I played baseball for 17 years. I had incredible teammates. I spent thousands of hours practicing and training. And after my senior season, I was named an ESPN Academic All — American. It's safe to say that being a baseball player was an important part of my identity. It gave me a sense of purpose. And then, one day, I graduated and my career was over.
As soon as I finished playing, I felt lost. On the outside everything looked fine. I went to graduate school. I graduated with my MBA. I started my first business. But on the inside, it seemed like I was wandering through life without a sense of direction. I did the things that were in front of me, but never with a sense of true conviction.
When you're an athlete, you wake up with a sense of purpose each morning. You know what you're working toward (a championship), you know who you're working for (your teammates), you know why you're training so hard (to become your best). I didn't know it at the time, but having a sense of purpose — like the one I had from baseball — is critical for feeling fulfilled, happy, and healthy. As human beings we need something to direct our attention toward and something to set our sights on.
But it's not just my personal experiences that say a sense of purpose is important for your health and well being, the medical research says the same. Here's why a sense of purpose can help you live a long, healthy, and happy life…
Why Do Some People Survive While Others Die?
In 1955, a physician named Robert Butler joined the National Institute of Health. In the years that followed, Butler and his research team would study the health and longevity of people over the age of 65 in great detail. Butler became fascinated with ageing and would publish a wide array of ideas about how the elderly could live happy, healthy, and fulfilling lives in their final years. In 1976, he wrote about many of his findings in the book Why Survive? Being Old in America and won the Pulitzer Prize for his work.
Butler's research focused on subjects that were between 65 and 92 years old, which meant that he had a front row seat for examining the factors that led to longer life spans. As his career evolved, his research led to important discoveries about what was required to live a long, healthy life.
One of the key discoveries that came from Butler and his research team involved the importance of a sense of purpose. As it turns out, people who had a strong sense of purpose in their lives lived longer than those who didn't have a clearly defined purpose. Moreover, people who woke up each morning with clear goals for their life not only lived longer, they also lived better than their peers (higher quality of life).
Most important of all, this wasn't a finding that came from a single study, but rather was repeated dozens of times in studies not only from Butler's team, but also from many other researchers. For example, take recent research from Dan Buettner that looked at the women of Okinawa, Japan…
Why The Japanese Outlive The Rest Of Us
Okinawa is the southernmost region of Japan and consists of thousands of tiny islands dotting the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. Those islands happen to be the home of some of the healthiest people on the planet. The Japanese have an average life expectancy of 83 years old, the highest in the world.
In particular, the women are incredibly resilient with an average life span of 86 years, according to the World Health Organisation. But in Okinawa, the story is even more remarkable. Despite being the poorest prefecture in Japan, the residents of Okinawa have the "longest disability-free life expectancy in the world." (You can see further research on the life expectancy of Okinawans in the studies here, here, and here.)
There are many reasons, of course, but one of the most important is that Okinawans have a strong sense of purpose. Okinawans are known for maintaining a positive outlook on life and for pursuing their ikigai, which is a concept that means "reason for being" or "reason for waking up in the morning." Whether it be taking care of their grandchildren, working in the community, tending to a garden, or anything in between, each person has an ikigai. And as their long life spans reveal, having a sense of purpose is critical for your health and happiness.
All of this begs the question, how can you find a sense of purpose in your life?
Applying This To Your Life
There are two parts to every journey. Where you are now (Point A) and we're you're headed (Point B). One of the reasons we often feel stuck when thinking about our purpose in life is because we have a tendency to get hung up on Point A and how that makes us feel.
Want to lose weight? It's easy to spend all of your time thinking, "I hate how I look. I can't believe I let myself get like this. I want to lose 30 pounds."
Want to become more creative? It's easy to spend all of your time thinking, "I'm not naturally creative. There isn't enough time in the day to pursue something fun. I have too many responsibilities that I need to focus on."
Want to accomplish just about any goal you've been delaying? It's easy to spend all of your time thinking, "I can't stick to anything. I'm easily distracted and I always end up procrastinating on things. I always start with good intentions, but I can never seem to maintain it."
The problem with these statements is that they are totally focused on Point A. When you get wrapped up in your feelings about where you are now, you end up focusing on the problem rather than the path forward. (This is exactly why I wrote about the importance of building identity — based habits.) Thankfully, there is an alternative.
Live Longer: Purpose Comes With Practice
The problem with focusing on Point A is that you end up thinking too much and doing too little. In my experience, the idea that you can "find your purpose" simply by sitting around and thinking about it is a myth. Thought is good, but purpose is the result of practice. It took me 17 years to become any good at baseball, but by the end I loved it with everything I had. I'm still not that great at writing, but after doing it twice per week for the last nine months, I'm beginning to love it.
A lot of people like to volunteer, but it never becomes their purpose because they never schedule time to practise it.
A lot of people like writing, but it never becomes their purpose because they never schedule time to practsce it.
A lot of people like to exercise or to garden or to teach or to do any number of things, but it never becomes their purpose because they never schedule time to practise it.
Imagine the opposite scenario. Imagine having something important that pulls you out of bed each morning. Imagine focusing your energy on something that is important to you and that fulfils you. Most people think they need a better plan or more resources or more experience or better advice, but really what they need is to commit to a schedule and practice. Passion, purpose, and mastery aren't the result of inconsistent effort.
Pick something that seems fun or useful and start working on it. Choosing something and moving forward is more important than choosing the right thing. You can always practise something else later if this doesn't work out. Too often, we wait until we find the "right thing," which means we end up finding nothing. Purpose comes with practice.
James Clear writes at JamesClear.com, where he uses behavioural science to help you master your habits and improve your health. For useful ideas on improving your mental and physical performance, join his free newsletter. Or, download his 38-page guide on Transforming Your Habits.