The meaning of life is a question that has plagued philosophers for millennia, and there is no single correct answer. But increasingly, scientists are finding that having a sense of purpose, whatever yours may be, is key to well-being.
Now, a study published on May 24 in JAMA Current Open adds to the growing body of knowledge on the link between health and a driving force, finding that purposefulness is tied to longer lives. Researchers from the University of Michigan School of Public Health analyzed data from nearly 7,000 individuals over 50 years old and concluded that “stronger purpose in life was associated with decreased mortality.” They believe that “purposeful living may have health benefits.”
The new research relied on data from individuals who enrolled in the American Health and Retirement Study (HRS)—longterm research that looks at a cross-section of subjects over time. The original research measured participants’ psychological well-being in 2006, their physical health and, subsequently, causes of death by 2010. The new analysis found that those whose psychological questionnaires reflected a lack of purpose were more likely to die than those who had “a self-organizing life aim that stimulates goals.”
In fact, people without a purpose were more than twice as likely to die than those with an aim and goals. Purpose proved to be more indicative of longevity than gender, race, or education levels, and more important for decreasing risk of death than drinking, smoking, or exercising regularly.
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Notably, the research indicates that any purpose is better than none, as the reason people felt purposeful didn’t figure into the analysis. So it doesn’t seem to matter what it is that drives an individual, whether it’s a passion for growing peonies, say, or wanting to see their children develop, or loving the work they do. The important thing is simply having something that makes them excited about life and drives them.
But those who feel no sense of purpose now shouldn’t despair because that drive can be cultivated, as the study notes. “There are a number of interventions that have been developed with the goal of improving life purpose,” the researchers write. They point to previous analyses that have found volunteering, well-being therapy, meditation, and mindfulness training have all been shown to cultivate a greater sense of purpose, improve quality of life, and influence physical health.
Future work should examine when such interventions are appropriate in people diagnosed with diseases and, the researchers argue, purposefulness training could be integrated into treatment approaches. They note that their conclusions are consistent with work done in Japan measuring the concept of ikigai, which is defined as “something to live for, the joy and goal of living” and has been associated with survival.
Although there has been work done on purpose and longevity before, the latest findings surprised even the researchers who devised this latest study. Celeste Leigh Pearce, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan and a co-author of the paper, tells NPR, “I approached this with a very skeptical eye. I just find it so convincing that I’m developing a whole research program around it.”