From the tyranny of our genetic make-up to the health-care disparities that arise from social status, our health and longevity are preordained in many ways. But not all. And new research points to a factor that's at least partly in our control and is clearly associated with living longer: Having a sense of purpose.
A study of nearly 7,000 older Americans found that, over a four-year period, people who felt their lives had meaning were less likely to die than their counterparts who lacked that conviction. "Purposeful living may have health benefits," a research team led by Aliya Alimujiang of the University of Michigan writes in the journal JAMA Network Open.
The researchers analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study, which has been collecting data on a nationally representative sample of Americans over age 50 since 1992. In 2006, a large subset of participants—6,985, to be precise—filled out an abridged version of a standard test measuring psychological well-being.
Using a one-to-six scale, they indicated their level of agreement with a series of statements reflecting a sense of purpose in life, such as, "I enjoy making plans for the future, and working to make them a reality," and, "In general, I feel confident and positive about myself."
Researchers then examined 2010 data on those participants, and found that 776 of them had died in the interim. (Heart problems were the primary cause of death, followed by cancer.) The team found that people who had strongly indicated their lives had meaning were less likely to have died than those who'd expressed little or no sense of purpose.
The data showed a clear trend: Higher levels of purpose were linked with a lower likelihood of mortality. Moreover, this finding held true after the researchers took into account a range of factors that could influence mortality, both physical (frequency of physical activity, alcohol consumption, body-mass index) and sociological (ethnicity and education).
Looking at cause of death, they found that this relationship held for heart/circulatory conditions and digestive system issues, but not for cancer.
Previous research has also found a connection between purpose and longevity, but this new study is larger than earlier ones, and takes more potentially mitigating factors into account. Other studies have hinted at the reasons behind this relationship, suggesting that finding purpose in life strengthens the immune system and decreases the sorts of impulsive behaviors that can lead to health problems.
Alimujiang and her colleagues note there's some evidence that one's sense of purpose can be heightened through psychotherapy, meditation, and/or engaging in selfless acts such as volunteering. Meaningful work is another avenue. Whatever the pathway to fulfillment, this study provides more evidence that our emotional and physical health are intertwined, and that meaning can affect mortality.