Why Is It Important To Have A Purpose In Life? (Research + Examples)

Updated 14 August 2019

hugo huyer author of tracking happiness small

by Hugo: Founder of Tracking Happiness, marathon runner, data junkie and happiness tracker for almost 6 years.

Having a purpose in life is one of the fundamental factors of happiness. Without it, you'll live your life less focused, less efficient and you'll often feel restless and stressed because you won't feel aligned with the things you do.

You likely agree with the above, but like me, you're also probably wondering WHY we actually do better in life when we have a purpose. The importance of having a purpose in life is proven by numerous studies. These studies all show that people with a clear sense of purpose are more likely to grow old in a healthy way. Additionally, people with a clear purpose in life find it easier to be inspired by the things they do.

All in all, having a purpose improves factors of our lives that are all correlated to our happiness, which is arguably the most important reason to find your purpose.

This article will cover the most important details of these studies in addition to examples of how you can find your own purpose in life.

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The benefits of having a purpose in life

You probably agree that it is important to have a purpose in life if you want to be happy, right? But does science agree here? I did a bit of research and found some interesting results that will show you just how important it is to have a purpose in life.

Study about living purposefully and living longer

The most prominent and well-referenced study that I stumbled upon is very interesting. This study was conducted by Randy Cohen, Chirag Bavishi, and Alan Rozanski and was published at the end of 2015. As part of the study, over 136,000 people were evaluated and followed for about 7 years. The average age at the start of the study was 67 years old, and as the people in this subject passed away or faced health issues, the researchers found out an interesting piece of data.

The analysis showed a lower risk of death for participants with a high sense of purpose in life. After adjusting for other factors, mortality was about one-fifth lower for participants reporting a strong sense of purpose.

Now, you're probably wondering how they defined purpose? How did the researchers decide which person had a person and which person didn't?

It took a little bit of more digging to find this information, which is covered in more detail in the fully published report. This is where it gets a little technical, so I'll just copy and paste the methodology here:

Purpose in life was assessed in 2006 using the 7-item Purpose in Life subscale of the Ryff Psychological Well-being Scales, previously validated in a nationally representative sample of adults. On a 6-point Likert scale, respondents rated the degree to which they agreed with each item. The mean of all items was taken to create a scale. Scores ranged from 1 to 6, where higher scores reflected higher purpose.

The participants were asked to rate their own sense of purpose on a scale from 1 to 6. Sure, this method has some shortcomings, but I can't think of a better way to measure something as abstract as "a sense of purpose". That's why I also use such an easy scale to measure my own happiness every single day.

This study clearly shows that you are more likely to grow old (healthily) when you live a purposeful life.

This should be reason enough for you to understand the importance of having a purpose in life.

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An example of how a purpose in life can make your life happier

In my article about different examples of life purposes, I've asked multiple people that I've met online the following question:

What is your purpose in life?

Out of the many responses that I got, I want to highlight one that I think provides some anecdotal proof. Proof that having a purpose can enable you to:

  • live a life that aligns with your values
  • be more motivated, disciplined and efficient in being the best version of yourself
  • find long-term happiness in the things that you do (no matter what they are)

Here's the answer that I think is really interesting.

I got cancer at age 30 and am currently grappling with this question. My focus has completely shifted and I feel like my the whole point of life now is just 2 simple things:

  1. Making positive connections with others and enjoying those around you. It is a lot easier to sit on the couch and watch a feel-good show then it is to go have dinner with your in-laws when you are tired - but what is the point in sitting there watching TV? We all waste way too much time doing crap like that. Better to build meaningful connections while you can. There are millions of super isolated people in the world as well who would kill to have someone to have dinner with.
  2. Squeezing every bit of enjoyment out of life. I need to walk home - I can either take the subway for 5 minutes underground or I can walk 30 minutes through a park and tree-lined streets and truly enjoy it.. maybe get an ice cream on the way. I'd pick the fast way every time before, now I'm constantly looking for the most enjoyable route instead.

Does this sense of purpose surprise you? If I'm honest, I have to say that it surprised me at first. This answer basically says that her purpose in life is pretty much to be as happy as possible while enjoying as much time with close connections as possible.

This is hardly similar to some of the big purposes that some people are well-known for, like Elon Musk, for example, whose purpose in life is to accelerate space exploration. But don't be fooled! A purpose in life doesn't necessarily have to be unique or jaw-dropping. It's not a game of showboating. No, you have to find your own purpose in life, that's what matters most.

How do I personally try to live a purposeful life?

My purpose in life is to live a long and happy life.

Sounds cheesy and anti-climatic? Maybe, but here's the thing:

Everything that I do is a result of my purpose in life. There are a lot of other things that I feel are part of my purpose in life, like:

  • Making others happy
  • Making the world a better place
  • Spending as much time as possible with the people I love
  • Challenging myself intellectually and physically

But I only truly care about these things because they will eventually result in my main purpose, and that is to live a long and happy life. If you're wondering, I'm working every day on the idea of this website because it allows me to follow my purpose.

