We all know that having goals is important, but a joint US-Canadian study reveals that having a sense of purpose can affect our longevity. Remarkably, it doesn't matter how old we are or what we aspire to — as long as we have goals, we live longer.
Psychologists have known for some time that a sense of purpose is a key indicator of healthy aging, including its potential for reducing mortality risk. But this new study, which now appears in Psychological Science, extends previous findings in two important ways. First, it shows that a sense of purpose is beneficial across a person's entire adult lifespan, and second, that mortality rates — and by inference health — can indeed be correlated with having a purpose in life.
Defining a Sense of Purpose
For the study, Carleton University's Patrick Hill, along with Nicholas Turiano from the University of Rochester Medical Centre in New York, Hill analyzed the lives of more than 7,000 U.S. adults aged 20 to 75 years over a period of 14 years. They found that the people who died during the course of the study were less likely to have a feeling of purpose, suggesting that people who feel a sense of direction tend to be healthier and live longer.
Defining a sense of purpose, however, is not easy. According to Hill, having a purpose in life is a reflection of having broader, lifelong goals that serve to direct and organize a person's day-to-day activities and the things they value. These goals can be slotted into four broad areas: creative, occupational or financial, pro-social, and family oriented.
So a sense of purpose could be derived from a desire to climb the corporate ladder, writing a book, running for office, or improving one's performance in art or at the gym. These ambitions can also serve as stepping stones to other goals, such as financial stability and raising children. And in fact, the most frequently cited purposes had to do with helping other people or trying to improve the social structure.
To determine whether or not the participants experienced these feelings, they were asked to agree or disagree with the following three statements:
- Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them
- I live life one day at a time and don't really think about the future
- I sometimes feel as if I've done all there is to do in life
It's a limited snapshot into the psyches of the participants, but it's what the researchers had to work with.
Health and Mortality
After the follow-up 14 years later, the researchers found that purposeful people outlived their peers, even when controlling for other factors like negative mood. Data showed that 569 participants had died (9% of the sample), many of whom reported lower purpose in life and fewer positive relations than did survivors.
Surprisingly, the added years did not depend on the person's age, or whether or not they had retired from work; it's commonly believed that, for the elderly, the loss of structure and routine is a risk factor. But this study would indicate that a sense of purpose is good for you across the course of your entire life.
"To show that purpose predicts longer lives for younger and older adults alike is pretty interesting, and underscores the power of the construct," noted Hill in an Association for Psychological Review article.
A Chicken and Egg Scenario?
Of course, correlation is not causation. Having a sense of purpose isn't what's making people live longer. Rather, having a sense of purpose can give rise to healthy habits while diminishing a number of risk factors; setting large and long-term goals serves as a protective shield.
For example, people with clearly defined goals may be less apt to abuse alcohol and drugs, which can be seen as a distraction, escape, or a barrier to achieving one's goals. A sense of purpose may also result in a more socially engaged life, particularly if helping people is a key motivator; studies show that social alienation is risk factor en par with excessive smoking and alcoholism.
But it needs to be pointed out that having a sense of purpose is also a kind of privilege. A wealthy or otherwise successful person may feel as if they've "done all there is to do in life."
What's more, someone with a severe disability or illness, or who is economically impoverished, may feel that they "live life one day at a time and don't really think about the future." This could mean that people with a sense of purpose are healthier to begin with.
As Hill points out, however, this study shows that above and beyond these things, in the long term, purpose seems to be predicting better health.
Lastly, the study did not factor in cause of death, such as a sudden death, or lifestyle habits that could lead to cardiovascular disease. Perhaps a future study can refine the work done by Hill and Turiano.
Read the entire study at Psychological Science: "Purpose in Life as a Predictor of Mortality Across Adulthood." Supplementary information via Association for Psychological Science.