April Flowers for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Many of us drift through life without any clear direction or purpose to guide our steps. Although this has caused many sleepless nights for those who love such a person, does it really cause problems? According to a new study from Carleton University, it just might.
The study, published in Psychological Science, found that, regardless of your age, having a sense of purpose may help you live longer — which could have implications for promoting positive aging and adult development.
“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,” says Patrick Hill of Carleton University . “So the earlier someone comes to a direction for life, the earlier these protective effects may be able to occur.”
Researchers have shown in previous studies that finding a purpose for one’s life will lower the risk of mortality significantly above other factors known to predict longevity. Hill notes, however, that almost no research has investigated whether the benefits of purpose vary over time, such as across different developmental periods or after important life transitions..
Hill collaborated with University of Rochester Medical Center professor Nicholas Turiano. To find an answer to this question. They analyzed data obtained from the national representative Midlife in the US (MIDUS) study.
Using data from over 6,000 participants, Hill and Turiano focused their research on self-reported life purpose — for example, “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them” — along with other psychosocial variables to gauge the participants’ positive relations with others and their experience of positive and negative emotions.
MIDUS followed the participants over a 14 year period. During that time, 569 (approximately 9 percent) died. The researchers found that those who died reported a lower sense of purpose in life. The deceased participants also had fewer positive relations than the participants who survived.
The researchers were surprised to see how consistently a feeling of greater purpose in life predicted lower mortality risks across the lifespan. The same benefits were visible for younger, middle-aged and older participants.
“There are a lot of reasons to believe that being purposeful might help protect older adults more so than younger ones,” says 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 explains.
Retirement has been a known mortality factor for quite a while, and the researchers found that having purpose even mitigated this risk. The effects of a greater sense of purpose were found to be consistent even after factors 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,” says Hill.
The research team has continued their studies, investigating whether having a purpose could lead to healthier lifestyle choices, which would boost longevity. They hope to discover whether their findings hold true for outcomes other than mortality, as well.
“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 concludes.