Having a strong purpose in life is considered to be one of the six core elements of psychological well-being (the other five are autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relationships, and self-acceptance). Having a life purpose means I can describe specific goals and objectives that give me a sense of direction and meaning. It means I have one or more juicy reasons to get up every morning. Here are six ways that juice-flow benefits my brain …
1. It takes me away from my own old, repetitive story.
We only need to look into our own lives to recognize that our brain works 24/7 to insure our survival. It does that mostly by paying extra attention when stress hormones signal real or imagined threat, mostly through the process of neuroception. From there it goes and confabulates and dramatizes stories about all the potential threats that exist in our daily environment, eventually using those stories to significantly circumscribe and limit possibilities in our world. Getting over ourselves, i.e. letting go of our own stories and instead focusing our cognitive and emotional energies on accomplishing some kind of social good is a wonderful use for our neural networks, as research has repeatedly proven.
2. It reduces the risks of developing Alzheimer’s Disease.
Comparing senior study participants who developed Alzheimer’s Disease with a group who didn’t develop the disease, Patricia Boyle at Rush Medical Center in Chigago discovered that those without a life purpose were twice as likely to come down with it. Life purpose, of course, must be adjusted to our ever-changing neuro-physiological capacities. But we have little idea about what the upper limits of those capacities might be. Here is a collection of people who began to fully flower in their “sunset” years: Late Bloomers. Feel free to follow in any of their neural traces.
3. It strengthens neuro-cognitive reserves.
Neuroenergetic Theory proposes that using the brain makes it tired. There’s a sequence of energy deployment our brain cells go through that increasingly reduces its stores. Here’s how Drake Baer at Salon.com describes it:
If we grossly simplify the (neuroenergetic) process, it looks like this:
Your brain is like a super–excited third–grade classroom: The star student––that is, whatever you’re trying to focus on––will get most of your attention. And if the star student got enough to eat and enough rest, it can be called on periodically throughout the day. If not, other excitable parts of your brain will get your attention. Then your mind will start to wander.
Once fully depleted, those brain cells are taken “off the grid” until the energy can be replenished. Think of how rechargeable batteries work. Neurons work very similarly. As our cells’ energy stores become depleted when we focus on a particular task, neurons with fuller reserves are more easily able to fire action potentials and steal our attention away. This is believed to be the neural process which results in ADHD. Being involved with other people in something of significant social purpose strengthens those reserves. The larger social purpose can serve as a meta-awareness, focusing factor.
4. It will help you perform better on tests that assess brain fitness.
Michelle Carlson at John Hopkins university enrolled one group of women in the Experience Corp and wait-listed a control group for a year. The women were trained to tutor young children in reading and math. When the experiment was complete, I suspect you can already guess the results. You’re right: “We found that participating in Experience Corps resulted in improvements in cognitive functioning and this was associated with significant changes in brain activation patterns,” Carlson said. “Essentially the intervention improved brain and cognitive function in these older adults.” Caring for others in ways that don’t overstress us, provides a win-win all the way around.
5. It enhances brain plasticity.
One primary way a life of social purpose enhances brain plasticity is by forcing us to immerse ourselves in ever-changing enriched environments. Because the brain is designed to actively respond to novelty and external enriched environments, it is forced to grow new cells and those cells are forced to make new connections. The wisdom teaching to “become once again as little children” is essentially inviting us to use our brain and our other sensory organs to walk through the world with a Beginner’s Mind – to take the “Pre-School Perspective.” Neural plasticity and enrichment will be the result.
6. It promotes eudaimonic well-being.
One provocative study published last year points to a possible biological effect: It showed that eudaimonic well-being – which results from being virtuous – is associated with decreased expression of various stress-related genes in human immune cells, whereas hedonic well-being had the opposite effect.There’s nothing either morally good or bad in hedonic versus eudaimonic; it’s simply a description of two different degrees of brain development, one of which appears to be better for our health.
Ralph Waldo Emerson may have been onto something, then, when he said: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” Hear. Hear.