Can having a sense of purpose in life help people live longer?

According to one definition, a sense of purpose is characterized as "having goals in life and a sense of directedness; feeling there is meaning to present and
past life; holding beliefs that give life purpose; having aims and objectives for living.”    In other words, recognizing what you want out of life and having a plan to achieve it.   While this is an important part of emotional well-being at any point in our lives, a new research study published in the journal Development Psychology demonstrates that having a purpose in life is especially important in successful aging.  

Conducted by a team of researchers at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, the study examined older adults who were part of the Australian Longitudinal Study of Aging (ALSA).   Started in 1992, ALSA has followed over two thousand older Australians for decades to examine how health, emotional well-being, and living conditions have changed over time and to identify factors involved in successful aging.  

As part of the broader ALSA study,  1,475 adults were questioned about their sense of purpose in life and whether they had objectives they wanted to achieve.   The people in the study were also questioned about their health history, cognitive ability (using tests of short-term memory and mental speed), depression, and how they viewed their health.  They were then followed over an eighteen-year period with successive "waves" during which they were reinterviewed four more times. 

Results showed that having a strong sense of purpose is positively correlated with more successful aging over the eighteen years of the study. Individuals scoring higher on sense of purpose reported lower functional disability, better self-rated health, and fewer symptoms of depression compared to individuals who scored lower on purpose.   Having a strong sense of purpose also appears linked to better performance on tests of short-term memory and mental speed. Using survival analysis, the researchers showed that having a strong sense of purpose was also related to living longer though this effect became less apparent over time as greater health problems developed.

In explaining these results, lead researcher Tim D. Windsor and his co-authors suggested having a strong sense of purpose allows people to set meaningful goals in life and manage their time and effort more effectively.  According to Paul Baltes' selective optimization with compensation theory, people often face mental and physical barriers as they grow older and deal with the realities of aging. To compensate, they can adapt to this changing reality by developing new strategies that are better suited to their altered circumstances.  Individuals with a high sense of purpose and who can adapt to their changing lives by finding new ways of achieving that purpose are able to stay mentally and physically active longer. Not only does that improve emotional well-being, but it can also a longer and more productive life. 

Having a strong sense of purpose can also be important in acting as a stress buffer.   We all face stress, especially as we grow older. Realizing that our bodies aren't as strong and healthy as they once were imposes new worries on us, especially if we develop health problems that could grow worse with time. And that's just the predictable stress that we encounter.  There are also the unexpected problems that can disrupt our lives and force us to use up whatever reserves we have, both emotionally and financially.   All of this stress can leave us feeling less prepared to handle future problems and make us much more vulnerable to illness. 

Which is why having a strong sense of purpose can be especially important.   Along with promoting a sense of well-being,  having set goals can make it easier to cope with unexpected stress and develop new ways to cope with age-related changes.  A sense of purpose also encourages us to handle the natural roadblocks that will arise with time and devise alternative approaches to achieving those goals which are most important to us.

Considering the powerful impact that purpose can have on health, it's hardly surprising that this has been shown in a wide range of studies of middle-aged and older adults.     Research looking at older patients suffering from serious health problems, including rheumatoid arthritis and heart issues, shows that purpose can be a major factor in recovery, not to mention longevity.  Biological markers such as blood pressure and cognitive reserve appear greatest in people with a strong life purpose even when other factors such as level of education and socioeconomic status are taken into account.

As you can see, having a strong sense of purpose can lead to people aging more successfully, largely by encouraging the kind of healthy behaviour that can prevent serious illness from developing in the first place. On the other hand, people with a low sense of purpose often neglect their health which can lead to them taking greater risks such as avoiding exercise or proper nutrition.  They are also more prone to mental health issues such as depression which can aggravate whatever health problems can develop.

So what kind of purpose can lead to people living longer?   That pretty much depends on the individual.  Anna Mary Robertson Moses (more commonly known as "Grandma Moses") started painting in her late 70s as a way of dealing with arthritis.  This led to her becoming a renowned artist whose artwork became displayed around the world and, perhaps not coincidentally, living to the age of 101.   Laura Ingalls Wilder didn't write her first book until she was 64 and she went on to publish a series of books that would make her world-famous (and eventually inspire a television show). J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the first volume of his Lord of the Rings trilogy when he was 62. 

Not that you are necessarily obliged to become a famous artist or writer to have a sense of purpose late in life. I was 55 when I first started learning to play the violin and, yes, I'm still at it.  Other people can go back to school, do volunteer work, become more involved in community activities, or cultivate their artistic side by learning to play an instrument or taking up painting.  The range of different activities open to older adults is probably greater now that at any time in history and finding a passion and a sense of purpose can be an important part of staying  healthy with time.

Though Tim Windsor and his co-authors point out that more research is needed to examine the link between purpose and aging, this study is important since it follows a fairly large group of older adults over eighteen years and helps show how important having purpose can be. While the impact that purpose can have on aging probably decreases as people start to decline with time, having purpose can boost resilience and provide a major buffer to the stress that comes with age-related illness. 

So stop making excuses and start making plans about what to do in your old age.  Your health may depend on it.

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