The Neuroscience of your Purpose and Personal Mission

Since the beginning of time, people from all walks of life, from philosophers and religious zealots to scientists and psychologists have tried their best to pinpoint the “meaning of life”. And to be more specific, the meaning of life from an individual standpoint. Best-selling books such as “The Purpose Driven Life” by mega-church pastor Rick Warren and “Find Your Why” by Simon Sinek continue to sell copies by the hundreds of thousands each year, and YouTube continues to be populated by viral videos on finding one’s purpose and personal mission. As human beings we seem to have an inherent hunger for purposeful living.

For many people, knowing their purpose in life and discovering their meaning is important because it can significantly impact the kind of legacy they’ll leave behind for their family and for those under their care. But there are also many people who believe that finding one’s purpose and mission in life is crucial for slightly more self-interested reasons: namely, the ability to live a high quality and abundant life. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear about people who go through intense struggles – at times even through the experience of tragedy and misfortune – only to emerge with a renewed sense of zest and purpose for living. It seems that finding true purpose and meaning in life does have a unique way of delivering a sensation of abundance and fulfillment. The simple question I wish to address here, is: “Is there any science behind the perceived power of purpose?”

Purpose in Life (PIL)

Being able to find one’s purpose and meaning in life can – without a shadow of a doubt – make a person feel more alive, joyful, content, thankful and even generous. Getting in touch with one’s life mission and purpose has been proven to give huge psychological and emotional benefits that make life really worth living – and enjoying! But recent advances in scientific research – particularly a branch of science called neuroscience – reveal that life purpose and mission are also able to provide physiological or physical benefits. These benefits are the subject of research on a very interesting aspect of a human life: Purpose in Life (PIL). Purpose in life may be defined as a person’s propensity to find meaning from life experiences as well as the ability to feel and do things intentionally towards a specific goal, which serve as guides for his or her behavior.

This topic was first introduced to the world of psychiatry in the 1940s by a man named Viktor Frankl. Yes, THE Viktor Frankl! In case you’re not familiar with Frankl, he was a Jewish doctor who was educated in the fields of neurology and psychiatry. He practiced medicine in Austria just as the country was occupied by the Nazis and Adolf Hitler. He penned one of the most important books in history, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, which chronicles his experiences and lessons learned through personally surviving the Nazi Death Camps. In that book, he observed that avoiding pain and experiencing pleasure aren’t the primary concerns of man, but rather our main driver is to find meaning in life. If a man is certain that what he’s about to do or is doing has a significant meaning or greater purpose, then he’ll be ready to go through even the most excruciating suffering according to Frankl. When we study history’s greatest martyrs, his theory does seem to have some merit.

The PIL Scale

In the beginning, psychologists were challenged to use PIL for treating psychiatric cases simply because at that time, there was no way to measure a person’s PIL. But in 1964 two psychologists, Leonard Maholick and James Crumbaugh, created the Purpose-In-Life (PIL) Scale, which has served as the method by which studies on life purpose have been conducted and measured all over the world.

The scale has 3 major aspects or dimensions: 1.) a belief that life really has a purpose, 2.) subscribing to a personal values system, and 3.) being motivated to overcome challenges and achieve goals. The PIL Scale test contains 20 items, each scored by the participant using a 7-point scale with a maximum score of 140 (high PIL score) and the lowest score of 20 (low PIL score).

More than Just Philosophy

While it may seem that searching for one’s personal mission or life purpose is a domain of philosophy, doing so can also have a crossover effect on one’s physical health. This is why more and more studies are being done on PIL’s biological and practical benefits. And one particular area of health where PIL is proving to be very useful is the CNS or the central nervous system.

Research has shown that knowing one’s life purpose and mission may help protect the brain physically, increasing its ability to withstand greater injuries. In particular, PIL seems to help people protect what is known as a cognitive reserve or cognitive resilience, which is the human brain’s ability to recover from trauma and protect against diseases. This is not to say that regular exercise and eating a healthy diet are no longer important or as important as PIL when it comes to maintaining optimal brain health. What it does mean, is that PIL can be an additional contributing factor in this area.

A particular brain benefit of PIL that’s worth noting is related to risk of stroke. Because stroke is a physiological rather than a psychological problem, most measures aimed at minimizing risks of this medical condition center around physical approaches such as regular cardiovascular exercise and eating a healthy diet. Recent studies, however, suggest that PIL can also contribute to minimizing one’s risk for stroke.

In a 2013 published study titled “Purpose In Life And Reduced Incidence Of Stroke In Older Adults: The Health And Retirement Study,” Eric Kim and his colleagues found that as the subjects’ PIL scores improved, the risk of stroke went down by as much as 22%. What’s even more remarkable was that this benefit continued to hold even after Kim and company adjusted other key factors such as social demographics, psychological, biological and even behavioral ones.

