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What is the meaning of life? It’s a question as old as our species, and today we’ll take a look at what purpose really means from a psychological perspective, as well as offer up a few tips on how to find yours.

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[♪ INTRO].

Here's a question I'm sure you've never thought about before:. What is the meaning of life?

And even more specifically, what is the meaning of your life? That might sound like an empty platitude — the stuff of fortune cookies and bad self-help books. But research has found that having a purpose is incredibly important for almost every aspect of someone's life.

So if you feel like you know what your purpose is, awesome. And if not, well, not all hope is lost:. Researchers have also figured out ways to find one.

Welcome to SciShow Psych. We're going deep today. First, a disclaimer: There are a lot of ways to think about purpose, and many of them are rooted in religious or philosophical beliefs.

If you have questions about that kind of stuff, this episode can't answer them for you. What we can tell you, though, is how psychologists think about purpose. When they use that word, they're referring to the feeling that your life has meaning and direction and that you're living up to your potential — or at least, you feel that it's possible to reach your potential.

They study this in a few ways, but the one we're going to focus on is the eudaimonic view, since that's probably what most people think of when they consider purpose. This is actually an idea from philosophy, and it says that true well-being is found not when you're only seeking out pleasure, but when you're doing what's worth doing. You can probably relate to this if you've ever finished a degree or raised a child.

Those things aren't always pleasant — and they're sometimes downright stressful — but there's a deep satisfaction in knowing that your efforts are going toward something greater than the task at hand. And pursuing those things isn't just a motivator to get you up in the morning. Studies have found that eudaimonic well-being is linked to good mental and physical health, too.

Several studies have found that elderly people with the strongest feelings of purpose in life had the lowest risk of death. That is, people who felt their life had purpose were less likely to die during the study period from any cause. People with a greater sense of purpose have also been shown to get better sleep, have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva, and have more HDL, or so-called “good” cholesterol.

A 2013 study of more than 1500 people with coronary heart disease even found that those with a greater purpose in life were less likely to have a heart attack during the two-year study period. That being said, scientists aren't totally clear on which direction this goes. In other words, it's not clear if meaning in life gives you good health, or if good health makes you feel like life has meaning.

Alternatively, the relationship between these things could just be correlational — meaning that one doesn't cause the other. Still, it does seem like when you feel your life has worth, you might be more likely to take care of yourself. And even when your health isn't so great, meaning does appear to be useful.

For example, a 2015 study from the Journal of Clinical Oncology examined group therapy for more than 250 cancer patients. It found a greater boost in well-being when that therapy focused on developing a sense of meaning than when it simply offered emotional support. Purpose also has other benefits, though.

Take a study published in 2014, where researchers had 338 ninth-graders complete a roughly 30-minute computer lesson. For the control group, that lesson was about how high school and middle school are different. But for the experimental group, the lesson helped them reflect on their purpose and meaning in education.

Like, one question introduced the idea that many students want to do well in school so they can make the world a better place. Then, the prompt asked students to explain their own academic motivation. Over the next few months, the students in that group significantly boosted their GPAs in math and science — two typically tedious subjects.

So, all that to say, purpose does seem to mean something. And when it comes to actually finding your purpose in life, well, that's easier said than done. Thankfully, researchers haven't left us hanging.

They've looked into this, too, and they've found some reliable ways to make it happen. First, they suggest shifting your mindset. A 2013 study found that a greater sense of meaning was associated with thinking about the future or the past, but not the present.

The idea is that thinking about the past makes you realize where your life has led you, and that when you think about the future, you consider where it's going. Both of those things seem to add more meaning to the present. Studies also suggest that reading can help you forge a sense of meaning, and that's especially true of poetry and fiction.

Reading about others finding meaning may help you find it in yourself. Now, it is worth noting that “meaning” isn't exactly the same as “purpose”, but it is a part of it. So finding more meaning in life is a good first step toward figuring out purpose, too.

Finally, a tried-and-true path to help you with all of this is helping others and expressing gratitude. In a study published in 2015, researchers found that people who reported engaging in more altruistic behaviors like volunteering and giving to charity also reported greater meaning in their lives. In another experiment, they had 84 people write notes — and those who wrote notes expressing gratitude reported a significantly greater sense of meaning than the other groups.

So, if you're like most of us and are still searching for your life's purpose, you could try reading a book, volunteering for something you believe in, or starting a gratitude journal. You'll hopefully start to see a little more meaning in the world around you — and your sense of purpose might not be far behind. This episode of SciShow Psych is brought to you by our patrons on Patreon!

Thanks to all of you who support SciShow! We hope that helping bring free educational content to the Internet gives your life at least a little purpose. If you want to help us keep exploring topics like this, your support would mean a lot to us.

You can learn more over at [♪ OUTRO].