We're Only Human

Longevity and Purpose, Starting Now

handsI have several close friends who are contemplating retirement, and a few have been teetering on that decision for a while. They are not hesitating over financial worries, but more over quality of life issues. They want to be sure that the next stage of life is at least as rich and purposeful as their working years have been. They want their days to be full.

Who doesn’t? But there are other reasons for planning a meaningful retirement, most notably the health benefits. Our later years bring added health risks, but accumulating evidence shows that older people with goals and a clear sense of purpose live longer.

But why focus on just the old? If meaning is linked so clearly to diminished mortality, isn’t it possible—even likely—that younger people will also benefit from a clear sense of purpose? That is the question that psychological scientists Patrick Hill of Carleton University and Nicholas Turiano of the University of Rochester have turned to recently. It may be more challenging to find purpose and structure in a life without work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that purpose is only beneficial to the elderly and retired. Perhaps a sense of purpose will convey longevity benefits for even the youngest adults.

Hill and Turiano explored this important question by using data from a large national, longitudinal study of health and well-being, called MIDUS.  MIDUS began in 1994 with sample of more than 7000 adults between 20 and 75 years of age. The scientists phoned participants and interviewed them, and also had them complete a questionnaire at home. In addition to basic demographic information—including work and retirement status—the participants answered questions about their close relationships with other people and their positive and negative emotions. The scientists included these questions to rule out these other possible variables and more effectively home in on sense of purpose and its influence on longevity.

Hill and Turiano assessed participants’ sense of purpose by asking them to agree or disagree with three statements: “Some people wander aimlessly 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.” “I sometimes feel as if I’ve done all there is to do in life.” Participants could agree or disagree strongly with these sentiments, or come down somewhere in between, and the replies were all compiled into a purposefulness score.

Finally, the scientists followed these participants for 14 years, during which time about 9 percent of the participants died. They recorded how long each had survived and then used various statistical tools to crunch all of this data, leading to these intriguing conclusions, summarized in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science:

Most notably, those who led purposeful lives lived significantly longer than those who were more aimless. This held true even when the scientists controlled for other markers of psychological and emotional well-being. But more important, these longevity benefits did not depend on age. That is, even younger people lived longer if they lived meaningful lives, and it didn’t seem to matter whether or not they had retired from work or not.

And why are meaning and structure so essential to longevity? It’s not really known, but Hill and Turiano think it may have something to do with an enhanced sense of agency. That is, people with goals and direction feel more in control of their lives, and this attitude might be linked to daily physical exercise and achievement. Whatever the pathway, these findings point to the importance of establishing one’s direction as early in adulthood as possible. We think of the words “healthy aging” as a goal for the retirement years, but waiting for that last paycheck may be a bad idea.

Follow Wray Herbert’s writing about psychological science in The Huffington Post and on Twitter at @wrayherbert.

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