How to live longer: Find your purpose in life

Do you wander aimlessly through life, taking each day as it comes, or do you have a clear goal in mind? New research published in Psychological Science shows that at any age, having a sense of purpose could add years to your life.

According to the researchers, their results suggest that creating a purpose for yourself could promote healthy ageing throughout adulthood. “Our findings point to the fact that finding a direction for life, and setting overarching goals for what you want to achieve can help you actually live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose,” says lead researcher Dr Patrick Hill of Carleton University in Canada.

Purposefulness has previously been found to be one of the strongest predictors of longevity, but this is the first study in which this effect has been isolated from other psychological and social influences on lifespan. It is also the first to include younger age groups. Having a sense of purpose was consistently linked to longer life across all age categories, leading Dr Hill to believe that “the earlier someone comes to a direction for life, the earlier these protective effects may be able to occur."

Working alongside Nicholas Turiano of the University of Rochester Medical Center, Hill examined data from a large-scale longitudinal study of health and wellbeing conducted in the US amongst adults between the ages of 20 and 75. As a measure for the level of purpose in life, the researchers used the scores participants had given when rating themselves against 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”; and “I sometimes feel as if I’ve done all there is to do in life”.

Fourteen years after filling in this questionnaire, nine per cent of the participants in the study had passed away. Those that were still alive had scored significantly higher on self-reported purpose in life, a finding that was surprisingly consistent across all age groups. With older adults facing greater mortality risks than younger individuals, and possibly being in more need of a sense of direction after leaving the work force, the researchers had predicted a stronger effect for the older age category. According to Hill, the fact that the data for the younger group revealed the same pattern, shows the potency of finding a purpose at any stage in adult life.

The study is also the first to show the link between purposefulness and lifespan regardless of retirement status, social connectedness and wellbeing, all known to be linked to physical health. “These findings suggest that there’s something unique about finding a purpose that seems to be leading to greater longevity,” says Dr Hill.

It is still unknown through which mechanisms a sense of purpose may increase a person’s life expectancy. It is possible that those with a clear purpose could be getting more physical exercise, or enjoying the benefits of achieving their goals regularly.

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