As a therapist, I work with people who are battling depression and anxiety. For some individuals, their debilitating symptoms make it impossible to maintain their jobs. Unfortunately, unemployment only worsens their mental health.

The lost income not only hurts their bank accounts, but it also causes their overall well-being to plummet. For many of them, not having a job means not having a purpose. 

Of course, a lack of purpose stems beyond unemployment. Many working people feel like they're just passing time--rather than living life to its fullest. And research shows not having a purpose affects not just the quality of your life--but perhaps even the length of it.

What the Research Says

In one study, researchers surveyed more than 6,000 people to assess their sense of purpose. Participants were asked to respond to statements such as, "Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them."

Researchers followed up with participants 14 years later. They discovered that people who reported a greater sense of purpose outlived their peers.

People who felt like their lives had meaning had a 15% lower risk of death in a 14 year period, compared to those who said they felt aimless. And perhaps the best news is, researchers found it didn't matter when people found their purpose.

Whether an individual found their true calling was to be a painter at age 70, or someone had known since age 20 that their purpose was to be a philanthropist, their risk of death decreased. Even when researchers controlled for other factors that affect longevity, like age, emotional well-being, and gender, a sense of purpose proved instrumental.

The Link Between Purpose and Longevity

Researchers suspect that a sense of purpose improves physical and mental health in several ways. For starters, positive well-being is linked to lower cortisol output, which plays a role in brain function and immune regulation. Feeling good could reduce disease and other health ailments.

Feeling better about life changes an individual's behavior. People who have a sense of purpose are generally motivated to care for themselves. They're more likely to exercise and eat healthy, which is likely to prolong their lives.

A greater sense of purpose can also provide a buffer against stress. Engaging in something meaningful, whether it's music or caring for children, provides a boost in happiness. And happiness combats the negative effects of stress.

Key Takeaways from This Research

Make sure who you are doesn't rest entirely on what you do. Otherwise, in the absence of work--albeit retirement or disability--your life will lack meaning.

A sense of purpose doesn't have to be complicated or world-changing. Instead, your purpose might involve loving your family or sharing your joy.

For others, a sense of purpose could involve raising money for a charity or pursuing a passion. It all depends on what gives your life true meaning.

Ask yourself, "What gets me out of bed in the morning?" Other than earning money, what is the real reason you do what you do? If you struggle to come up with an answer, you may want to think about your life's real purpose.