Sense of Purpose Lengthens Life

New research finds having a purpose in life appears to be an excellent buffer against mortality risk across one's adult years.
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The three fates, Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. (Photo: Public Domain)

The three fates, Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. (Photo: Public Domain)

How’s that search for a purpose in life coming? Are you finding frustration rather than fulfillment? Well, if friends or family members suggest you let it go, don’t let them dissuade you.

If your quest is successful, you’ll probably outlive them.

That’s the implication of new research, which provides additional evidence of a link between having a sense of purpose and enjoying greater longevity. In a study conducted by psychologists Patrick Hill of Carleton University and Nicholas Turiano of the University of Rochester, participants who felt their lives had purpose lived longer than those who did not, even after related factors such as a positive emotional outlook were filtered out.

Lower risk of mortality was found "at relatively the same proportion for younger, middle-aged, and older adults. These findings suggest the importance of establishing a direction for life as early as possible."

The research “underscores the unique role that purpose may play in influencing longevity,” they write in the journal Psychological Science.

Hill and Turiano examined data on 6,163 Americans taken from the Midlife in the United States study, following them over 14 years. Their sense of purpose in life was measured by responses to three statements, including “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.”

To rule out other factors that may increase longevity, the researchers looked at such variables as enjoying positive relations with others and a having generally upbeat emotional life. Participants responded to statements such as “Maintaining close relationships has been difficult and frustrating for me.”

They were also given a list of emotion-oriented words and phrases, including “cheerful,” “calm and peaceful,” “nervous,” and “hopeless,” and indicated how much of the time they experienced them during the previous month.

The key finding: Over the 14 years, 569 of the participants died—about nine percent of the group—and those who did “scored lower than survivors on purpose in life,” the researchers report. They also had less-positive relations with others, but did not differ significantly from survivors in terms of their predominant emotional state.

Importantly, their higher risk of mortality was still found after the researchers took those factors into account. This suggests purpose itself—and not the emotional and social benefits that often accompany it—is driving this increase in longevity.

The lower risk of mortality was found “at relatively the same proportion for younger, middle-aged, and older adults,” the researchers add. “These findings suggest the importance of establishing a direction for life as early as possible.”

Precisely how a sense of purpose lengthens life isn’t entirely clear. But as we reported, a study released last year found it strengthens your immune system. So if you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. The time you spend may be more than made up for on the other end.

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