenig, M.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center, who has studied the phenomenon broadly. The benefits extend into other realms, adds Deepak Chopra, M.D., bestselling author and cofounder of the Chopra Center for Wellness in Carlsbad, California. “Purpose gives you fulfillment and joy,” he says, “and that can bring you the experience of happiness.”

Chopra and others say there's no magic bullet to provide that “something more” in your life, but there are promising paths you can take in your search.

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