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A Sense of Purpose Enhances Memory and Health

26 October 2021
Giulio Prisco


Researchers at Florida State University have found a link between an individual's sense of purpose and their ability to recall vivid details. The researchers found that while both a sense of purpose and cognitive function made personal memories easier to recall, only a sense of purpose bestowed the benefits of vividness and coherence.

"Personal memories serve really important functions in everyday life," says researcher Angelina Sutin in a press release issued by Florida State University. "They help us to set goals, control emotions and build intimacy with others.”

“We also know people with a greater sense of purpose perform better on objective memory tests, like remembering a list of words,” added Sutin. "We were interested in whether purpose was also associated with the quality of memories of important personal experiences because such qualities may be one reason why purpose is associated with better mental and physical health."

The researchers performed a study with hundreds of participants. First, the participants reported on their sense of purpose and completed tasks that measured their cognitive processing speed in January and February 2020. Then, in July 2020, the researchers measured and analyzed the ability of the participants to retrieve and describe recent personal memories about the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a paper published in Memory, the researchers report that the participants with a stronger sense of purpose in life reported that their memories were more accessible, coherent, and vivid than participants with less purpose.

"Memories help people to sustain their well-being, social connections and cognitive health," said researcher Antonio Terracciano. "This research gives us more insight into the connections between a sense of purpose and the richness of personal memories. The vividness of those memories and how they fit into a coherent narrative may be one pathway through which purpose leads to these better outcomes."

Purpose in life has been consistently associated with better episodic memory. This research also shows a correlation between purpose and the richness of personal memory. According to the researchers, the results of the study suggest that individuals with a higher sense of purpose in life have “autobiographical memories with richer phenomenology.” Previous research has found numerous other benefits connected with having a sense of purpose, from a lower risk of death to better physical and mental health.

The connection between life purpose and memory is not, the results of this study suggest, entirely due to the fewer depressive symptoms among individuals with a higher sense of purpose. Of course, having fewer depressive symptoms is an important mental health benefit in itself.

This is, I think, very important advice for everyone’s health and well-being. Cultivate your sense of purpose. Find more and more good reasons to get out of bed in the morning. Care about something bigger than you. Do something good. And your physical and mental health may improve as a result.

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