Is having something to live for good for our health? Does having a purpose in life help us live longer? What if we feel we don’t have a sense of purpose?
- What does ‘having a purpose in life’ mean?
- How can we measure our sense of purpose?
- Might a sense of purpose help us live a longer and healthier life?
- Maintaining a sense of purpose after retirement
- The effects of COVID-19 on having a purpose in life
- What factors influence our sense of purpose in life?
- How can I develop a purpose in life?
What does ‘having a purpose in life’ mean?
A group of researchers in the USA explains that having a purpose means that life has meaning and direction, and that one’s goals and potential are being achieved or are achievable.
"The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for"
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov:
Might a sense of purpose help us live a longer, healthier life?
A longer life
People with a purpose in life tend to live longer. That’s the verdict of a 2014 longitudinal study of over 6,000 Americans.
Purpose in life was self-reported using participants’ responses to the three statements shown in the picture:
The researchers also measured other relevant psychosocial variables. Interestingly, the 569 participants who died during the 14-year study had an overall lower self-reported purpose in life than the participants who survived. The study concluded that people with a greater sense of purpose may live longer than others, regardless of age or whether or they are retired, and regardless of other indicators of psychological well-being such as positive relationships and positive emotions.
These findings suggest that there’s something unique about finding a purpose that seems to be leading to greater longevity.
Patrick Hill, Lead researcher
Reduced risk of all-cause mortality
A review of ten studies published in 2016 came to similar conclusions. This was based on studies involving 136,265 participants. The reviewers concluded that ‘Possessing a high sense of purpose in life is associated with a reduced risk of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular events’.
Reduced anxiety about death
A 2019 study aimed to explore the relationship between purpose in life and death anxiety among elderly home residents in Egypt. It found that residents who had purpose in life were usually less anxious about death and suggested that elderly people be encouraged to participate in social activities to encourage their sense of purpose in life.
Might having a purpose in life reduce the risk of stroke among older adults? That’s what a four-year longitudinal study looked at in America. Over 6,700 older adults who had never before had a stroke had their purpose in life measured at the start of the study.
After four years, those who had reported a greater purpose in life were shown to have a lower risk of stroke. This was true even after accounting for factors such as age, gender, race, education, wealth, health and psychological well-being.
A 2013 review looked at having a purpose in life as an indicator of positive psychological well-being. It found that higher positive psychological well-being protects against cardiovascular ill health such as coronary heart disease and strokes. The review defined having a life purpose as having goals and finding meaning in experiences.
A study with over 7,000 participants reported in 2014 that having a purpose in life was, 'linked with greater use of preventative health services and also fewer nights spent hospitalized’.
Improved physical health and reduced mortality
A 2017 review of published research found a moderate but significant association between having a meaning in life and objective indicators of better health and lower mortality.
Reduced risk of CVD
While a 2019 study concluded that accumulating evidence suggests that having a higher sense of purpose might reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). The study suggested three ways in which this might work: having a sense of purpose might help protect against the toxic effects of overwhelming stress, it encourages healthier behaviour, and it can have direct biological effects.
Maintaining a sense of purpose after retirement
Retirement can be a time when some people start to lose their sense of purpose. However, volunteering can sometimes help renew this sense of purpose and potentially bring health benefits. That was the experience of Experience Corps volunteers, all aged 55 years and older, who tutored school children in the US. They reported improvements in mental health and physical functioning, and they maintained their overall health longer than the comparison group.
Over 85% of Experience Corps members said that their lives had improved because of their involvement with the volunteering programme.
Follow-up research has even suggested this kind of activity might help protect parts of the brain vulnerable to dementia.
The effects of COVID-19 on having a purpose in life
A 2020 study in Spain aimed to explore the link between age and psychological well-being – defined as ‘personal growth and purpose in life’ – during the COVID-19 pandemic. The psychological well-being of the older participants (71 to 80 years) was no worse than the younger group (60 to 70 years). The nature of the COVID-19 impact (excluding the loss of a loved one) was not as relevant for the older group’s well-being when compared to their personal resources for managing COVID-related problems.
The researchers suggest that the following factors influenced the well-being of those participating. These factors had significant associations with both personal growth and having a purpose in life.
- Perceived health (how people saw their health)
- Family functioning
What other factors influence our sense of purpose in life
A 2019 study in Brazil suggested that age, income, health perceptions and medication all influence purpose in life, at least among the older adults studied.
When seeking to explain how age might be relevant, the researchers suggested that older adults might become more isolated. As a result, as they get older, they may feel they have less time left and therefore be less likely to make big plans for the future.
As regards income, the researchers suggested that financially better off people may be more likely to set more ambitious goals. Conversely, people with a greater sense of purpose in life may be more likely to be successful, resulting in higher income.
An earlier study, among people aged 85 and over in Sweden, found that social relationships and spirituality tended to provide purpose in life for women, while work and memories of when they were younger tended to provide purpose in life for men. For both genders, negative stereotypes of older people tended to weaken their purpose in life.
How can I develop a purpose in life?
This isn’t an area that seems to have been researched much. What follows is anecdotal rather than being based on evidence. However, the following approaches might help you develop a greater purpose in life:
1. Ask yourself these questions:
- What do I love to do that I would do even if I didn’t get paid to do it?
- What do other people say I’m really good at?
- What do I have that I can contribute to the world?
- What is the one thing I want to experience, or do, or accomplish, before I die, so that on my last day on earth, I would feel satisfied and have no regrets?
- What are my core beliefs, morals and principles?
2. Life Coaching may help, although it hasn’t been subject to rigorous research. Also, the quality of life coaches may vary.
3. Set yourself goals and targets, but don’t let them consume you. Learn from them. What do the outcomes show you about your inner self and about what you want in life?
You may find purpose in life isn’t about being preoccupied with narrow self-interest, but rather it’s about using your mental and creative energies to serve something larger than yourself.
The purpose of life is to contribute in some way to make things better.
4. If you’re finding life, and a purpose in life, difficult, get help from a social prescriber. Depending where you live, this help could come from your GP, the hospital discharge scheme, housing association, job centre or relevant voluntary-sector organisation. These people and organisations can help guide you and link you up with relevant activities (COVID-19 permitting) such as volunteering, arts activities, group learning, gardening, making new friends, cookery, healthy eating, and a wide range of sports and other physical activities. These activities can all help you develop a passion for something you enjoy and give you a sense of purpose in life.
Reviewed and updated by Norin Begum, February 2021. Next review date January 2025.
Other relevant articles on the Age Watch website: