In the first part of this series about lessons from those who live to 100, we learned about people who live in Blue Zones (areas in the world where there is a high rate of centenarians.) Part One focused on how cultivating a healthy diet is one of the factors involved with increased longevity.
To recap, this series is based on a 2004 study led by author and explorer Dan Buettner. Along with a handful of anthropologists, demographers, epidemiologists, and other researchers, Buettner traveled around the world to examine communities with high percentages of people living into their hundreds. They identified the following five spots, now referenced as the “Blue Zones,” where there is a high rate of centenarians:
- Loma Linda, U.S.
- Nicoya, Costa Rica
- Sardinia, Italy
- Ikaria, Greece
- Okinawa, Japan
Buettner and the researchers found that seniors in these widely separated regions share a number of key habits, despite many differences in backgrounds and beliefs. These universal healthy habits can be broken down into the following:
This article will focus on the second factor: Having a purpose.
Why Is Having a Purpose Important?
A common thread across the Blue Zone communities is having a sense of purpose. “The Okinawans call it ‘Ikigai’ and the Nicoyans call it ‘plan de vida;’ for both, it translates to ‘why I wake up in the morning.’” said Buettner. “Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.”
Here are some of the many benefits that Buettner’s findings and the Blue Zones research shows about having a purpose in life:
- It gives you direction. It’s easy to fill your life with a bunch of tasks and plans, but if you don’t get clear on your purpose, you may head down an unfulfilling, unhappy, or painfully wrong path. When you have a clear purpose—a reason to get you up and excited every morning—you can then set the right goals and take the right steps to create your most meaningful life.
- It reduces mortality risk. Studies have shown that having a purpose in life is an indicator for healthy aging.
- It increases your resilience. Having a purpose in life may motivate you to reframe stressful situations to deal with them more productively. In the long run, this will help you facilitate recovery from stress and trauma. Purpose can also positively affect pain management—a study in The Journal of Pain found that women with a stronger sense of purpose were better able to withstand heat and cold stimuli applied to their skin.
- It improves quality of sleep. Studies have shown that a higher level of meaning and purpose in life among older adults is related to better sleep quality. It can also be protective against symptoms of sleep apnea.
- It helps you achieve success (in your terms). When you discover your purpose, you will have the motivation to pursue it. All your successes, however you define them, along the way will be a direct result.
- It cultivates a positive outlook. For successful Nicoyan centenarians, their “plan de vida,” or reason to live, propels a positive outlook among them and helps keep them active. “[They have] a strong sense of purpose,” says Buettner. “They feel needed and want to contribute to a greater good.”
With that said, here are some ways you can find, accept, and live out your purpose, and reap the benefits, too!
1. How to Find Your Purpose
Finding your life purpose is no easy feat. According to the Okinawans, everyone has an ikigai—but finding it requires a deep and time-intensive search of self. However, once they discover their ikigai, a deeper sense of meaning is added to their life. Examples of ikigai include work, hobbies, spirituality, and family/friends. In his 2009 TEDTalk, Buettner described the ikigai of three Okinawan centenarians:
- A 102-year-old karate master who said practicing the art is his ikigai.
- A 100-year-old fisherman whose ikigai is to bring the daily catch home to his family.
- A 102-year-old woman who said holding her great-great-great-granddaughter was her ikigai.
In Ayurveda, your life purpose is called your dharma. The spiritual Law of Dharma states that for every special talent, the world has a unique need that can only be filled by the expression of that talent. In other words, there’s at least one thing you can do better than anyone else on the entire planet.
To discover your purpose/ikigai, here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- What do you love?
- What are you good at?
- What does the world need from you?
- What can you get paid for?
These four questions can be associated with a Venn diagram; where they overlap is called your ikigai. Take some time to really think about your answers to the questions; it may require some soul-searching.
2. How to Put Your Purpose into Action
Once you are clear on your purpose, the next step is to find a way to live out your purpose every day, if possible. For Okinawans, “Knowing what your ikigai is not enough,” said Buettner. “All of these people put their purpose into action.”
- The first thing you want to do is commit to your purpose. Commit to listening to your inner voice and following through, however you can, to honor it. This may require vulnerability and the ability to pour yourself into something that means the world to you. But once you start taking the steps to fulfill your purpose, you will feel satisfaction, comfort, fulfillment, passion, and certainty.
- The next step is to create a plan on how to incorporate your purpose into your life. If your purpose is something you can practice every day, then add it to your schedule. Maybe you include it in a morning meditation so that you are mindful of it throughout the day. Maybe your purpose is a plan that requires baby steps and achieving milestones throughout your life. Either way, get clear on the actions you need to take to live out your purpose.
- The final step is to put your plan into action. Until it becomes a habit, this may take more energy and effort on your part at the beginning. The good news is that you will be fueled by passion and motivation to live out your purpose.
3. How to Reassess Your Purpose
Just as people change with time and other factors, your purpose can change, too. It’s a good idea to reassess your purpose every so often to ensure you are still living out your highest sense of self and purpose.
Check in with step 1 at least once each year to ensure the answers you came up with are still meaningful, relevant, and feel right to you. If your answers shift, the sooner you find out, the better. As circumstances, motivation, and the definition of your purpose changes, make sure to revisit steps 2 and 3 as well.
By finding, accepting, and living out your purpose, you can optimize your lifestyle—and may gain extra years of good life you'd otherwise miss.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program
Learn how to use mindfulness to create a life of deep meaning and true fulfillment with The Chopra Center’s Discover Your Purpose Toolkit, which includes a free e-book, worksheet, 1:1 discovery session, and guided meditation. Get your free toolkit now.