- Loneliness is associated with negative outcomes, including both physical health and mental health problems.
- A recent investigation, using over 135,000 participants, concludes that a sense of purpose in life is protective against loneliness.
- To reduce loneliness, seek your life’s purpose—the thing that energizes your life, makes it worthwhile, and gives it direction.
Some people choose to be by themselves; some are forced to, because although they desire emotional connections, they have failed to establish satisfying relationships (e.g., make friends, find a romantic partner). This latter group is more likely to experience loneliness.
What are some protective factors for loneliness? A recent study by Sutin, et al.—published in the July issue of Journal of Affective Disorders—suggests people who have a sense of purpose in life are less lonely. Furthermore, a sense of purpose in life protects against the development of loneliness over time (meta-analytic mean hazard ratio estimate = 0.85, 95 percent CI = 0.82, 0.87, p < .001).
Before we get into the study, let me clarify the difference between two similar but distinct concepts. I am referring to meaning in life and purpose in life, both of which are associated with greater mental health and physical health.
A sense of purpose in life refers to the feeling that one’s life is valuable and has a direction and goal.
But meaning in life usually includes, in addition to a sense of purpose, the concepts of coherence (i.e., one’s life making sense) and significance (i.e., one’s life mattering).
The present investigation mainly examined purpose in life.
Investigating loneliness and sense of purpose in life
Thirty-six cohorts (N = 135, 227; age range of 18-109 years old), including 28 with longitudinal data of up to 15 years of follow-up.
The cohorts came from North and South America, Europe, and the Middle East. Some examples are the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, Midlife Development in the United States study, the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, and the Brazilian Longitudinal Study of Aging.
Sense of purpose, loneliness, severe psychological distress status (i.e., severe depression), and sociodemographic covariates were assessed.
Analysis of data showed “clear evidence for a relation between sense of purpose in life and loneliness: Individuals who perceived more purpose in their lives felt less lonely. The meta-analytic mean effect was -.31, which indicates a moderate effect size.”
Sense of purpose was “protective against the development of loneliness over time across follow-ups that ranged from months to 15 years.” In addition, “the negative cross-sectional association was stronger among individuals with concurrent severe psychological distress.”
Why do people who have a sense of purpose experience less loneliness?
Why is sense of purpose associated with reduced loneliness? Perhaps because a main aspect of sense of purpose is activity engagement.
This is important for two reasons. One, many types of meaningful engagement are social by nature (e.g., caregiving, teaching, volunteering) and may increase social integration.
Two, engagement even in solitary activities may reduce the need for social connection, particularly when these activities are enjoyable and satisfying.
In addition, people with a greater sense of purpose often have better physical and mental health, which may facilitate socializing and ameliorate loneliness.
The results also showed that “The association between sense of purpose and loneliness was moderated by concurrent severe psychological distress,” which suggests “purpose may be a psychological resource that is even more protective among individuals currently suffering from distress.”
Last, the longitudinal data analysis showed strong “evidence for the protective role of sense of purpose and loneliness. Specifically, sense of purpose was protective against the development of loneliness among participants who were not feeling lonely at baseline.”
This last analysis agrees with research on depression, such as the 10-year study by Wood and Joseph, which found that having a sense of purpose protected against the development of depression.
In terms of responses to the coronavirus pandemic, a greater sense of purpose prior to the COVID-19 pandemic may have also protected against the development of loneliness during lockdowns.
Research by Sutin and collaborators concluded that having a purpose in life protects against loneliness over time.
But what if one’s life lacks purpose and meaning? How do you find your purpose in life?
There are many sources of meaning in life—from creative pursuits that express who you are, to valued social experiences such as friendship and love. Of course, finding the sources that really give your life meaning and direction may require some work.
Many individuals, particularly those with low self-esteem, often cope with a lack of purpose by trying to escape meaninglessness (e.g., playing computer games), a strategy that works, at best, only temporarily.
It is also important to remember that sometimes the problem is not a lack of meaning and direction, but a gradual loss of purpose occurring as a result of loneliness.
According to a recent study, self-reflection—the in-depth examination of one’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, stemming from genuine curiosity—may prevent loss of meaning and purpose, perhaps by diverting attention away from social rejection or failure and toward internal social sources of meaning.
Asking relevant questions may also help you discover (or rediscover) your purpose in life. Here are some examples:
- If your life had a purpose before, what was it?
- What matters the most to you? Why?
- What are your most vivid memories?
- Who are your biggest influences?
- Can you describe the major challenges you have faced in life?
- Can you give examples of how you coped successfully with these challenges?
- What has been the biggest role of your life?
- What are you most proud of?
- How do you want to be remembered?