While the little things in life can certainly make your day, a growing body of research says keeping your eye on the long game can make a major difference in how much you enjoy your life.
What motivates you is entirely up to you. But understanding your own priorities, knowing what you are working to accomplish and being committed to meaningful causes can help balance your sense of self-esteem and self-worth.
“It’s not really about what the content of a person’s purpose is, but the strength of it ― how much they’ve committed to the idea that there’s something that they’re pursuing,” study author Anthony Burrow, assistant professor in the Department of Human Development at Cornell University, told The Huffington Post.
It’s important to note that having a sense of purpose is different from having goals, Burrow added. Goals are pursuits you can accomplish, he said. “Purpose is sort of an overarching direction for which you use to organize and align your goals.”
What the study revealed about people with purpose
Burrow and team wanted to investigate the way higher levels of purpose affected self-esteem, so they conducted two experiments. In the first, they surveyed Facebook users about purpose, self-esteem and average number of “likes” their posts typically received, finding the more likes people tended to receive, the higher their self-esteem tended to be. Except that for the individuals who reported having a high sense of purpose, there was no relationship between self-esteem and number of “likes.”
For the second experiment, the researchers created a fake social media site (to confirm that the results of the first experiment weren’t Facebook-specific). Plus, using a fake site allowed the researchers to manipulate the number of likes a given user received ― and then measure how that number (above-average, average or below-average) affected an individual’s reported level of self-esteem.
Self-esteem was higher in general if the individuals were told they had received a high number of “likes” and lower if they were told they had received a low number of “likes.” But, Burrow added: “There was no relationship between the number of likes people received and their self-esteem if they had a high sense of purpose.”
Having purpose changes your life
The new Facebook study is far from providing the only evidence of why having a sense of purpose can be really important. Here are seven other ways that having a sense of purpose changes the way you live your life:
1. You think beyond yourself.
You think about others and how your actions affect others. Research has established that having a sense of purpose isn’t just about having goals and striving to achieve those goals. People who have purpose are also more likely to be aware of the world around them and how their goals contribute to that world beyond themselves.
2. You have higher self-esteem
Studies consistently show people who have a sense of purpose consistently have higher self-esteem. That’s because having a sense of purpose means having and working toward a direction for the future that you value, so what you think of yourself at any given time is less influenced by the daily ups and downs, Burrow said.
3. You may live longer
In a study that followed 6,000 individuals for 14 years people who reported having a higher sense of purpose were more likely to live longer than their peers across all age groups, including younger adults, middle-aged adults and older adults.
“Purpose is creating this more stable experience over time that accrues better health.”
“You really don’t want your mood to be fluctuating around from moment to moment and experience to experience,” Burrow explained. “That can be an indicator of health problems downstream because your system is constantly calibrating and recalibrating to new things.”
Mood and mental health is related to physical health measures such as heart rate and inflammation because of the toll that stress takes on the body. The evidence linking purpose to physical health from the past decade is some of the most exciting research on the topic, Burrow said.
“Purpose is creating this more stable experience over time that accrues better health,” Burrow said.
4. You’re more likely to surround yourself with diverse people.
You’re more comfortable around other people. Previous research by Burrow and his colleagues showed that people who reported having more purpose tended to be in better moods and feel more comfortable around people with similar ethnic backgrounds (no matter what their own was). The study focused on how people’s reactions on commuter train cars changed when the commuters around them changed.
Stress tended to go up for everyone they studied when the other commuters were ethnically different. But for people who reported having a higher sense of purpose, there was no link between those individuals’ levels of distress and who else was on the train, Burrow explained.
“It’s more evidence that [for] purposeful people, their mood is not as contingent on what’s happening around them,” he said.
5. You make less impulsive decisions
Spontaneity can be a good thing. But acting on every impulse can drive us off the paths we actually want to be on, Burrow said. And the research suggests that people with more purpose actually make fewer impulsive decisions than people with less purpose.
One experiment offered a group of 503 adults either $100 dollars immediately or $150 two months later. The people who reported higher senses of purpose were more likely to take the larger sum later compared with people who were less purposeful.
“They can delay that gratification,” Burrow explained. “They’re not so caught up in the here and now.”
6. Challenges appear more attainable.
In another experiment researchers asked individuals the amount of effort they thought would be needed to climb hills of various inclines. People with lower levels of purpose were more likely to overestimate the steepness of the hills ― and the effort needed to climb those hills ― compared with people with more purpose.
7. You’re more likely to end up making more money.
Yep ― another study showed that people who reported having more purpose actually had higher household incomes and net worth than people with less purpose.
And no money isn’t everything, but the finding says something really interesting about people with purpose, said Burrow, who was a co-author of the study.
Even when you controlled for income over time, the individuals with more purpose were accruing more net worth, which means they weren’t spending as much as they were saving, he said. “Purposeful people are thinking about the future.”
Sarah DiGiulio is The Huffington Post’s sleep reporter. You can contact her at sarah.digiulio@.