The Benefits of Happiness & Finding your Sense of Purpose

Older woman paintingWhat is this research about?

Having a condition such as spinal cord injury or multiple sclerosis can put us at greater risk of depression and feeling distressed. This can have serious consequences on our quality of life. Mid-life may be particularly tough for people living with chronic conditions. Mid-life comes with many demands, such as caring for our aging parents, launching children from our homes, as well as facing demanding careers. For people living with chronic conditions it might involve finding out how to retire on disability or transitioning to a career with more manageable hours, as well as dealing with worsening of symptoms (pain, fatigue, or our walking ability). We wanted to find out if happiness could potentially protect people living with a chronic condition from distress. Further, we wanted to find out if different approaches to happiness would be equally effective in promoting well-being. 

What did the researchers do?

We surveyed over 500 people with different kinds of conditions, including arthritis, diabetes, or spinal cord injury. Many participants had several of these conditions. We asked them about their distress (such as feeling down or depressed, feeling stressed, or anxious) as well as their happiness. We defined happiness in three basic ways: we can engage in pleasureable activities, we can find meaning in life and the things we do, or we can be completely absorbed or engaged in an activity.

What did the researchers find?

Similar to other research, we found that people living with chronic conditions who are middle-aged also report more distress than those who were younger or older. Also, people who had more than one condition were experiencing more distress. We also found that people who were less happy were more distressed. In particular, finding purpose or meaning in life was associated with being less distressed. 

How can you use this research?

Older person planting trees with children as part of a volunteer activity.It is important to our well-being to think about ways in which we can enrich our lives. We can increase our happiness in several ways, one way is to seek out purpose and meaning:

  • Re-discover lost loves and passions - You might find joy in listening to a good story, or watching a funny movie or TV show. Some people get completely absorbed in cooking or baking, gardening, or doing arts and crafts.
  • Participate in community or spiritual activities - For some people, spirituality or religious beliefs offer ways to find meaning.
  • Reconnect with nature - For others, it might be the magnificence of nature around us that grounds us and fills our lives with a sense of meaning.
  • Volunteer for a cause that you believe in - Such as in your local community or school, the sound of a child laughing may give us a sense of being part of something greater than ourselves. Volunteer Match  may help you connect with opportunities in your community. 

What you need to know:

  • People living with chronic conditions are at a higher risk of feeling distressed or depressed. If you are worried that you or a loved one might be feeling depressed, please check out our factsheet on depression

  • Happiness can protect us from feeling distressed, and being able to find meaning or purpose in life might be especially important.

About the researcher:

Alexandra Terrill, PhD is a health psychologist who is interested in the happiness and resilience of people who live with chronic health conditions. 

Original research article:

Terrill, A. L., Mueller, R., Jensen, M. P., Molton, I. R., Ipsen, C., & Ravesloot, C. (2015). Association between age, distress, and orientations to happiness in individuals with disabilities. Rehabilitation Psychology Feb; 60(1): 27-35.