Having a purpose in life is one of the pillars of happiness

At the start of this article, I mentioned how having a purpose is a fundamental factor of happiness. There's actually 5 fundamental factors of happiness, which I call Pillars of happiness. The 5 pillars of happiness are:

  1. Confidence and self-love
  2. Meaning and purpose
  3. Positivity and optimism
  4. Physical and mental health
  5. Freedom and independence

What does this mean? It means that without these fundamental happiness factors - pillars - it will be difficult to find long-term happiness in your life. This might still sound very subjective, so I'll give a couple of examples in a minute.

Each of these 5 pillars is critical if you want to be happy. Even though there is an endless list of things that can make you happy, these 5 specific things are fundamental. It's not like you can't be happy without them, but it is difficult to find long-term happiness if you're missing one of these things in your life. That's because every happiness factor besides these 5 fundamental factors is heavily influenced by them.

If you're looking for more details on how to live a purposeful life, I recently published a detailed article on that topic.

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Find your own purpose

Remember how Elon Musk has a unique purpose in life? A lot of people admire him for that (so do I), and that's great. But don't be intimidated by his purpose, and definitely don't feel like your own purpose has to somehow match this high standard.

Elon Musk says it himself:

The idea of lying on a beach as my main thing just sounds like the worst. It sounds horrible to me. I would go bonkers. I would have to be on serious drugs. I’d be super-duper bored. I like high intensity.

- Elon Musk

I'm going to assume here that you are not like Elon and you don't like high intensity as much as he does. Therefore, why do you think your purpose has to be similar to his?

It's important that you find your own purpose in life before you simply copy & paste someone else's. Just as much as your happiness definition is unique, so is your purpose in life.

How to find your purpose in life

People generally don't wake up one day and have a "eureka" moment and suddenly know what their purpose in life is. No, we usually have to discover our purpose by trial and error.

So how do you discover your purpose? Not by sitting in a chair by the window. You find it by doing things and taking action.

What's important here is that you try new things. If you haven't yet discovered your purpose in life, then you are not going to find it by trying the same things over and over again.

It's also important to know that your purpose in life and your job are not the same things. Too many people look for a job that pays the bills and is simultaneously something that can fill their purpose in life. A very small percentage of people find actual purpose in the work they do. In fact, according to a 2013 study by Gallup, only 30% of all American employees feel engaged at work. The point is that your career doesn't necessarily have to be your purpose as well.

For example, I personally have a very simple purpose in life, and it has got nothing to do with my work! That's not to say that I hate my work, I just don't regard it as something I'm passionate about.

Long story short: you have to discover your purpose in life by trying out new things. If you feel like you haven't yet found your purpose in life, that means you need to try something new that sparks your interest again.

You can't copy & paste somebody else's purpose in life and expect to be happy by doing the same things.

No, you have to define YOUR purpose. Like Creed from The Office. 😉

Tracking happiness in order to find your purpose

Now is a good time to mention that I've been tracking my happiness for almost 6 years now. What does this mean? It means I spend 2 minutes every day to reflect on my day:

  • How happy was I on a scale from 1 to 10?
  • What factors had a significant effect on my happiness?
  • I clear my head by jotting down all my thoughts in my happiness journal.

This allows me to constantly learn from my own happiness. By looking back at my journal, I can see what exactly made me happy and how much it influenced my life at the time. By doing this, I've experienced time and time again that living a life with a purpose is highly correlated to living a happy life.

When I track the factors that align with my values of purpose and achievement, that's when I'm most happy.

I want you to know that you can do the same, and it only takes 2 minutes every day.

You can be happier. Discover how with my free template!

  • Track your happiness every day
  • Learn more about what makes you happy
  • Receive my custom template for free

Closing words

I hope that you know by now that it's important to have a purpose in your life. Not only is it correlated to better health and longevity, but it also allows us to feel more motivated, efficient and aligned with our values and happiness factors. I hope this article has inspired you to consider your own purpose for a minute.

How would you rate your current meaning of purpose? And how would you rate your current happiness? I'd love to hear about it in the comments below! 🙂

Who runs Tracking Happiness?

My name is Hugo, and I'm from the Netherlands. I have a Bachelor's Degree in Engineering, a passion for data and statistical analysis and am an expert in happiness.

I've tracked my happiness every day for 5 years in a row. And I'm now using my knowledge to inspire you to prioritize your happiness. You see, I'm a strong believer in what gets measured gets managed. I want to show you what I - and many others - have learned while tracking our happiness.

My Happiness Essays have reached thousands of people around the world and have been shared in many places.

With my data, I have inspired hundreds of others to also track their happiness. And I'm hoping this number will only grow more!

Hugo Tracking Happiness Snapshot

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