What is 'purpose' and why does it make us healthier? A professor of philosophy & psychiatry helps us find out

Created or found, altruistic or selfish, this could be the key to wellness.

Created or found, altruistic or selfish, this could be the key to wellness

(Credit: Getty Images)

Picasso thought it had to do with giving away your gift (once you found it, that is). Ralph Waldo Emerson thought it hinged on usefulness, not happiness. Eleanor Roosevelt felt it was about tasting "experience to the utmost". Socrates thought the only life worthy of the oxygen it used up was a well-examined one. Einstein's take leaned towards humility. The amount of thought notable minds have packed into figuring out the purpose of life is enough to spend a lifetime unpacking. 

Recent research has now linked the lofty idea of purpose not just to a sense of appeased direction in life but to better health and wellbeing. One such study made use of the long-running Hawaii Longitudinal Study of Personality and Health to explore the wellness benefits of being a human with purpose. Surveyed initially as children, 759 people from diverse groups within the study were chosen for follow-ups in their 60s. Scientific scrutiny saw a salient pattern emerge: sense of purpose seemed to buttress things like sleep health, overall wellbeing and a willingness to make healthier choices in general. Lead author, Dr. Patrick Hill, Assistant Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, confirms "participants' sense of purpose was positively associated with their reports of both vigorous and moderate activity, vegetable intake, flossing, and sleep quality." They also said they just felt healthier.

Another recent study echoed the correlation between purpose and better health, where participants who reported a greater sense of purpose also reported better long-term sleep quality, a pretty good predictor of general health.

Still, the one vital thing the studies fail to provide real data for (and this poses a minor hiccup in our search for wellness, and arguably, fulfilment) is what, exactly, is purpose anyway?

Who knows

As a philosopher of mind, Dr. Ian Gold, resident professor and the Canada Research Chair in Philosophy & Psychiatry at McGill University, is particularly interested in the mind/body connection. He was good enough to offer some help, the topic being beyond the capacities of my own less notable neurons.

Asked point blank about life's purpose, Gold sets a tone of levity with, "the short answer is, who knows?". Thankfully, he saw fit to explore further. Referring to purpose he posits, "how does something so incredibly abstract, poetic almost, have an effect on your body?" A valid query. "What makes this question so interesting", says Gold, "is not just the mind and the body interacting, but something so incredibly fuzzy and abstract like purpose in life."

Existentialism and train sets

Gold offers us a little Philosophy 101, explaining that there are generally two useful ways to approach the potentially cloudy poetry of purpose as a philosopher. One is through the lense of the existentialists. "Everyone has to invent their own purpose. That's very much the existentialist view." Existentialism is a philosophical theory born out of 20th century European thought that says "the thing that makes a human being what it is, is that it's free." Clarifying, Gold adds, "it doesn't have a nature - it makes its nature." We are free agents. So our purposes are ours to suss out, assign value to and pursue. In short, pick your passion. "That's why you find people who can spend every waking hour thinking about their model train set, and talking to other people about their model train set, or Star Wars, or molecular genetics, or whatever it might be, and other people just have no conception of why this would be the thing you'd devote your life to," says Gold. Or say eating all of the world's cheese, to explore another example of free will (Brie will?). Though, presumably this could torpedo the health benefits of the recent purpose/health connection. Still, existentialism (and a life of cheese) begs another question: is any purpose a good purpose? 

Relevant aside: If you've yet to find your "train set" or "cheese lust" and could use a nudge, Deepak Chopra says that the things we're drawn to often offer real clues into our personal purpose, or Dharma (sometimes translated as "duty" from Hindi). 

Universalism and basic goods

Another philosophical approach to pinning down purpose, says Gold, is one that places it closer to the sphere of social consciousness. Gold is careful not to adhere to any one philosophy as "the way" but admits that "whether it's family, or friendship, or romance, or love, or whatever it might be, it's hard to imagine a purposeful life that doesn't in some sense involve human connection."

Universalist thinking assumes that no worthwhile human life could exist, or be rewarded, without some daily focus on a greater good. This view presupposes that "human beings are all the same so there are bound to be some universal purposes in life," Gold explains. Like devotion to family, pets, useful research, love or, for some, religion. Put another way, some thing or things larger than ourselves should drive our ultimate purpose.

Here Gold invokes John Figgis, a contemporary philosopher who claimed there were seven basic goods from which we should derive sound purpose: life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, sociability of friendship, practical reasonableness and religion. Gold offers that you don't need every single universal good under your moral belt but most are necessary to pursue. Tangentially, I'm stoked to see play made the cut. 

