Birthday Reflections: Finding Your Purpose in Life Helps You Live Longer

Adrienne Nolan-Smith, patient advocate, wellness speaker, wellness expert and the founder of WellBe
I just celebrated a big birthday and as I’ve been doing the past few years, I’m using the milestone as an opportunity for some birthday reflections. For me, that means taking time to pause, reflect, express gratitude, and think about why I’m actually here on earth. Finding your purpose in life can be truly terrifying and daunting for some, while for others, it’s so simple that they hardly need to think about it. 
Discovering your purpose can make you feel happier and more excited to get out of bed each morning. But since I’m a patient advocate dedicated to your health empowerment, let me also tell you that finding your purpose in life can literally make you live longer.
One of my favorite research studies is The Blue Zones, a National Geographic project that examined the five hot spots of longevity throughout the world and identified the similarities that helped people live to over 100 without chronic health issues. One of the things they found was that this concept of knowing your purpose or why you wake up in the morning is an integral part of most Blue Zone cultures. 
Okinawans call it ikigai and Nicoyans in Costa Rica call it plan de vida. Another study found that finding your purpose in life added up to 7 years to a person’s life, and reduced the risk of death by 15%, controlling for other factors like age, gender, and emotional wellbeing.

Not Knowing Your Purpose in Life Leads to Chronic Stress

So why is this? A lot of research has shown that stress causes chronic inflammation in the body, and chronic inflammation in the body leads to chronic disease, and chronic disease is generally the root of premature death (accidents aside!).
When you don’t know what your purpose is in life or why you’re getting up every day and what the point of your life is, it’s likely you’ll experience continuous stress. Think about it: it’s pretty stressful to be always searching and worrying about whether you’re doing the right thing, or what you should be doing, and how you should be living.

Okay, So Now That You Know This, How Can You Go About Finding Your Purpose in Life?

Now you know that discovering your purpose is a vital part of a healthy, long life, but it can still be a difficult question to answer.
There are a few different resources aimed at helping you answer this important question, but I want to share one from a book I read called How Will You Measure Your Life by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. Christensen was known for applying business theories to the arduous yet crucial task of achieving fulfillment in your career, relationships, hobbies — in other words, your life.
When I first read the book in 2018, I realized that I had set goals and milestones for my business, so hadn’t given my own body, health, and life the same level of attention and commitment. This seemed like a massive oversight to me, given the fact that my life is…well, everything. So, I decided to do the exercise in his book in honor of my birthday reflections and to help me find my purpose in life.
When Christensen sadly died of cancer at age 67 in January 2020, I decided to revisit his book and this exercise. I wanted to make sure that I’m as clear now as I was back in 2018 on what exactly, my purpose in life is.
Finding your purpose in life is, of course, very complicated and personal, but I found the exercise in the back of Christensen’s book helpful. The exercise is aimed at finding your purpose and then ensuring that at least some of your time and activities each day tie back to it. He recommended the following three-step process for discovering your purpose:
1) Find your likeness. Ask yourself, what would you like to be like? How would you define your ideal you? Answer this question for today, and then in the future. What would the ideal you look like in 10, 20, 30, 40 years?
2) Make commitments. What actionable commitments do you need to make to achieve your ideal likeness? Make those commitments, and have them drive what you will and won’t do each day.
3) Define metrics. Define success and the metric(s) by which to measure it. Make sure these are concrete and measurable, otherwise they’re easy to not use.
As part of my birthday reflections, I went through this exercise once more. Here are my results:

 

My likeness
I want to be someone who:
  1. Is physically fit, and in great health in 10, 20, and even 50 years from now!
  2. Has good emotional and mental health, and a way to deal with the stress that inevitably comes up in life.
  3. Is a supportive and loving friend to lots of different kinds of people and groups, and a supportive and loving family member to my loved ones.
  4. Explores the world with enthusiasm, sharing experiences with people all over the world.
  5. Is steadfast in my mission to empower everyone on the planet in their health, and help the world see that the way out of our chronic disease crisis lies in a holistic approach to living and healing.
  6. Is present with myself, my loved ones, and my community. Someone who can turn off and who can really listen.
  7. Enjoys every day — remembering that music, laughter, and other simple pleasures bring joy and excitement that make the ride enjoyable, which is as important as the ride itself.
  8. Is compassionate and kind to myself. I want to be someone who is proud of and sticks to my commitments, but also forgives myself, because we all fall off, slip up, and fall down. It’s part of being a human.

