If you want to live a longer life, staying mentally and physically active is an obvious prerequisite but recalibrating your life’s purpose is equally important.
In this ABC article, Caroline Zielinski personally experiences the modern malaise of meaninglessness that, if left unresolved, can lead to symptoms of anxiety, depression, hopelessness or physical decline.
Since the 1950s, psychologists and doctors have been increasingly interested in how living a purposeful life affects our wellbeing.
Many experts attribute our preoccupation with meaning to the fall of traditional religion, which seems to have left society with a collective existentialist gap.
It’s actually difficult to find references in western literature before the 19th century on the meaninglessness of existence, at a time when the world was understood to possess intrinsic purposefulness and meaning.
With the absence of organised religion and increasing isolation from community, we’re often trying to fill the vacuum with what we think defines the 21st century: work, productivity, efficiency — and money.
The problem is, it doesn’t seem to be working.
Purpose slows ageing
We know there is a link between a sense of purpose and good mental health. But studies also show reduced premature mortality, slower development of age-related disability and lower rates of cardiovascular disease, stroke and sleep issues.
A recent 2017 study by the Jama Psychiatry Network showed that people who have goals and a sense of meaning were less likely to have weak grip strength and slow walking speeds when they reached old age, two signs of declining physical ability and risk factors for disability.
Overall, people who believe their activities are meaningful tend to be healthier and engage in more preventative behaviours.
On the flip side, suicide — the biggest killer of young people aged 15 to 24 in Australia — is strongly influenced by a perceived lack of meaning and purpose. Worryingly, studies have found “higher levels of existential vacuum among the young”.
“I think it is such a challenging time for millennials,” says career counsellor and psychologist Tina Papadakos.
“There are so many choices available today that it can be overwhelming, and the expectations to gain higher qualifications are higher than ever before. Most incur a debt for a commitment to tertiary, which puts even more pressure on them to make the ‘right’ choices,” she says.
Ms Papadakos has been working with people who are lost in their career — and even life — for years.
She says high expectations, combined with disappearing entry-level jobs, an increasingly casualised workforce and the effects of digital disruption have left many of us, particularly millennials, living with extreme uncertainty.
“Being in a job that is meaningless to us is not so good for our mental health. It is thus important to give this aspect of our lives a lot of consideration,” Ms Papadakos says.
Meaning tells us who we are
Academic and occupational health clinician Dr Ben Milburn from Curtin University says humans are constantly seeking purpose and ways of understanding the world, whether that’s through interaction with other people, cultural activities, work or something else.
“We define meaning through culture — so everything you don’t have to do to survive,” he says.
“We do this through stylisation — what we enjoy, consume and the activities we engage in is what helps define who we are and where we’re going in the world.”
So if you feel unsatisfied, demotivated and like there should be … more, Ms Papadakos says you’re probably not living your truest life.
As I’ve found out the hard way, this is not an easy thing to do.
One year on, the anxiety is still there, albeit for a different reason: a lot of my work is freelance now, so making sure I have a steady income takes more thinking, failing and time generating ideas.
But the stomach pains are gone, I sleep eight hours every night, and the scratching? Well, I’m working on it.
Best of all is that I no longer ask myself if this is “all there is” — because if that’s the case, then it’s a pretty good life.