Having a Sense of Purpose in Life Improves Cognition, Mental Health

What’s the meaning of life? It’s a tough question, but your mental health might depend on answering it!

Psychologists have found repeatedly that people with a strong sense of purpose in life tend to fare better on several different measures of mental health, well-being and even cognitive functioning.

Most recently, a team of researchers from Canada and the United States surveyed 3,489 adults between the ages of 32 and 84. They found that adults who reported a greater sense of purpose in life also tended to score higher on tests of memory and executive functioning.

While the reason for this relationship between purpose in life and cognition isn’t clear, the authors cite the importance of promoting “healthy cognitive and purposeful aging.”

Superior cognitive functioning is far from the only possible advantage linked to high purpose in life. A study published last month of 2,157 military veterans suggested that a stronger sense of purpose in life may promote resilience.

Another study, this time of 6,840 teachers in Guangzhou, China, came up with similar results suggesting a link between purpose in life and resilience to stress. In the study, teachers with more sense of purpose in life had better self-reported health. Importantly, the relationship between purpose in life and self-reported health was partly mediated by stress management: teachers with a greater sense of purpose were better at managing stress, which led them to report higher levels of health.

Even in the initial stages of adulthood, it appears that purpose in life already matters. Research on 669 adolescents and young adults found that those with higher levels of purpose in life had more positive self-images, engaged in less delinquency, and had higher overall well-being.

Taken together, these studies affirm something that makes intuitive sense: having a sense of meaning has far-reaching effects on our lives and health.

Easy enough to say, of course, but how does one build a sense of purpose in life? Although that’s largely a personal journey, science does have some insights. In my next post, I’ll talk about some activities that correlate with having a sense of purpose in life. Yes, that’s right, if you want to know the meaning of life, just come back and read the AllPsych blog this Friday!

Image: Flickr/Ed Dunens under CC BY 2.0


  1. Roslyn s on February 1, 2017 at 11:00 pm

    Im looking to help my son gain a sense of purpose in life he has a newly diagnosed mental illness and is only 17

    • Neil Petersen on February 3, 2017 at 11:18 am

      Treating the mental illness is of course the first step. Things like hobbies, volunteering, etc. can all help. What does your son enjoy? Therapy can be useful for figuring out this kind of thing. Best of luck!

  2. Dr. Gleb on April 14, 2018 at 3:25 am

    yeah! having sense of purpose in life is very important in order to live your life to the fullest. well got a nice content to review.