Monday, August 11, 2014

Creative Projects and the Importance of Purpose

Did you hear the NPR story about the benefits of feeling that your life has purpose?  A recent study has proved it.

I can almost hear your eyeballs rolling (yes, I mixed that sensory reference on purpose), those of you who hate NPR.  I can hear people sighing and saying, "Leave it to modern science to 'discover' something we all already knew."

But here's what struck me:  "In fact, people with a sense of purpose had a 15 percent lower risk of death, compared with those who said they were more or less aimless. And it didn't seem to matter when people found their direction. It could be in their 20s, 50s or 70s."

And yes, the study controlled for other factors like age and gender.

The reason why is not clear, and I'm sure we can all think of many possibilities.  Do people who have a sense of purpose actually have less stress or does stress affect them differently?  If we have a sense of purpose, do we make smarter decisions about food and exercise so that we'll have more time to fulfill that purpose?

And you might ask for a definition of purpose.  Here's what the story said, "Of course, purpose means different things to different people. Hill [one of the scientists who conducted the study] says it could be as simple as making sure one's family is happy. It could be bigger, like contributing to social change. It could be more self-focused, like doing well on the job. Or it could be about creativity."

I immediately thought about my writing projects and the larger sense of purpose my writing has given me throughout my life.  I have always seen my writing, and indeed the writing of most people, as an important effort to chronicle what life is like for us.  I've also seen my writing as an important effort to chronicle what life is like for a woman.  I think good writing preserves what's in the process of being lost.  And the sociologist in me believes in the importance of making a chronicle of societal changes as they're happening.

Even though on most days, I'm the only one proclaiming the importance of my writing, it still gives me purpose.  My English major days taught me that the writers that the world considers important may not be the only ones.  The great poet and artist William Blake, for example, was not widely known in his own time, when he was doing his most important work.  Many a journal kept by a woman writer has become vital to historians only decades after the death of the diarist.

So, even on days when we feel like our work is meaningless, it's important to push through that.  That sense of purpose that our creative lives gives us may be more important than we know.

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