Why Having a Purpose in Life is Essential for Mental Health

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In my previous blog I shared how important connecting and belonging are to each of us. These elements promote a sense of safety, comfort and attachment to others. In this blog I invite you to think even more broadly about connecting and belonging and to consider how having a purpose fits in. As you read this, I suggest you think about yourself and the ways you have experienced having purpose in your life.

Having a sense of purpose is what the French call a raison d’etre, which translated means “a reason for being.”  Google states that: “A sense of purpose means dedicating yourself to a cause beyond yourself. It’s a goal that fuels your motivation in life, giving your life meaning and direction, inspiring you to make a significant contribution to the world.”

In 2013, Rick Warren published what became a bestseller: The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? In it he addresses what he says are the basic questions everyone faces in life are, “Why am I here, and what is my purpose?” He goes on to describe how real meaning comes from understanding and fulfilling God’s purposes for us here on earth. The enormous success of this book speaks to the importance people place on having a purpose in life and finding ways to live out that purpose.

In the 2022 book Healing: Our Path from Mental Illness to Mental Health author Thomas Insel, MD describes the significance of finding purpose that often begins with being in a group and finding ways within that group to help one another. He shares a story of a group of women with serious mental health issues coming together to learn how to knit and then turning their knitting efforts into a business venture. From the book; “These women all had a legacy of trauma and despair that selling a few sweaters would not erace. But what I learned from these women is that social work is about both ‘social’ and ‘work’. People need to connect. And connecting shoulder to shoulder for some people is easier than face-to-face. Giving them a purpose is critical.”

We can connect living out a purpose with being altruistic. According to the Greater Good Magazine: Science-Based Insights for a Meaningful Life “Altruism is when we act to promote someone else’s welfare, even at a risk or cost to ourselves. Though some believe that humans are fundamentally self-interested, recent research suggests otherwise: studies have found that people’s first impulse is to cooperate rather than compete; that toddlers spontaneously help people in need out of a genuine concern for their welfare; and that even non-human primates display altruism. 

Evolutionary scientists speculate that altruism has such deep roots in human nature because helping and cooperation promote the survival of our species. Indeed, Darwin himself argued that altruism, which he called ‘sympathy’ or ‘benevolence,’ is ‘an essential part of the social instincts.”  

In The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy, author Dr. Louis Cozolino describes how most of us have experienced the positive thoughts and warm feelings associated with giving and receiving acts of kindness. “Giving to others warms our hearts, connects us to others, makes us feel better about ourselves. We are a social species. Taking care of others has evolved because it is essential for both individual and group survival.” 

He goes on to state, “As evidence of its importance, research has demonstrated that altruistic behaviors correlate with greater life satisfaction, longevity, and better physical health. Altruistic individuals report being happier, exhibit fewer mental disturbances, and have fewer negative thoughts. This means that altruistic people will be around longer to contribute to their tribe and that they will be rewarded for their contributions by having a more enjoyable life. For social animals like us, attachment, emotional attunement, and connection have also come to serve the role of healing psychological distress.… Long before the advent of psychotherapy, the work of healing was accomplished within relationships with family, friends, clergy, and otherwise elders in the context of everyday life. 

In terms of brain activity, Cozolino describes how altruism activates the release of the feel-good neurochemicals oxytocin and dopamine which support bonding and attachment, decrease stress and increase neural plasticity.

Those of us who are parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles often find purpose in caring for and nurturing children and other family members. Sometimes this includes involvement in the schools these children attend. Sometimes we find ourselves caring for a friend going through a difficult time and we make it our business to make sure they have their basic needs met including feeling valued by us. Or we find ways to do things to support nature, to join organizations that focus on particular issues. Some of us are involved in our church or other faith institutions. Some of us are members of groups that promote certain political causes.  

All this to say, it seems clear that having a sense of purpose is life-giving. As people find purpose in life by giving to others, those others receive the gift of being given to. It’s a beautiful circular process of giving and receiving that leads to more giving and receiving. And we each work on finding one or more life purposes and devote time and energy to each, our efforts contribute to the overall well-being of humankind.  

Invitation for Reflection

  1. What are some of the ways your life has purpose?
  2. How do you want to nurture each of your life purposes?
  3. How can you address any issues related to your purposes?
  4. How can you support the purposes of those in your life?

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