The Meaning in Life

Seeking a life that matters.

Living Longer. And Better.

Research highlights a neglected part of the Good (long) Life

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The famous mystery writer, Agatha Christie, once said something about later life that remains true today:

"I have enjoyed greatly the second blooming that comes when you finish the life of the emotions and of personal relations; and suddenly find - at the age of fifty, say - that a whole new life has opened before you, filled with things you can think about, study, or read about...It is as if a fresh sap of ideas and thoughts was rising in you."

Of course, Agatha Christie only lived to be 86, so what does she know?!?

So often, getting to triple digits, living longer, and being the oldest kid on the block seems to be our obsession.  We like thinking about how long we want to live, rather than how well we want to live.  Is there a way to do both - live well, and live long?

What I like about Agatha Christie's quote is that it captures something I've often argued is essential to living a deep, good life - the restless and curious quest to ask more of life, dig deeper, and find an ever-evolving sense of purpose. 

Recent research suggests she may have been onto something.  Researchers from the Rush University Medical Center followed a large group of older people (1,238 60-70 year old pepople to be exact) over five years, asking a very simple question:  who was more likely to die?  More than 12% of the people died, allowing researchers a look at what variables predicted living versus dying.

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It wasn't surprising to see that the following "usual suspects" were associated with dying: being older, being male, being depressed, having a greater degree of physical disability, and having that cluster of sour personality traits known as neuroticism.  Being a minority also predicted dying, a sadly common finding that suggests we may not be distributing health evenly in America.

However, the real surprise in this study was this:  People who felt most strongly that their lives were meaningful were roughly 40% less likely to die than people who felt most strongly that their lives were meaningless.  Regardless of whether people were younger or older (within the range examined in this study), male or female, depressed or not, disabled or in full physical health, high or low income, white or any other race, well-educated or not, living a meaningful, purposeful life was associated with living longer.

As with any research of this type, it is important to recognize caveats and limitations.  Although this study controlled for many of the factors we know are related to mortality (e.g., age, race, sex, income, depression, disability and illness), no single study can control for all of them.  Also, there wasn't any effort to intervene with people to give them meaning or take it away, so causality here is only suggested by the fact that having meaning (or not) came before dying (or not) in time.  These are important limitations, and along with a few others, like limits on how well any single sample can represent all people in a population, they should make us cautious about going too far in interpreting the results.  That being said, the general message that meaningful living is desirable seems fairly innocuous and pretty defensible.

In my previous blog posts, I've talked about the value and pursuit of meaning in our lives (here, here, and here) and work (here).  The case for the importance of meaning in our lives is strong and clear, but, really, it doesn't get much clearer than living or dying, does it?

One part of the appeal of a long life, I think, is that a long line-up of tomorrows seems to offer us so many more chances to account for the mistakes we make today, to do the things we neglected to do.  In short, a long life seems to hold out the promise that we'll have the chance - someday - to live a more meaningful life.

Why not start today?

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Reference

Boyle, P. A., Barnes, L. L., Buchman, A. S., & Bennett, D. A. (2009). Purpose in life is associated with mortality among community-dwelling older persons. Psychosomatic Medicine, 71, 574-579.

© 2009 Michael F. Steger. All Rights Reserved.

Michael Steger, Ph.D., is a faculty member in the Counseling Psychology and Applied Social Psychology programs at Colorado State University.

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