An earlier study that was published in 2008 called “Effect of Having a Sense of Purpose in Life on the Risk of Death from Cardiovascular Diseases,” which was conducted by Megumi Koizumi, Hiroshi Ito, Yoshihiro Kaneko,1 and Yutaka Motohashi, also showed a strong link between having a strong sense of life purpose and lower risk of dying from strokes. Their study showed that PIL or having a strong personal sense of mission or purpose was a factor in reducing risks of death via stroke by as much as 72% for men! Even more remarkable, PIL was also linked to a 44% and 48% lower risk for deaths by cardiovascular sickness and any cause in general for men, respectively! This relationship continued to hold true even after adjusting for other cerebrovascular risk factors and observed stress.

The Biology of Life Purpose

PIL can also help minimize risks for autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s Disease. How? By reducing the production of interleukin-6 (IL-6) especially when under stress. When a person is under stress, the HPA axis – or hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis – tells the adrenal glands to produce cortisol, which is known as the stress hormone. Cortisol’s function is to suppress the immune system momentarily during periods of psychosocial distress. IL-6 is one of the many factors that trigger the HPA axis and consequently, production of cortisol.

When a person is chronically under stress, IL-6 chronically signals the HPA to produce more cortisol. But over time, this can become problematic as the immune system can become acclimatized or less and less sensitive to cortisol. When this happens, the body’s immune system is thrown off balance, which can lead to autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s disease.

Studies have shown that people with significantly higher PIL scores, i.e., who are more attuned to their life’s purpose and mission, tend to have lower IL-6 receptor levels. This implies lower activities of IL-6. And this relationship has been shown to hold true even under different sociodemographic and health situations. This may indicate that PIL or being in tune with one’s life purpose and mission can help calm or regulate one’s immune system effectively and reduce one’s risks for autoimmune diseases.

Psychology for Biology

While it’s true that identifying – and more importantly, living out – one’s purpose in life has substantial physiological benefits, it’s still primarily a psychological endeavor. And when it comes to experiencing a generally high level of life satisfaction, PIL isn’t the only factor. The other factor is happiness. In fact, a person can live a very satisfied life just by either being happy or living a meaningful life. One can be enough without the other. And as far as general physical health is concerned, the ability to live a very satisfying life is a very important factor that can help reduce risks of sicknesses and diseases.

Between happiness and living a life of meaning, however, the latter is much better at providing health benefits. This is because living a meaningful life is much deeper and more enduring than happiness, which can be very shallow and fleeting. Happiness is primarily concerned with self-gratification at the moment. Living a meaningful life is about reflecting on what has happened in the past and where one wants to be in the future, usually in terms of being able to help other people. As a result, PIL can help people go through and overcome very challenging and stressful moments in life compared to happiness, which was what Viktor Frankl observed during his time in Nazi concentration camps.

In a study published in 2014 called “Neural Sensitivity To Eudaimonic And Hedonic Rewards Differentially Predict Adolescent Depressive Symptoms Over Time,” it was shown that the subjects (teenagers) who were more focused on living a life of purpose and meaning outside of self-gratification (eudaimonic subjects) had significantly lower incidences of depression within a year after the study was conducted compared to teen subjects who were more concerned with self-gratification, i.e., hedonistic teen subjects.

So as you can see, PIL is something that’s worth pursuing because it addresses both mental and physical health.

How to Discover Your Life Purpose

Each person has a different life purpose and there are different ways by which to discover it. However, there are specific things that you can do that can significantly help you in discovering your life purpose and mission. One helpful exercise to move you in the right direction is to contemplate the following questions:

● What things do you really love doing?
● What things come very naturally or easy for you? and
● What personal qualities do you have that you love to show the world the most?

Everybody has a purpose and mission in life that’s waiting to be discovered. Building your life around that ingrained purpose or mission is what will make life maximally fulfilling and satisfying. When glancing through the three above-mentioned items for reflection, you’ll notice that the answers come naturally for you. This means that the PIL you’re looking to discover is something inherent to you that exists just below your level of current awareness.

Another way to discover your life purpose is to ask yourself what is that one thing that you’re so passionate about that if money were not an issue, you’d be doing it full time? Let’s face it – financial needs are often the primary determinants of what we do in life, and there is a common misconception that pursuing one’s life purpose leads to poverty. The truth is, living out one’s life purpose can significantly increase one’s chances of becoming financially successful, because doing things that are aligned with one’s life purpose will energize a person to work harder and smarter. Naturally, when you’re constantly energized with what you’re doing, the probability for long-term success increases exponentially.

And finally, here’s a very quick way to find out your life purpose in just a few minutes. Movie producer Adam Leipzig taught this method in his TEDx talk in Malibu, the video of which you can catch on YouTube. Ask yourself the following questions:

● What is it that you love to do that you feel you’re qualified to teach other people?
● Who do you do it for?
● What do those people (who you do it for) need or want that you can give to them? and
● How do they change, transform, or live better lives as a result of what you can give them?

Adam Leipzig’s questions are very specific and, as such, can help you identify your life purpose much faster. But while you can answer these questions in less than 5 minutes, the initial answers that you may think of may not necessarily be the best ones. Considering the magnitude of the answers to these questions, it’s best for you to give yourself ample time to pray and think about your answers carefully.

By giving yourself a week or two to think about these things, the better you’ll be able to gain clarity. Also, in case you have multiple answers that all seem valid, try to see if there’s a common thread that runs through them, a unifying factor that relates them to one another. Therein could be your answer.

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