 

My 8 Commitments to Achieve Becoming My Likeness
To become the version of myself I want to be, I will…
  1. Practice good sleep hygiene, move daily, eat nourishing food, limit my vices, and deal with any health issues that come up as naturally as possible.
  2. Continue to sort through trauma, suppressed emotions, and subconscious beliefs that need to be released; express gratitude and forgiveness of others daily; meditate and pray.
  3. Invest in my relationships, and create opportunities to build new ones.
  4. Explore often.
  5. Assess often whether my work with WellBe is always in line with my mission, listen to my community, and understand the ways I can adapt my work to achieve my goals.
  6. Limit device time by establishing rules that I stick to.
  7. Continue to improve my ability to listen and be empathetic to others.
  8. Make music, laughter, dancing, and other simple pleasures part of everyday life.
  9. Practice self-love and self-forgiveness, and trust my intuition daily.
 
My 10 metrics to measure my success:
To hold myself accountable and measure my success at becoming my ideal self, I will ask myself the following questions routinely:
  1. Do I feel rested and clear on most mornings?
  2. Can I keep body pain to a minimum and feel good about how much I am moving?
  3. Do I feel nourished by the food I’m eating?
  4. Do I feel like I can turn off and be present (and not reaching for my phone)?
  5. Am I getting routine blood work showing that any chronic health issues are going in the right direction?
  6. Do I feel emotionally, mentally, and spiritually at peace and content? Do I handle stress well?
  7. Do I feel like I belong to and am active in a community, and do I feel I’m treating those I love in the way I would want to be treated?
  8. Do I feel like I’m getting to see the world and all it’s beauty enough?
  9. Do I love and feel inspired by my work, does my community get from me what they need, am I changing the things about the world I set out to change?
  10. Did I listen to music or laugh today? Did I experience joy?
  11. Is the voice in my head loving, forgiving, and trusting, or is it negative?

 

I found this exercise useful for finding your purpose in life. After completing it, I then decided to take the exercise one step further, and make sure I could easily tell someone who stopped me on the street what my purpose is. 
(BTW, we complete this exercise in one of the modules in the Spark Health Program! Get on the waiting list for the next session.)
I did this because the Blue Zone research shows that those who could articulate a purpose easily had the most health benefits, and that makes sense right? If you’ve truly discovered your purpose, you don’t need to look at a piece of paper with a long list of things to be able to tell someone what it is. Ideally, you can get it into a sentence or two and memorize it. Most importantly, when you say it, it should make you feel warm and at peace, and maybe even smile.
It doesn’t have to be complicated, in fact, the simpler the better! Statements like, “be a great mother” or “make the planet a cleaner place” or “capture the world’s beauty in my art” or “create peace in my community,” are all simple purpose statements you can easily remember. 
I took a stab at mine: I’m here to bring awareness to what’s broken in our healthcare system and fight for a better approach, help people feel their best naturally, support and love my people and myself, and appreciate the world’s beauty.
My statement shows me that I’m as equally committed to fighting for change as I am to helping people as I am to treating myself and my community with love and support as I am to exploring and appreciating this magical planet we call home. Do I wish my purpose was a bit simpler? Sure. But I can’t change who I am: a multidimensional person who believes there are a few different reasons why I’m alive. 
That’s an important part of doing this exercise and creating your simple purpose statement: make sure saying the statement feels good, but don’t try to conform your purpose to standards of what you think it should be. Once you’ve said it a few times and it feels good and authentic, accept and love your unique reason or set of reasons for why you believe you are here.
I encourage you to try this exercise on your next birthday, or…right now! There’s no time like the present. Whenever you do it, share your results in the comments below, I would absolutely love to hear what your purpose is now that you’ve read mine!
 
                                                      Here’s to birthday reflections and discovering your purpose,
                                                                                                        xx Adrienne
Citations:
  1. Radler, B. The Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) Series: A National Longitudinal Study of Health and Well-being. Open Health Data. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2014 Dec 31.
  2. Buettner, D. Blue Zones: Lessons From the World’s Longest Lived. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2016 Sep-Oct; 10(5): 318–321.

 

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COMMENTS

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  1. So thankful I found your podcast and website. Your passion and mission align with mine – I first heard you on a podcast last week discussing the difference between functional medicine and integrative Medicine.  
    I am working on finishing my masters In counseling but hope to transition into my purpose to help others heal and thrive physically and mentally ! Thanks for your content and passion . I look forward to meeting you along this journey ! 

    1. Hi Jennifer, thanks so much and I look forward to meeting you! Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter if you haven’t already, here and good luck with your Masters! XX Adrienne & Team WellBe

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