Previous studies have led researchers to consider having a purpose in life as an indicator of healthy aging. One reason for this was the association of having a purpose in life with a reduced risk of mortality. However, the question has remained regarding whether it mattered when in an individual’s life that person experienced a sense of purpose. A recent study in Psychological Science looks into this question for individuals in early adulthood through retirement.
The researchers addressed this question by examining data from the longitudinal study Midlife in the United States. This study recruited 7,108 individuals between the ages of 20 and 75 from a nationally representative sample. Of these individuals, 14 percent were retired. To classify whether these individuals had a purpose in life, the researchers used the participants’ degree of agreement with these three statements: “Some people wander through life, but I am not one of them”; “I live life one day at a time and don’t really think about the future”; and “I sometimes feel as if I’ve done all there is to do in life.” The researchers also looked at how having positive relations with others, and having positive or negative emotions might play a role in the degree of having a purpose in life, and thus might be associated with mortality. These were included to test and potentially rule out potential alternative explanations for why individuals with a purpose in life might have this greater longevity.
At the end of the 14-year follow-up on the Midlife in the United States study, 569 of the original participants had passed away. Those who had died were more likely to be male, less educated, and less likely to be employed. In terms of purpose in life, the deceased scored lower on purpose of life than the other participants. For each standard of deviation increase in purpose at the start of the study, there was a 15 percent decrease in risk of dying. The deceased also scored lower on the measures about having positive relations with others. However, it should be noted that the 15 percent decrease in risk was calculated in a way that took the impact of positive relationships with others into account. There was no difference between the groups in terms of positive or negative emotions.
When the researchers took age into account, they found that purpose reduced the risk of mortality to a very similar degree regardless of whether an individual was young, middle-aged, or an older adult. Turning to the role of purpose during retirement, the study also found that there was no significant difference on the impact of purpose for individuals who had retired and those who had not.
Taken together, this study suggests that having a purpose in life may have a unique role in promoting longevity. It also suggests that having a purpose in life can be as important at younger ages as it is at much older ages. While the reasons for the impact of purpose remain to be studied in more detail, this research suggests the importance of encouraging and assisting individuals in finding purpose in their lives.