New Year's resolutions are a time-honored tradition, but are we making resolutions that really matter? Self-improvement vows generally involve losing weight, vague ideas about living healthier, or spending less time in front of the television. Most of those good intentions fade by February or March.
We tend to focus on the nitty-gritty details of everyday life, neglecting the bigger picture. When confronted with crisis, we often feel lost and unable to cope. Would we do better to find our life purpose and resolve to live up to it? It's a topic of interest to researchers:
-A 2012 study out of Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center revealed that having a purpose in life can help hold off harmful effects of plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer's disease. According to lead researcher Patricia A. Boyle, PhD, "Our study showed that people who reported greater purpose in life exhibited better cognition than those with less purpose in life even as plaques and tangles accumulated in their brains." -Dr. Boyle also headed a 2009 study that concluded, "Positive factors, such as having a sense of purpose in life, may provide a buffer against negative health outcomes, particularly in old age. In keeping with the idea, purpose in life is associated with psychological health and wellbeing in younger persons." -A connection between volunteering and good heath, longevity, and lower rates of depression has also been found, as summarized in The Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research, compiled by the Corporation for National and Community Service. -Even businesses with a purpose benefit, says author J. Kim Wright of Cutting Edge Law. "Some business research shows that companies with a purpose that is not about profit, plus some other factors, actually earn more profit than their counterparts."
LIFE PURPOSE AS A NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTION
"This is a good new year's resolution," says David Kaiser, PhD, Executive Coach of Dark Matter Consulting, "because it is very doable. I believe we have one or more purposes in life, and we will live better if we live according to them. Ignoring your life's purpose hurts – it breaks your heart."
Naturopathic Doctor Stacy Mobley says it is realistic if you can meet that desire with action. "I do believe that humans can have several life purposes in every aspect of their lives. Either you will live out one of your life purposes or you will live out someone else's! It is always our choice."
As for failure, Dr. Mobley believes that's in the eye of the beholder. "The fact that you put action to fulfilling your life purpose puts you in the top three percent of the world. Most people do not take action, they just dream. The attempt, whether deemed successful or not, should be applauded."
Although not a fan of New Year's resolutions in general, Ms. Wright likes the idea of addressing life purpose. "You can't fail. It is a direction, an expression of who you are, not a measurable goal. And aligning with your purpose can significantly improve quality of life."
FINDING LIFE PURPOSE…OR HAS IT BEEN THERE ALL ALONG?
So how does one go about identifying life purpose? "You can stumble on it, but I wouldn't count on it," says Dr. Kaiser. "It takes time and attention, and a lot of support from someone who can help. Maybe a good friend can help, but more likely a coach or a mentor who can see you from outside yourself and provide encouragement and candor.
Life purpose changes and evolves for some people, and that's OK. It means you're ready for the next thing."
Author and Executive Coach Ronald Kaufman believes everyone has a purpose in life, either consciously or subconsciously – and it doesn't have to be complicated. "Whether it's to end world hunger, become wealthy, be a great parent, have a beautiful garden, or survive another day, we have a purpose. Behavior is the bottom line.Where is your focus, what occupies your thoughts, what is important to you, what are you driven to do? These types of questions can help to define your purpose and give you a sense of what actions to take to fulfill your purpose."
Mobley calls it a lifetime journey molded by daily choices and decisions. "I believe that I will be successful at reaching my resolution as I map out and act on reaching it. My motto is 'think…say…plan…act.'"
"I believe that our very existence as individual humans already is the purpose," says Carl Bozeman, Spiritual Intuition, LLC. "We hear the saying a lot these days that we are 'spiritual beings having a human experience' and most spiritually minded people would agree, but most will immediately reverse this idea by trying to get the 'human' they have become to find it's 'spiritual' purpose. Having the experience of being 'human' is literally 'the purpose.' Is it realistic to seek purpose? No. There is nothing we have to do or learn or be to fulfill the measure of our already 'purposeful' human existence."
DOES KNOWING OUR LIFE PURPOSE HELP US ENDURE HARD TIMES?
"Totally," says Kaiser. "You can endure all sorts of hardship when you believe in the project. Look at Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King, who endured prison and beatings for their beliefs. On the flipside, enduring the day-to-day hassles of life can be unbearable if there is no meaning in what you are doing."
Wright believes life purpose adds "meaning and context" to bad times. So does Kaufman, who says, "Having a purpose can act as an anchor to help you to be resilient during hard times. Having something that you're committed to, something that defines you, can give you a sense of security to weather the storms."
Not everyone agrees that identifying a life purpose makes it easier to endure hardship. Bozeman suggests it can even make hard times harder "because you've coupled false expectations in the form of 'life purpose' with the hard times.
The incongruence of your contrived life purpose and the stress that it causes, mingled with the hard times, not only makes the hard times harder, but also weakens you from being able to deal with the hard times.
"Think about it," says Bozeman. "If you're failing at your life purpose and suffer hardship, it would be so much more difficult to deal with then becoming aware of WHO you are as a spiritual being and accepting everything in life that comes your way as one incredible, fantastic experience! Life does not make us; we make life. Embrace every bit of it as it comes or struggle with it when it does. All it takes is turning off the 'mind' that thinks we need to have a purpose."
WHY WAIT UNTIL A NEW YEAR?
There are obvious differences of opinion when it comes to life purpose and New Year's resolutions, but it's a topic worthy of discussion. Ultimately, it is up to each of us to decide for ourselves.
Whether or not you believe we have a life purpose or that it can help us during life's difficulties, resolutions are promises we make to ourselves, generally in the spirit of self-improvement. We should only promise what we believe we can deliver, and we should keep our goals streamlined. As for resolutions, why wait until a new year?
"New Year's resolutions are fine," says Kaufman, "but why wait? Resolutions are nothing more than goals, and to be most effective, should be set on a daily basis."
References: Rush University Medical Center. (2012). Purpose in Life May Protect Against Harmful Changes in the Brain Associated with Alzheimer’s Disease | Purpose in Life Is Associated With Mortality Among Community-Dwelling Older Persons. Psychosomatic Medicine. June 2009 vol. 71 no. 5 574-579
Ann Pietrangelo is the author of "No More Secs! Living, Laughing & Loving Despite Multiple Sclerosis." She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and writes for sites around the web.