I’ve been writing this brain health blog since 2013, and it has changed my life and my career in extraordinary ways.
My original purpose for this blog has been to provide impeccably-researched evidence-based stories that are told in a simple, fun and compelling way. And it has certainly taken me on an extraordinary journey.
Purpose, defined as the tendency to derive meaning from life’s experiences and to possess a sense of intentionality and goal-directedness that guides behaviour, can be quantified!
With purpose and meaning comes positive emotions — love, compassion, and appreciation — which counteract stress and support a healthy brain throughout life.
Blue Zones residents are members of faith communities and find meaning and purpose through spirituality. Living a meaningful life seems an unlikely addition a brain blog, but ‘purpose in life’ is a concept in neuroscience that links to robust brain and mind health.
Purpose in life reduces risk of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive impairment
Drs David Bennett and Pamela Boyle the Rush Medical Centre in Chicago, published this finding in a paper in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 2010.
The project studied more than than 900 community-dwelling older people without dementia.
All participants underwent baseline evaluations of their purpose in life. And they were followed up over seven years to see if they went on to develop cognitive impairment or symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
The study defined ‘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 behaviour.
To measure ‘purpose in life’ the team asked participants to rate their level of agreement from one to five, 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.
Scoring for the negatively worded items was flipped (e.g. Qs 5, 6 & 10) and item scores were averaged to give a total purpose in life score for each person, with higher scores indicating greater purpose in life.
All of the scores were adjusted (a statistical technique that takes into account other factors and ‘levels the playing field’) for depressive symptoms, neuroticism, social networks, and chronic medical conditions.
- In the 7 years of the study, 155 of 951 people (16.3%) developed Alzheimer’s disease. Statistical analysis showed that greater purpose in life was associated with a substantially reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease (hazard ratio, 0.48; 95% confidence interval, 0.33-0.69; P<0.001).
- A person with a high purpose in life score was approximately 2.4 times more likely to remain free of AD than was a person with a low purpose in life score.
- A high purpose in life score was also linked to less ‘mild cognitive impairment’. Mild cognitive impairment is a long preclinical phase during which people may transition before they show sufficient symptoms be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
- A high purpose in life score was also linked to a slower rate of cognitive decline in old age. And purpose in life was related to a decline in semantic memory, followed by episodic memory, then perceptual speed, and working memory.
Purpose in life had been previously linked to positive health outcomes including :
- better mental health
- less depression
- personal growth, self-acceptance
- better sleep
What is the biological basis of purpose in life?
How does purpose in life protect against cognitive decline?
This is a hard question to answer.
The researchers state,
The finding that purpose in life is related to longevity in older persons suggests that aspects of human flourishing—particularly the tendency to derive meaning from life’s experiences and possess a sense of intentionality and goal-directedness that guides behavior—contribute to successful aging.
It is likely people who experience greater purpose in life are less stressed and experience more positive emotions. For example, lack of purpose in life is associated with high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, markers of inflammation, low high-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels (the ‘good’ cholesterol), and abdominal fat – all factors that associated with poor general health.
A subsequent study is published in 2012 in the Archives of General Psychiatry reported greater purpose in life may help stave off the harmful effects of plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Patricia Boyle said,
Our study showed that people who reported greater purpose in life exhibited better cognition than those with less purpose in life even as plaques and tangles accumulated in their brains…
These findings suggest that purpose in life protects against the harmful effects of plaques and tangles on memory and other thinking abilities. This is encouraging and suggests that engaging in meaningful and purposeful activities promotes cognitive health in old age.
A 2019 Frontiers of Psychology review titled Something to Live for”: Experiences, Resources, and Personal Strengths in Late Adulthood explores ‘disengagement theory’. The theory suggests a view of old age as a time of life when people step back from various commitments and social roles. But the findings of the present study highlight the desire and importance of older adults to remain active participants in society through creating opportunities for social connectedness, contribution, and belongingness.
One of the elders interviewed for the 2019 review stated:
To be part of a bigger group enables you to deal better with things. This is what gives meaning to our lives… We are not loners that live merely to survive; we live because we are part of society. This is what holds us, this is what I think gives life purpose and meaning…
And another said,
I see that there are times when I’m not focused on a specific target, and then I waste my time not doing things that are meaningful for me. And there are things that are important to me, things that I really want to do, but due to a lack of thinking ahead or planning, I postpone them or don’t do them properly… It is important for me not to waste time, not only because I think that there is a limited time to each person, but because everyone has missions to fulfill in life, and it’s a pity to postpone them. It’s not just that we are born and then die.
How do you find your life’s purpose?
By lovely coincidence, another wellness blogger Mark Sisson from Mark’s Daily Apple was also writing about purpose and longevity recently.
