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How a Sense of Purpose Defends Against Loneliness

Discovering meaning leads to finding social connections.

Key points

  • A sense of purpose is the perception that you have something leading and directing you each day.
  • Setting a goal too high can create unnecessary pressure.
  • A sense of purpose maybe even more important for older adults.
Berkomaster / Shutterstock
Source: Berkomaster / Shutterstock

Loneliness is a distressing experience when we perceive our social relationships as less quality (possibly quantity) than we desire. During the pandemic, loneliness spiked, with some surveys showing as many as 60 percent of people reporting loneliness.

A recent Gallup poll shows that loneliness is declining now but still affects a significant portion of the population. According to the CDC, loneliness is one of the most significant psychological predictors of health problems, cognitive decline, and early mortality.

The new study, based on surveys of more than 2,300 adults in Switzerland, found that feelings of loneliness were less common in people who reported a purposeful life, regardless of age.

Measuring a Sense of Purpose
Respondents were asked to rate their feelings on a lack of companionship, isolation from others, and feeling "left out or passed over" during four weeks. Participants also filled out the six-item Life Engagement Test (Scheier and colleagues, 2006), which asked them to rate statements such as "Most of what I do seems trivial and unimportant to me." and "I value my activities a lot." The test served as a measure of a sense of purpose in the study.

A sense of purpose is defined as the general perception that you have something leading and directing you from one day to the next that is important to you and that you care about it. Many kinds of activities can provide a sense of purpose. Some involve socializing with others, like joining a club, volunteering at a school, or playing in a sports league. Socializing is one reason why a purpose-filled life tends to be less lonely. In the study, people who said they received or provided social support were especially likely to report feelings of purpose.

But it's important to note that there's more to alleviating loneliness than being around others. Most people can recall a time when they've been with others and still felt lonely. The key is having a sense of purpose—whether it's a solo activity like writing a book, creating artwork, or setting an exercise goal for yourself. Having a sense of purpose seems to fight loneliness regardless of how many other people are involved.

Purpose Changes as We Retire
The study found a slight uptick in reports of loneliness for people in their 70s and beyond. This is an age when a sense of purpose often changes as people retire. The research suggests that we dispel the myth that old age is simply a time for retiring and resting. A sense of purpose maybe even more important and impactful for older adults.

It's essential to note that a sense of purpose can be found in small-scale things, like planting a garden or helping a neighbor. You don't need to be engaged in large-scale projects that involve solving a global problem that affect hundreds and thousands of people. Setting your goal too high can create unnecessary pressure. Think about what you most look forward to when you wake up and pursue and cultivate those interests and activities. Finding your sense of purpose is a unique experience for everyone. For instance, spending time with relatives or working on a particular project may be highly linked to life purpose for some people but tedious and insignificant for others.

Remember that it doesn't matter if others think what you do is trivial; as long as you see it as meaningful, you'll have a sense of purpose.

2023 Copyright, Tara Well, PhD

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