The new finding builds on earlier studies that have suggested having a purpose in life lowers risk of mortality.
In the new study, researchers take the concept a step farther as they examined whether the benefits of purpose vary over time, such as across different developmental periods or after important life transitions.
Lead researcher Patrick Hill, Ph.D., of Carleton University in Canada said, “Our findings point to the fact that finding a direction for life, and setting overarching goals for what you want to achieve can help you actually live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose.”
“So the earlier someone comes to a direction for life, the earlier these protective effects may be able to occur.”
Hill and colleague Nicholas Turiano, Ph.D., of the University of Rochester Medical Center looked at data from more than 6,000 participants from the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study.
They focused on responses to self-reported purpose in life statements — “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them” — and other psychosocial variables that gauge an individual’s positive relations with others and their experience of positive and negative emotions.
Over the 14-year follow-up period represented in the MIDUS data, 569 of the participants had died (about nine percent of the sample).
Those who died had reported lower purpose in life and fewer positive relations than did survivors.
Greater purpose in life consistently predicted lower mortality risk across the lifespan, showing the same benefit for younger, middle-aged and older participants across the follow-up period.
This consistency came as a surprise to the researchers.
“There are a lot of reasons to believe that being purposeful might help protect older adults more so than younger ones,” said Hill.
“For instance, adults might need a sense of direction more, after they have left the workplace and lost that source for organizing their daily events. In addition, older adults are more likely to face mortality risks than younger adults.”
“To show that purpose predicts longer lives for younger and older adults alike is pretty interesting, and underscores the power of the construct,” he said.
Purpose had similar benefits for adults regardless of retirement status, a known mortality risk factor. And the longevity benefits of purpose in life held even after other indicators of psychological well-being, such as positive relations and positive emotions, were taken into account.
“These findings suggest that there’s something unique about finding a purpose that seems to be leading to greater longevity,” Hill said.
The researchers are currently investigating whether having a purpose might lead people to adopt healthier lifestyles, thereby boosting longevity.
Hill and Turiano are also interested in examining whether their findings hold for outcomes other than mortality.
“In so doing, we can better understand the value of finding a purpose throughout the lifespan, and whether it provides different benefits for different people,” Hill said.