"Maybe you don't need all seven of them, but if you start to not have more than a few, it's inconceivable, given the kind of thing a human being is, that this could be a good life," Gold asserts, according to Finnis that is. To be sure, this view stands at odds with existentialism to some extent — and a life of unbridled cheese consumption. Gold is clear, "if you devote your whole life to eating cheese, then there's a sense in which you're simply wrong. You're irrational. You don't understand what it is to have a human life." Noted. You don't have to live by Finnis's seven purposes but a life devoted to more commonly recognized goods may resonate as more worthwhile for you. It could also, if today's science holds, grant you more bodily health and shut eye by virtue of holding your particular purpose (or purposes) in mind. 

Viktor Frankl

That mind/body connection that links purpose to health has Gold excitedly bring up Viktor Frankl, a Viennese psychotherapist who spent three years in various WWII concentration camps and survived to produce Man's Search for Meaning (part harrowing memoir, part proposal). Subsequently he became the father of logotherapy, a new kind of psychotherapy that was concerned with only one thing: helping patients find their purpose in life. While imprisoned, Frankl observed that those who found meaning in their tasks were more likely to survive. Psychotherapy for Frankl was absolutely "not to resolve neuroses", says Gold, but "to help your client find their purpose." Fulfillment and happiness were also secondary for Frankl, if considered at all. Instead, the common central difficulty we all share (and one that must be overcome) is to find something, anything, that gives our lives purpose. Purpose doesn't just stand to make all of us healthier and well rested – for him "the only kind of good human life is a life of purpose." It bears mentioning that Frankl's own purpose to complete his manuscript on the very power of purpose itself famously kept him going in the camps. Still, Gold says, as far a he can recall, Frankl "remains absolutely noncommittal about what the purpose is" for any one person. So, in this view you're left to align yourself with the existentialists and decide your purpose for yourself — which appears to be quite crucial. No pressure.

Albert Einstein

In parting, I had Professor Gold weigh in on Einstein's now lucrative tip about proper purpose. The handwritten suggestion made the rounds in headlines about a month back when it sold at auction in the millions. "A calm and humble life will bring more happiness than the pursuit of success and the constant restlessness that comes with it," writes old Albert. It's also been translated from German as "A quiet and modest life brings more joy than a pursuit of success bound with constant unrest." Either way, hustling through life ever-striving for more and more to the detriment of living humbly doesn't seem to line up with an Einsteinian life plan.   

So, is Einsteinian purpose the way to contentment? Gold, leaning existentialist, is inclined to say "maybe, for some people." He then leans a little universalist and admits he can just as easily "imagine a kind of active life and pursuit of all sorts of big goals also being purposeful, though not if they're in pursuit of money, and fame." Those things, it's been documented scientifically, won't keep you happy for long. Once attained, cue restlessness. Gold says that the more recent field of positive psychology aims to reframe happiness and typically does it in a way that's in line with the universalists. "One of the things that research shows is something on the universalist side, which is that there are certain things that human beings have to have to feel like their lives are going well, so a certain kind of political autonomy," says Gold. Here the existentialist and universalist view overlap a bit: we are all of us contented by the full freedom to pursue our very own thing.

But on the merits of positive psychology, Gold offers that "it's repeatedly found in this literature, once you've got the basics of life, you've got enough money for food and shelter, your happiness doesn't go up as your wealth goes up."   

Striving past a certain point is then moot and potentially counterproductive to your purpose fulfilment. In Stumbling Upon Happiness, contentment authority and positive psychologist Dan Gilbert explains that the issue, in part, is that contentedness is a moving target. Our "psychological immune system" makes the pursuit of happiness a Sisyphean task by constantly adjusting the mountain peak. That may not be a bad thing. Tony Robbins, to summon another "guru", capitalizes on/helps people by linking meaning to improvement. He says the best purpose is progress. Better and better cheese. 

Split the dif

Gold maintains that while self-governance remains seductive and necessary to the human animal we "really care about things that are in some sense closer to those big values, those big moral things, those big philosophical ideas that have been talked about."

So, to handily define life purpose in this article (no sweat, he typed as he reconsidered his own purpose): eating all the cheese, it's been philosophically argued, would be a bad choice. Making all the cheese to share, if you like that sort of thing, could do some good. But don't strive too hard for fame and fortune as a cheesemaker. Unless that's really your one true purpose.

Regardless, cheesy purpose or no, once you've made up your mind (and this it seems you must do), you'll likely be healthier for it. Or at least sleep better. 

Marc Beaulieu is a Montreal writer, producer, performer, professional host and mental health advocate whose one true love is weird news.