Because he says it so well, here is his take on how to find your purpose, and I couldn’t agree more …
…do the list making, the rational weighing, the free from brainstorming that experts suggest. Reflect on your passions, your priorities, your values, your talents and temperament. Consider where all of these can intersect with the needs you see in the circles or society around you. Talk to friends. Take a stab at writing a personal mission statement if you’re so inclined. Mull on the question while you’re washing dishes. Fill your head with the possibilities, the pros and drawbacks, the complexities and ambiguities. But then move out of cerebral mode entirely, get out of your own way, and hand the question over to your intuitive self.
Personally, I find there’s nothing more conducive to intuitive thinking than solo time outdoors… Think the question once – and only once – as you head out “into the wild” for your mini retreat. Then forget about it for the day. Just be and do and watch and smell and head home when you’re good and ready….
One day you’ll leave with your answer. Maybe it will come to you like a vision as you round the corner of a trail one day. Maybe it will settle in quietly, almost imperceptibly until you finally notice it’s there with you. Either way, you’ll have let your answer come forth from hours of, call it, Primal meditation. Not a bad source to tap into when you’re seeking purpose – and time away worth the health benefits all on its own.
As I wrote in my book, it’s useful to ask yourself what’s your north star? Your ‘ikigai’. Your ‘plan de vida’? There are possibly many clever strategies to find the meaning of your life — somewhere in the nexus of passion, skillset, employment opportunity, education and service to others. William James the psychologist said in 1920,
The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.
Recently I’ve come across a simpler way.
Over the years, I’ve taken to the ‘science careers advice’ stage with Paul Baldock, a bone biologist at Sydney’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research. We called on to share our wisdom, purpose and what we’ve learned on our career paths in science. Baldock has developed a novel formula for every decision he makes in the research lab, career, and life. He simply asks,
Is it awesome? Does it help?
This blog post was updated in December 2019.
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About Dr Sarah
I’m an Oxford University-educated neuroscientist, presenter of ABC Catalyst, director of The Neuroscience Academy, and author of The Women's Brain Book. The neuroscience of health, hormones and happiness.
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To live Michel de Montaigne’s words viz, “The journey, hot the arrival, matters.”
That would be “not” rather than “hot”!
hello, great article. i am receiving treatment for complex ptsd i have learned a great deal. one thing that has eluded me is meaning and purpose. this is very distressing as i was an effective committed human rights advocate for women in prison. i used to wake up full of ideas and excitement because i loved my work and was able to make a difference. all gone.
i initially thought that the depression was responsible for this perhaps it is the floodings of cortisol that have caused this loss. what do you think?
Thanks for your comment…. I really have no answer to give to your question. PTSD is complex … what does the person treating you for PTSD think? They would be in the best position to work through that with you and tease out the causes and potential treatment.
If you read what Mark Sisson says about finding your purpose – it is an active process. One of my favourite quotes is ‘clarity comes from engagement, not thought’. Rather than wondering where your purpose went, spend time doing what you love. It sounds like you gave a lot in your past – maybe time to invest in you. xx
This article is great and reflects my thinking exactly. I’m lucky to have a job I love, an amazing husband and two beautiful daughters who are grown and following their passions. I’m also fortunate to have several passions of my own, including writing and blogging, quilting and travelling. I know a lady who was diagnosed with MS, retired from her job, which was her passion, and just sat in her wheelchair at home from then on. Guess what…she is in the early stages of dementia now. It’s so sad to see a person who once possessed such vitality and intelligence simply disappearing day by day.
Great post Sarah. I’m thinking I may have recently found my purpose which is to help women find their purpose by utilising the power of the web… Something like that anyway. Totally agree when you say clarity comes from engagement not thought.
I think that may be your calling too Jane! I think you know when you’re following your bliss … you don’t want to be doing anything else.
Thank you Sarah. My story is unique, but I’m sure not unfamiliar. In 2008 came MS. In 2009 I was laid off for the first time in 30 years. I loved my work. My bliss is gone. I try to get it back by maintaining my own company and web site and performing as an IT Advisor. I have seen some success and briefly have felt my bliss return from time to time thanks to old friends who know my value and found me contract work. I also returned to college to get out and keep learning. I agree 100% regarding the relationship between bliss and overall health. I wish I would have seen your article when I was younger, but would I have listened? You are truly lucky to be doing work you love – and it is good that you know it. Mark Sisson’s words were confusing at best. However, I think his point was to “get outside” yourself – into the world – think, and see what happens. That I am doing. I put myself into play daily so maybe the ball will come to me, and something will happen. I am blessed to have tremendous family love and support.
Please keep up your high quality, inspirational writing.
I continue to search for my lost bliss.
Tim, Thanks for your kind words … and best of luck with your search. Maybe its not ‘lost’…maybe its moved onto something new?
I think you’re right, what Mark Sisson is saying is that you often find answers when you ‘get outside yourself’ … he is a big believer (as am I) in the great outdoors as a healer. And getting into your body and out of your mind often helps.
I’ve also found as one of my other commenters here says ‘clarity from engagement not thought’.
