Most people, regardless of religion or moral code, have a strong belief in giving back to the world and others around them. We all know that charity is a fundamental piece of making the world a better place, but it seems that giving back benefits more people than just those on the receiving end. A study out of Northwestern University found that people who have a sense of purpose in life gain an unintentional benefit: they sleep better! That new finding is coupled with dozens of other studies which have found that having a purpose greater than yourself is good for mental health, physical health, longevity, and even your genes. No wonder all of those positive influencers on social media seem to always look so young, healthy, and happy, right!?
Let’s look at that new study on doing good and sleeping better. A group of people were asked to fill out questionnaires regarding their level of purpose and meaning in life, as well as their sleep quality and sleep-related health problems. Those who felt they had a meaning in life were 63% less likely to have sleep apnea, and 52% less likely to have restless leg syndrome. That same group also had moderately better sleep quality as well.
Senior author of the study Jason Ong stated, “Helping people cultivate a purpose in life could be an effective drug-free strategy to improve sleep quality, particularly for a population that is facing more insomnia. Purpose in life is something that can be cultivated and enhanced through mindfulness therapies.” Purpose in life can also be realized just by thinking about the things that are important to you and your community, and what problems you’d like to play a part in solving.
The study on sleep and purpose was just one of many scientific explorations on how purpose in life affects our mental and physical well-being. Another study found that having purpose in life was linked to measurable cognitive benefits in people in early adulthood up through those in their 80s. They determined that those with a feeling of wanting to impact the world scored better on tests of memory, executive function and cognitive function. Earlier, the same research group had also found that teenagers experienced greater positive self-image, less delinquency and better transitioning into adulthood when they felt an internal urge to make a difference.
A few other studies are worth mentioning, further proving the incredible benefits of the feeling of purpose and the need to positively impact the world. A large study a few years ago found that people with the greatest sense of purpose had a 58% reduced risk of death, compared to people with the least. Another study discovered that doing good and feeling good have very different effects on the human genome, even though they generate similar levels of positive emotion. It seems as though the type of happiness felt as a result of “paying it forward” resulted in higher levels of antibody and antiviral genes. Happiness generated by actions like going to a fancy restaurant or splurging on a fun purchase resulted in the opposite.
People who give back and make an impact generally feel they have a purpose in life and, from research, seem to live much happier, healthier lives across the board. If you haven’t yet, finding a purpose might be a smart move! If you can’t figure out what your purpose might be centered around, do a random good deed for a person or a cause and see how it makes you feel. Ancient wisdom and modern science seem to agree: being part of something larger might be one of the best things we can do, both for others and ourselves!