Despite its importance for health and well-being, many American adults find it difficult to consistently get enough sleep. Approximately 50 million to 70 million Americans suffer from a sleep disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sleep disturbances are particularly common in older adults and involve a variety of problems including difficulties falling or staying asleep, interrupted breathing and restless leg syndrome. A person’s racial background can influence his or her likelihood of developing a sleep disorder, with a greater number of black Americans reporting sleep disturbances compared to white Americans.
Beyond its effects on health, not getting enough sleep can lead to car accidents, medical errors or other mistakes on the job. To encourage better sleep, the medical community encourages adults to engage in good “sleep hygiene” such as limiting or avoiding caffeine and nicotine, avoiding naps during the day, turning off electronics an hour before bed, exercising and practicing relaxation before bedtime. It is also well-known that mental health is closely linked to sleep; insomnia is more common in people suffering from depression or anxiety.
A recent study now raises the possibility that sleep could be affected by the degree to which someone feels like his or her life is purposeful or meaningful. Arlener Turner, Christine Smith and Jason Ong of the Northwestern University School of Medicine found that people who reported having a greater sense of purpose in life also reported getting better sleep—even when taking into consideration age, gender, race and level of education.
To establish this link, the researchers recruited a sample of 825 older Americans to participate in a study where they reported on their sense of purpose in life along with the quality of their sleep. The majority of these participants were female (77 percent), and slightly more than half were African-American (54 percent). The participants were, on average, 79 years old. A sense of purpose in life was measured using a survey where participants rated how much they agreed with each of 10 statements, such as “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.” The results showed that participants who reported having a greater sense of purpose in life also reported higher quality sleep on a regular basis, as well as fewer symptoms of sleep disorders. Importantly, the researchers found that their findings held true for both the white Americans and black Americans who participated in the study.
It is important to emphasize that this study only looked at the association between a sense of purpose and better sleep—the findings cannot say for sure that having a greater sense of purpose causes one to sleep better. An alternative interpretation for the findings is that people who have a greater sense of purpose also tend to have better physical and mental health, which in turn explains their higher quality sleep. Another important limitation of the study is that the findings rely entirely on people’s self-reported sleep symptoms. The researchers did not bring participants into a lab and actually monitor the quality of their sleep. Therefore, it is possible that people with a higher sense of purpose simply remember getting better sleep compared to people who do not report experiencing a sense of purpose in life.
Despite these limitations, this study is the first to suggest any kind of strong link between purpose in life and sleep. Given how common sleep problems are, anything that may suggest new avenues for treatment is important to explore. Perhaps developing a sense of purpose in life could be as effective at improving sleep as following healthy habits, such as limiting coffee. In addition to promoting good sleep hygiene, doctors may end up recommending mindfulness practices or exploring one’s values as ways of helping older adults sleep better. Given how elusive a good night’s sleep has become for many, it’s well worth exploring. The impact of poor sleep goes far beyond our own personal health, as the side effects have the potential to wreak havoc on other people’s lives as well.
Developing a sense of purpose in life may simultaneously convey other benefits in addition to better sleep. Research has linked experiencing purpose in life to a variety of other positive outcomes including better brain functioning, reduced risk of heart attack and even a higher income. People with a greater sense of purpose in their life would surely be better off while also serving as a positive example in the lives of those they know.