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Living Longer by Living With Purpose

By David Fawcett, Ph.D., L.C.S.W.

July 6, 2011

Some years ago a friend of mine sold his successful veterinary practice in the Midwest, bought a van, and headed to California to pursue his lifelong dream of writing music. People no doubt thought he had lost his mind, or at least regressed from being a responsible adult to a frivolous adolescent searching for himself. Years later, he has had some success with his music, but most of all, he has experienced the thrilling notion that he followed his heart.

Not all of us, of course, have the opportunity to drop out of our lives and begin anew, but we all certainly have the chance to discover what gives our life meaning and follow it to our best ability. The daily satisfaction is enormous, and so are the health benefits. A study at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that people who followed their life's purpose were only about half as likely to die over the follow-up period as compared to people who expressed less sense of purpose. These findings have been replicated in other studies: following your dreams is a protective factor for your health.

For many of us, identifying our personal mission, goals, and objectives is not an easy task. There are many helpful resources, one of which is Martha Beck's Finding Your Own North Star. She outlines several steps that are useful in identifying and following through on living your dreams.

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The first step is articulating what is important to you. Many experts recommend sitting down without distraction and writing freely about questions such as what makes you smile; what activities cause you to lose track of time; what do people ask you for help with; or what would you regret not fully doing, being, or having in your life. It will take time and numerous lists before a convergence of themes appears, but it will. These are your core desires.

Once you have a notion of your own purpose, it's important to compare it to how you live your life. Many of us have unconscious beliefs about ourselves that hold us back -- these need to be identified and repaired. For example, a client of mine had a childhood learning disability that affected his performance in school. He not only had trouble studying, he also believed (and was told) that he wasn't as smart as others and would never be able to succeed in school. As an adult he wanted to become a nurse, which required college courses in biology and chemistry. He took a chance and enrolled, asked for help where he needed it to overcome his learning problems and develop good study habits, and became an "A" student. He realized his core belief about his intelligence and learning was wrong.

A second critical step is to compare what life offers you with your own mission and objectives. The opportunities we accept must align with our goals. Without the guidance of our life's purpose in making choices about which to pursue and which to let go, we can become frustrated, disillusioned, or simply burn out.

With practice it becomes increasingly easy to know when our activities resonate with our life's purpose. Nurturing our intuition can be a corrective force when we temporarily get off track from the real source of satisfaction and health: cultivating and living our dreams.

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See Also
Ten Things You Can Do to Enhance Your Emotional Well-Being
Depression and HIV
Feeling Good Again: Mental Healthcare Works!
More Personal Viewpoints on Coping With HIV

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Jim L. (Los Angeles) Thu., Jul. 7, 2011 at 8:59 pm EDT
David, you elucidate what for many of us is still be a lurking, yearning possibility in our lives, and even without the stats and figures you access, I can attest that the course of action you describe brings along such an immense excitement and sense of setting forth on a long hoped-for voyage, that benefits accrue long before results have been analyzed! Also, you say that "Many of us have unconscious beliefs about ourselves that hold us back..." For me, these were almost entirely rooted in my religious upbringing and I dare say for many people the same applies. The process by which I escaped from the primitive theology of Bronze Age desert tent dwellers and found courage to use my mind for rational thought, my transformation into a full-fledged atheist, took several years and happened in stages and through a series of illuminating events. The ongoing freeing up of ever-deeper parts of myself is so invigorating, brings such a feeling of exuberance, that I knew before medical confirmation that my letting go of an oppressive, non-existent sky god to embrace progress, modernity, scientific finding, reality, had improved my quality of life beyond measure and prepared me with a "what's to stop me but myself?" attitude toward setting out and pursuing my dreams. My T-cells have improved, my attitude toward everything has changed! Self-loathing, internalized homophobia that I didn't even know I carried about has dissipated! So much more, and even my posture has improved! The story isn't finished yet, but how sad it would have been had it not had this plot twist which has truly given me a new life! For me, freedom of thought and freedom from religion has been a "gawd send!"
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Comment by: Minister Antionettea ' Dreadie' Etienne (Harlem New York) Thu., Jul. 7, 2011 at 2:02 pm EDT
Boy do i agree with you. In 1997, I went into deep shock as I was told I had Hep C. and later on HIV. In 2001 I became very ill and thought I was dying. so I decided to become very selfish and do me and only me. I left my partner and my church and traveled the world to see as many people and places that I could see, meet, enjoy and love. Instead I started to educate women about HIV/AIDS. I forgot about being selfish, i met others who had a greater need to survive than I and so once again I went back to work educating all who crossed my path about HIV/AIDS & STI's. I re-learned to give and slowly receive love. to notice that no matte how bad I thought my litte world was, their were women living in more dire situations and surviving. What i spent on a metro card, could feed a family for a week in some countries. I give thanks and praise to my God for assisting me in seeing the light again and that no matter how bad I think my life is in this great USA; someone some where has it ten times worse. Since thenI have been living my life the way I feel that my God says I should. i give a smile and a hud to someone every day. But, I also take care of me.
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Riding the Tiger: Life Lessons From an HIV-Positive Therapist


David Fawcett, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., is a social worker, certified sex therapist and clinical hypnotherapist. He has worked in the areas of mental health and substance abuse for more than 25 years.

Diagnosed with HIV in 1988, David is dedicated to promoting physical and emotional resilience in his own life and in the lives of his psychotherapy clients. Like the Hindu goddess Durga, he strives to live fearlessly and patiently, never losing his sense of humor even in battles of epic proportions.

David's blog entries have appeared on LifeLube and The Bilerico Project, Florida. He's also a contributor to TheBodyPRO.com's blog for health care providers, HIV Care Today. He answers questions about Mental Health and Substance Use in two separate "Ask the Experts" forums on TheBody.com. David resides in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., with his partner.


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