If you’re like a lot of people all over the world, you have a hard time sleeping. Maybe you’ve tried apps that promote sleep, or going without electronics for the hours leading up to bedtime, or supplements like melatonin or magnesium.
But have you tried thinking differently about your waking life?
Research suggests that having a purpose in life leads to a better night’s sleep. Picture in your mind your biggest interests and your loftiest goals. Pursuing those could help you get better shut-eye.
A research team at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine looked at the sleep habits of more than 800 older adults—though they said the results are likely applicable to everyone—and found that the ones who reported having a purpose in life have fewer sleep disturbances like sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome and sleep better over a long period.
“Helping people cultivate a purpose in life could be an effective drug-free strategy to improve sleep quality, particularly for a population that is facing more insomnia,” said Jason Ong, one of the study’s authors and an associate professor of neurology at the Feinberg School of Medicine, to the university. “Purpose in life is something that can be cultivated and enhanced through mindfulness therapies.”
In the Northwestern study, the people who felt their lives had meaning were 63 percent less likely to have sleep apnea, 52 percent less likely to have restless leg syndrome and had better sleep quality. Poor sleep quality is defined by having trouble falling and staying asleep and feeling tired during the day.
According to the American Sleep Association, 37 percent of U.S. adults ages 20 to 39 are not getting enough sleep. Ong said the American College of Physicians now recommends non-drug treatments as the first line of defense against disordered sleep.
That’s because sleeping pills don’t really do what we think they’re doing. In a previous Rewire article, University of California, Berkeley professor Matthew Walker said sleeping pills “sedate the brain” rather than providing deep sleep. This type of sleepdoesn’t replace the natural sleep cycles we need to be healthy.
“Don’t be fooled into thinking sedation is real sleep,” Walker said. “It’s not.”
What’s the meaning of life? I’m certainly not qualified to tell you that—it’s something you’ll have to figure out on your own. After all, every person’s raison d’être is different.
But even though it seems like a huge question (and it is), there’s lots of advice out there on how to figure it out for yourself, or at least get pointed in the right direction. My dad used to tell me that my life’s goals might change over time, but it’s always important to keep at least one in mind, no matter what it is. That one goal, he said, can propel you forward in the general direction you want to travel. (And, apparently, can help you get better sleep.)
One researcher, Michael Edward Schluckebier of the University of Iowa, studied the ways college-age adults figure out their purposes in life, and broke it down into three main components:
1. Develop a support system: Surrounding yourself with people who encourage you to explore your passions and do your best will help you figure out what you want to do in your life. This support system can be made up of family members, friends, mentors or teammates—anyone who is pushing you forward.
2. Choose a role model: Identify the person or people in your life that you want to emulate, and figure out how they got to where they are today. This can be someone whose career you admire, but it can also be someone who has qualities or a life path you admire. Keeping these examples in mind can help you visualize your own path.
3. Do stuff: Having experiences is key to figuring out what you want to do with your life. Even though the people Schluckebier studied went into college with a purpose in mind, the studies, travel and work they experienced during college helped them find their way. None of them said they had fulfilled their purpose in life—they “described developing purpose in life as a continuous journey.” Getting out and trying new things can help you decide what is—and what is not—important to you.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.