You’ve likely heard about the satisfaction of living purposefully—of creating a deeper meaning and purpose to your life. You might even have been tempted to learn more about it to improve your emotional outlook, but that never quite reached the top of your to-do list. Well, now science has proven that purposefulness has benefits for your physical health, too. So if you thought that it was too touchy-feely a topic, it’s time to take another look. You can do it—we’ll tell you how.

A little background: Finding deeper purpose in life often means that you have goals that go deeper than yourself—and they don’t have to be grandiose. You might want to make the world a better place for, say, your family or your town (or beyond, of course). This strong direction can be like a life compass that guides almost all your decisions.

Purposeful people experience emotional satisfaction. But they also tend to enjoy longer, healthier lives, and no one knew exactly why. So scientists at Washington University in St. Louis set out to find out how purposefulness translates to better health—what’s the connection?

The study: Patrick L. Hill, PhD, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences, and colleagues studied 749 people who were already involved in a 50-year program called the Hawaii Longitudinal Study of Personality and Health. (Participants were surveyed first as kids and then every two years as adults.)

The findings: The researchers found that people with a higher sense of purpose were more likely than others to follow many healthy behaviors. Individually, these behaviors were not earth-shattering—examples include eating lots of vegetables, exercising, getting restorative sleep and even flossing—but there was also a “bigger picture” at play. These great habits had positive snowball effects. Example: Good sleep reduces stress and the risk for chronic health conditions that have stress at their root.

About now you might be wondering if this is a chicken-or-egg situation. Are purposeful people healthier, or are healthier people more purposeful? It could work both ways, but here is a theory of Dr. Hill’s: Since poor health can get in the way of reaching deeply desired goals, taking care of your health would be a natural outgrowth of truly living a purposeful life. You wouldn’t be taking good care of yourself just to be healthier—but also to allow you to make progress in your larger purpose!

FINDING YOUR OWN PURPOSE

Ready to put more purpose in your life, but unsure how to get started? Try these ideas from Dr. Hill…

Think big.

Purposefulness is lifelong and much broader than any finite goal, even if that goal is hard to reach. You “want to become a doctor”? Great, but then what?  (Just think about people you know whose purposes were so enmeshed with their jobs that they lost their reason for being when they retired.) View purposefulness as a guiding light for your life, and create a vision that doesn’t have an expiration date. You know, for example, that you would never be able to literally put an end to hunger worldwide—but how satisfying would it be to make progress toward that goal for the rest of your life? Or toward improving the welfare of shelter animals…giving underprivileged kids a leg up with tutoring when they most need it…becoming a masterful photographer or violin player. You can’t finish a purpose of this type—so it will give you continuous motivation.

Explore many avenues to find your purpose.

The great thing about purposefulness is that you create your own path. Although a positive role model might inspire you, there’s no pied piper you must follow. Taking classes or volunteering are ways to explore the world and help you find deeper purpose. Some people become motivated after experiencing a major life event or after a family member becomes ill.

Make a plan.

Purposeful people aren’t loosey-goosey about their goals. They are focused and organized. They think about and write down specific steps that they need to take such as, “If I want to make progress toward X, this is what I have to do today.”

You’re likely to find that everything falls into place once you try to see your road ahead…and take step after step on it.