It is not new information that doing good things can make you feel good. However, a study conducted by Northwestern earlier this year found that people who have a positive purpose in life have an unknowing added benefit than just feeling better—they actually sleep better at night.
These findings are not exactly groundbreaking though. Numerous studies have confirmed that having a purpose outside yourself is good not only for your mental health, but good for your physical health, longevity, and even your genes.
The study based its hypothesis on previous work that show that purpose in life can be protective against numerous negative health outcomes, which includes sleep disturbance. The researchers set out to examine the relationship between purpose of life, overall sleep quality, and the presence of sleep disorders in a community-based bi-racial sample of older adults.
The researchers used a sample size of 825 older participants who completed a 32-item questionnaire to assess sleep quality and possible symptoms of sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and REM behavior disorder. Next, the participants needed to have their purpose of life assessed. The study did so by using a modified 10-item measure derived from Ryff’s and Keye’s scales of Psychological Well-Being. To get an idea of the questionnaire, one question read, “I feel good when I think of what I’ve done in the past and what I hope to do in the future” and “some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.” Participants answered by rating their agreement on a 5-point scale ranging from 1-strongly disagree to 5-strongly agree.
At baseline, most of the respondent’s sleep quality was slightly disturbed, with approximately 42% of participants at a high risk of sleep apnea. However, by using longitudinal follow-up data, the study found that higher levels of purpose in life was associated with lower risk of sleep apnea. In this case, the researchers at Northwestern concluded that older individuals with a higher level of meaning and purpose in life have more restful sleep and seem protected against symptoms of sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome. They were 63% less likely to report sleep apnea, 52% less likely to have restless leg syndrome, and had moderately better sleep quality overall.
Senior author, Jason Ong said in a press release, “helping people cultivate a purpose in life and could be an effective drug-free strategy to improve sleep quality, particularly for a population that is facing more insomnia.” He continued with, “purpose in life is something that can be cultivated and enhanced through mindfulness therapies.”
Other studies have found benefits to kindness and purpose in life. A study last year found that those with a greater sense of purpose, no matter what age or education level, scored better on their analysis than those with less purpose.
With these studies focusing on older generations, a study from 2015 discovered that having purpose serves younger people as well. Researchers measured teens’ senses of purpose in life much like the Northwestern study did. Some might not be surprised to find that the study unveiled that the teens with a positive purpose had greater positive self-image, less delinquency, and were predicted to have a smoother transition into adulthood. This study also made the huge suggestion that benefits of having purpose in life run across all personality types.
All these studies show that giving back and having purpose lead to several benefits for the body and mind, but why? How does having a purpose lead to all these health benefits?
A study by the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) back in 2013 found that purpose is linked to beneficial changes in gene expression. Researchers looked at eudemonic happiness—brought about by positive activities in which we are fully involved, and hedonic happiness—this is the feel-good emotion usually connected with instant gratification (i.e. delicious dinner or fun purchase). They found that eudemonic happiness was linked to lower stress levels of inflammatory gene expression and higher levels of antibody and antiviral genes. Hedonic happiness was linked to the opposite.
This study shows that doing good and feeling good have very different effects on the human genome. UCLA researcher Steven Cole said, “the human genome is much more sensitive to different ways of achieving happiness than our conscious minds.”
By taking the focus off ourselves, and focusing on others or events in a positive light can provide health benefits in more ways than one. So according to these numerous studies, transferring our egotistical thoughts and focus to another might work to dilute worry and stress.
Better sleep, longer life, lower stress, healthier bodies and minds—giving back and being kind not only helps those around you, but yourself, too. So, go out, find a cause you care about, and give back! Or maybe just start with a random act of kindness.