Your life’s purpose. Why finding your passion is essential to maintaining brain health.

Why finding your PASS

I’ve been writing this brain health blog since 2013, and it has become one of my life’s great passions – my ‘north star’. I wake up every morning buzzing with excitement about the day ahead.

Besides trying my hardest to be the best Mum and wife I can be, my passion is writing about neuroscience.  My goal is to provide impeccably-researched evidence-based stories that are told in a simple, fun and compelling way.

Your ‘purpose in life’. Your north star, your passion, your bliss, your inner voice, your wisdom, your calling.  What do you call it?

I believe what Mastin Kipp from The Daily Love says,

“Your bliss and your purpose are the same thing”

 

Chris Crowley of ‘Younger Next Year’ calls it a ‘kedge’ which is his term for ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Whatever word you choose to call it …

People who have meaning and purpose in their life have lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive impairment in later life.

 

Dr David Bennett, Director of the Memory and Aging Unit at 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  (i.e. people living in aged care facilities or residential communities) without dementia who were enrolled in the Rush Memory and Aging Project.

All participants underwent baseline evaluations of their purpose in life, and up to 7 years of detailed annual follow-up clinical evaluations to see how if they developed Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment and to measure the rate of change in their cognitive function.

Purpose in life was defined as …

The psychological tendency to derive meaning from life’s experiences and to possess a sense of intentionality and goal directedness that guides behaviour.

Purpose in life is linked to many positive health outcomes including :

  • better mental health
  • less depression
  • happiness
  • satisfaction
  • personal growth, self-acceptance
  • better sleep
  • longevity

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…

  1. I feel good when I think of what I have done in the past and what I hope to do in the future.
  2. I live life one day at a time and do not really think about the future.
  3. I tend to focus on the present because the future nearly always brings me problems.
  4. I have a sense of direction and purpose in life.
  5. My daily activities often seem trivial and unimportant to me.
  6. I used to set goals for myself, but that now seems like a waste of time.
  7. I enjoy making plans for the future and working them to a reality.
  8. I am an active person in carrying out the plans I set for myself.
  9. Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.
  10. 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<.001).

Or in other words…

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 a decline in semantic memory, followed by episodic memory, then perceptual speed, and working memory.

What is the biological basis of the association of purpose in life with brain health?

As yet is remains unknown.  We do know that 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.

So, science might not yet have all the answers as to HOW purpose in life exerts an effect on the brain.  But they have provided some pretty compelling evidence to foster your ‘purpose’/passion/ bliss/wisdom, or to find your north star.

How do your 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.

 

37 Responses to Your life’s purpose. Why finding your passion is essential to maintaining brain health.

    • very good article dear. plz further tell me about what sort of food and life style etc would improve our brain health.is there any ways or ways to improve brain’s strength and new cell

      • Hi Zaid,
        Have a look around my website. I’ve written a few blog posts about the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle changes such as the importance of exercise, mental activity and social connection.
        Thanks for dropping by 🙂

        Sarah

  1. 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?
    Ruth

    • Hi Ruth
      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

      • I think that’s very insightful of you Sarah, in my experience(personal) of overcoming social anxiety I blossomed when I took care of my roots and grew inside out and have noticed a common theme through my practice 🙂

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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
      Sarah

      • 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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

  8. Hi Sarah,
    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.

    Thank you.

    • 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.

      Again, thankyou.

  9. 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?

  10. 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?

  11. Hi Sara
    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.

  12. 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.

    Best,

    Ida

  13. 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!

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