Keep in touch x
Thank you for your insightful reply Sarah. Something new? Yes. I believe it must be so. Everything changes, right? I do wonder what comes next, but I have faith. Something good will happen. Have a great day.
To help people heal emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually. I became a therapist at 48 after going to therapy for a divorce. I LOVE what I do. It took me 45 years to figure it out. I was a business teacher first, which I did enjoy. However, I followed my passion (of loving therapy), and now I know why I came to Earth School! There are blessings in messes. I just self published a book on divorce recovery,
Finding the Silver Lining in Divorce.
Could the purpose be as simple as trying to lift spirits of friends family and co-workers? I found I like baking cakes and cupcakes,
took a decorating class. I enjoy doing it but just feel great if it works and gets smiles.
As good a purpose as I’ve heard Doyle!
Love this Sarah! Thanks for sharing the detail around this topic 🙂
Thanks Marianne – delighted to have you on board!
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My purpose in life is to educate others about health. By health I mean mind health and physical health without bias and leaving out facts. I want to be a naturopathic doctor and write books on my studies and practices
Ohh…you sound like me – thats what I do – educate about health. Are you studying now? You should start a blog, or start writing at the very least.
Love your website -thank you. I am a senior/retired. I have a wonderful husband and two grown children – one who now has her of her own children. We (hubby and I) live interstate from each of our offspring.
I am a retired Nurse/Midwife. I do some volunteer work and believe I have a balanced life – social, active and follow a balanced diet, etc.
But……. since retiring I have struggled with ‘meaning/ purpose’. We support our offspring where possible but appreciate we are all at different stages and maintain a balance between support but not ‘over the top’
I feel that much of the time is ‘filling in time’. Do you have any other suggestion? I have read the Life Purpose blogg and subsequent posts.
Janet – I think this is a common problem after retirement and something that this gentleman Paul deals with: http://www.mylifechange.com.au
Thank you for your reply Sarah.
That is quite an extensive website you posted for my interest. I am a bit reluctant to order any of the books though. ( In the past I have read quite a few ‘self help’ type books and have possibly od’d on them).
At the moment my ‘love of outdoor walking’ is a bit restricted – osteoarthritis of foot. Like many – I find outdoor walking is my best Therapist. I haven’t been able to find a substitute eg gym, yoga or stationery cycling, etc, etc. I can walk but not as much or as often as I used too or would love to.
Can we also say “purposeS” – in the plural? Doesn’t the key of the wole thing lie in being – and staying – *interested* and *engaged* in something? And in this respect, can’t we say that the more interests we have in life, the better we will fare?
Yes …we should say PurposeS!
How does one define purpose when the accepted science tells us we have no free will, no soul and our existence is entirely materialistic? They explain freewill as an illusion, a comprehension of processes in our brain which had already began involuntarily, they say there is no possibility of a soul as we can explain every emotion and moral choice via functions in the brain, they say there is no room for a soul or a Destiny and that all your passions are arbitrarily assigned via your experiences. How can there be purpose in this world if these basic tenants are accepted? Is your idea of purpose and passion blindly following a trail of illusion until your materialistic death and the end of yourself forever?
[…] this excellent article to explore more about your passions and the brain. Your Life’s Purpose. This is an awesome site with tons of info on the brain … you will love […]
My purpose of life is to treat cancer and find a way to treat people who lost their limbs in trauma or injury.Limb regeneration az lizards and starfish do.
Thanks for this post Sarah!
I also find it important to find your life purpose.
As you know I got a concussion 5 years ago (actually today), and the doctors didn’t believe that I could gain health again after the first year, because I had so many symptoms and pains – not only in my head but in my whole body. I didn’t believe their words – I knew there was another way, even if I had to find the way by myself. I used almost 3 years to work with my thoughts, feelings, beliefs, the food, nervous system and my whole body. Today I’m 100% fresh again! 😀
My lifepurpose today is to help people with concussion regaining their health and help them through their process.
Today I have created BrainRecovery (and it will later be in english).
Thanks for making consciousness about neuroscience Sarah.
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What a beautiful and insightful post. I have been teaching about purpose for years now and I can tell you that finding “raison d’être” is sometimes more important than any other health choice we can make. It gives us resilience, hope and profound sense of peace no matter what happens. Thanks for sharing!
[…] the article “Your life’s purpose. Why finding your passion is essential to maintaining brain health.“, Dr. Sarah Mckay defines purpose as: “The psychological tendency to derive meaning […]
Thank you for sharing this motivational blog.
Hi Sarah. Love the article. I found it very informative, but I’m wondering…if you’ve been drifting for years (as I have), suffering childhood trauma, depression, marital break up etc, is it too late to rectify the damage done to the brain? Or is it a case that the damage is done and all you can do is delay the inevitable?
Hi Edward, I firmly believe Its never too late to change. Change can be very difficult, but it is not impossible.
I often tell the story of Jeanne Calment who at age 118 was enrolled in a series of neuropsychological tests and improved her test scores over a few months. Even at age 118 her brain was able to learn i.e. change.