For the past 10 years, Experience Corps has trained thousands of people over the age of 55 to tutor children in public schools across the country. The goal of the program is to support students in need, and the results are promising. Research shows that the program significantly boosts academic performance and enhances learning.
While it may seem like this is just about the kids, it’s not. They’re not the only ones benefiting from the program. An unexpected side effect is the positive impact on the volunteers. Studies show improvement in both the mental health and physical functioning of the volunteers, including mobility, stamina, and flexibility. In addition, they reported more physical activity, larger social networks, and higher self-esteem. They show improvement in memory and executive functioning too. The increase in social ties and engagement in the community—a key measure of wellbeing in older adults—is noteworthy.
Perhaps most important of all is the fact that 86 percent say their lives improved because of the program. A renewed sense of purpose in life lies at the heart of these improvements.
In his TED talk, “Should you live for your résumé or your eulogy?”, David Brooks captures the essential role of having a sense of purpose:
You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer the desire to get what you want. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.
It’s science-backed: Being in the service of something greater and beyond ourselves makes life worth living. Vic Strecher, the head of the Center for Health Communications Research at the University of Michigan, believes people with a sense of purpose take better care of themselves:
People that have a purpose in life are 2.4 times less likely to die from Alzheimer’s Disease, less likely to have a heart attack, and more likely to have good sex. Having a purpose can also help repair our DNA, potentially promoting a longer life.
As doctors, we spend so much time lecturing people about disease and the onslaught of aging, but maybe we should be thinking about teaching them to have purpose in life. Instead of waiting for people to get sick and prescribing medication, Strecher asks:
What if doctors had a prescription pad that just helped people develop greater purpose in life?
Indeed, a sense of purpose may be just what the doctor ordered.