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.
A job is probably the easiest way to help you feel your life has purpose, so consider staying with it as long as you can, says Robert N. Butler, M.D., founding director of the National Institute on Aging and author of The Longevity Revolution: The Benefits and Challenges of Living a Long Life (Public Affairs, 2008). Even if your job is not the greatest, Butler notes, “accomplishment—and, most important, income—can provide an ongoing sense of purpose.” But there's more. A European study that tracked 16,827 Greek men and women for 12 years found that those who retired early had a 51 percent higher mortality rate than those who kept working. And according to a 2005 study that followed 3,500 Shell Oil employees, those who retired at 55 were twice as likely to die during the next ten years as people the same age who continued to work.
Take stock of yourself
If you're struggling to bring your purpose into view, Richard Leider, life coach and author of Something to Live For: Finding Your Way in the Second Half of Life (Barrett-Koehler, 2008), suggests making a list of what you consider your gifts, values, and passions, then identifying your top quality in each category. Together, he says, the three can help reveal your calling—a formula he describes as G+V+P=C. Chopra says he leads his clients in a similar exercise that includes questions such as: How do I feel when I have a peak experience? What are my unique skills? Who are my heroes throughout history? If I had all the money and time in the world, how would I use my talents to serve humanity? Then he takes his clients through silent meditation, and often, he says, because of “correlations that take place in the subconscious,” they achieve some clarity and insight.
Another approach is to journal. Gregory A. Plotnikoff, M.D., medical director for Abbott Northwestern's Institute for Health and Healing in Minneapolis, says this can be especially effective after a major life change that leaves you feeling lost. “When a spouse dies, you retire, or your kids leave home, you interrupt your personal story,” he says. If you can figure out how this episode fits into the plot of your life, you'll be one step closer to seeing its purpose—and yours. Plotnikoff suggests writing in a journal for a few days, at least 30 minutes a day, about crucial events in your life and how they made you feel. “Discovering purpose is like uncovering patterns,” he says. “If you understand the first chapters of your life, you're in a better position to write the next chapters. We all need to be part of a bigger story.”
Find your flow
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, former chairman of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago, spent most of his 40-year academic career studying quality of life and enjoyment. He believes we find fulfillment in activities that develop a skill, challenge us, and provide ongoing feedback. He calls this “flow.” “Mountain climbers have an easy goal: to get to the top. But getting to the top is not the purpose,” explains Csikszentmihalyi. “Real climbers are not that interested in the top. They take two pictures and come back down. What makes mountain climbing purposeful is the challenge with each step—focusing attention, seeing what you’re doing right and wrong with each step. You have to be able to see that if you've taken ten steps, you are a little higher up.”
Csikszentmihalyi thinks a good way to find flow is to think about what you've always wanted to do but thought you couldn't—ideally something you really care about. It could be researching your heritage, working on a community quilt, building model trains. Like climbing a mountain, purposeful activity should engage your abilities and require effort.
The correlation between religious faith and health has been analyzed in more than 2,200 studies over the past few years, says Koenig, of Duke, and some suggest that believing in a higher power can boost more than just the spirit. While scientists still don't have a dependable method for measuring faith, research shows that people who attend church, temple, or mosque at least four times a month are less likely to engage in risky behavior, be depressed, or feel chronic stress. The faithful live longer, too. One 1999 study, published in the journal Demography, tracked 20,000 Americans and found that white people who regularly attended church lived an average 7 years longer than their nonchurchgoing counterparts, and black people lived a remarkable 14 years longer. Koenig explains that people who believe in God often feel that that in itself is the reward that gives life meaning. “It's the sense that God has a purpose for humanity and for all of creation, and that each of us has a special role in that divine plan,” he says.
It's not news that lending a hand can make you feel good about yourself and your life. But research now suggests that older people who give back have better physical and mental health and a lower mortality risk. One study published in the Journal of Urban Health found that volunteers ages 60 through 86 who helped in Baltimore public elementary schools outscored their nonparticipating counterparts in both physical and cognitive ability. The key is to volunteer in ways that seem meaningful to you, says Butler, of the National Institute on Aging. (Scores of such opportunities can be found at www.aarp.org/createthegood and www.volunteermatch.org.)
For Marge Jetton, volunteering still has its place, even in the retirement home where she now lives. After every meal, she happily reports, “I make the rounds to my friends and collect their empty bottles and cans.” Then, she says, “I give them to a lady who recycles them for cash. She's down on her luck and could use a hand.”
Dan Buettner is an explorer, writer, and Guinness world-record holder whose latest book is The Blue Zone: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest (National Geographic, 2008).