The purpose-driven life is arguably the most fulfilling life, but new research suggests it may also be a longer one.
Researchers analyzed data from nearly 7,000 people, all age 50 and older, who were part of the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a national observational study that included a "life-purpose" questionnaire.
Questions ranked how strongly the participants felt about the purposefulness of their lives, asking them to respond to statements like, “I enjoy making plans for the future and working to make them a reality” with a score between 1 and 6. Other statements such as “My daily activities seem unimportant to me” tested the opposite end of the purpose spectrum. By averaging the ranked responses across all of the questions, researchers assigned each person a “life-purpose score.”
Participants answered those questions in 2006. Five years later, 776 of them had died. When researchers compared the mortality rates with the life-purpose scores, they found that people with the lowest scores were twice as likely to have died as those with the highest scores.
The researchers controlled for other factors that might influence the results, like whether participants suffered from depression, and the correlation remained significant. Another analysis excluded people from the study who had chronic or life-threatening illnesses, since those conditions may limit lifespan regardless of outlook, and the results still held true, although not as strongly.
This is strictly an observational study and doesn't prove causation. We can't know for sure that other factors outside of those tracked by the researchers didn't influence the outcome. But the results are still instructive because they reinforce something several previous studies have found: Psychological outlook often correlates with physical health.
This study couldn’t test the exact reasons why lower life purpose was linked to higher mortality—most people died from heart and blood-related maladies—but we can look to a growing list of other studies for clues. What that body of research tells us is that the most likely link between lacking a sense of purpose and higher mortality is inflammation. When the body's own inflammatory response to stress, disease, and injury isn't checked, it dismantles us from the inside out.
For example, a recent study found that extreme grief that undermines a sense of purpose appears to trigger high levels of life-threatening inflammation. This helps explain the effect of longtime spouses dying within days or weeks of each other.
More research has found a strong link between depression and inflammation, with recent findings suggesting that inflammation may cause or contribute to depression in a percentage of those suffering from the condition. Since depression drains a sense of life purpose, these findings point to a vicious cycle of health effects.
Another study evaluating factors that allow some people to live past 100 found that the single most important factor was managing inflammation levels.
Yet another study found a link between loneliness and inflammation. Loneliness can be both a symptom and cause of purposelessness, and increasingly science is finding it lurking behind deteriorating health. New research also finds lonely patients are less likely to follow medical treatment regimens.
Another example many of us are anecdotally familiar with is what often happens when someone can no longer take care of a home, or work their job, or maintain other routines that invest life with a sense of purpose. Frequently health declines from that point on.
The takeaway is that while having a sense of purpose isn't the whole story when it comes to longevity, it appears to be a big part of the story. More research is needed to better understand why a sense of purpose seems to counterbalance inflammation, and possibly also affect other health-related factors. There are certainly many "whys" left to be uncovered. For now, there's enough evidence to suggest that living with purpose can play an important role in both mental outlook and long-term health.
The study was published in JAMA Network Open.
© David DiSalvo
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