We now know that those with a sense of purpose have better quality sleep. But if you don’t feel you have a sense of purpose, how do you go about finding it? Unfortunately, people who are confident in their own direction are few. Amy Morin at Northeastern University puts the figure at 25 per cent. This is worrying, because feeling that life has meaning is associated with much more than enjoying better quality sleep.
Andrew Steptoe at University College London and colleagues in America asked 9,050 older adults to answer questions about “eudaemonic well-being” – feeling in control in your life, believing what you do is worthwhile, and having a sense of purpose. They then followed participants for just over eight years. Those who reported the highest levels of well-being were 30 per cent less likely to die during that time, and lived on average two years longer than those who had the lowest scores.
Tonya Jacobs at University of California, Davis offered an intensive three-month meditation retreat to 30 adults, then measured their telomere length (telomeres are chromosomal regions and longer ones are associated with longer lifespan), and levels of neuroticism (tendency to feel worried and anxious, and experience other negative emotions). Compared with controls, meditators had longer telomeres and lower levels of neuroticism. To her surprise, Jacobs found it wasn’t the meditating itself that mattered, but rather the extra time meditators said they had to think about their direction in life.
Sense of purpose is also associated with increased motivation to study and to tackle difficult academic subjects, as David Yeager at the University of Texas found in studies involving 2,000 adolescents.
Given the evidence, it’s well worth making the effort to figure out what gives your life energy and meaning. How do you go about doing so?
• Think about the people you most admire. What do they value? How do they spend their time?
• When you meet new people, ask questions and listen well. What they tell you may suggest new possibilities.
• Ask those who know you well to describe your strengths and interests. Your preconceptions may need revising.
• Watch films, read, go to the theatre – give yourself as many opportunities as possible to learn about different ways of living.
• Each evening, make a note of what you most enjoyed, and/or what you’re most looking forward to tomorrow.
• Write your autobiography. Creating your “story” will clarify what’s given you direction.
• Who would you most like to thank, and why? Daryl Van Tongeron at Hope College found writing notes of gratitude increased sense of meaning and connection.
• Recalling childhood passions offers you a chance to rediscover flow, those occasions when you stretched yourself to your limits to accomplish something you consider worthwhile.
The Daily Telegraph