It's one of those enormous questions that's so important -- both philosophically and practically, in terms of how we live our lives -- and yet we rarely, if ever, stop to really think about the answer.
Given that you might be able to formulate your response in less than a minute, the wisdom-to-effort ratio for this philosophical exercise could not be more advantageous.
And having an answer may even improve your health and help you live longer.
A new study published Tuesday
in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry examined the relationship between our physical and mental well-being and the search for, or presence of, purpose in life.
After studying 1,300 subjects from ages 21 to more than 100, the authors found that older people were more likely to have found their life's purpose, while younger people were more likely still searching. That's logical, given that wisdom is often born from experience. According to research by Stanford education professor William Damon, the author of "The Path to Purpose," only 20% of young adults have a fully realized sense of their life's meaning.
And according to the new study, the presence of meaning in one's life showed a positive correlation to one's health, including improved cognitive function, while searching for it may have a slight negative effect. Mental and physical well-being was self-reported, and having a sense of purpose tended to peak around age 60, the study found.
According to two other studies published in 2014 -- one among 9,000 participants over age 65
and another among 6,000 people between 20 and 75
-- those who could articulate the meaning and purpose of their lives lived longer
than those who saw their lives as aimless. It didn't seem to matter what meaning participants ascribed to their life, whether it was personal (like happiness), creative (like making art) or altruistic (like making the world a better place). It was having an answer to the question that mattered.
The connection to longevity could be causal -- having purpose may help one cope with daily stress
, as other research has shown -- but it could also be that those who think about life's meaning are more likely to do other activities that promote good health.
Or as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is quoted as saying, "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how," nicely summing up the connection between having purpose and forbearance in one's life.