Living Longer on Purpose

Finding a purpose in life not only contributes to successful aging, but it also may help you live longer.

According to Dr. Patrick Hill, a researcher at Carlton University in Canada, “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.” Hill used data from the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study at the University of Wisconsin. The MIDUS study comprises a set of research projects that examine the behavioral, psychological and social factors that affect the health and well-being of people in the United States.

Hill’s research measured sense of purpose in life by analyzing how people rated themselves regarding three statements:

  1. Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.
  2. I live life one day at a time and don’t really think about the future.
  3. I sometimes feel as if I’ve done all there is to do in life.

Fourteen years after responding to the MIDUS questionnaire, 9% of the 6,000 participants in the study had died. Compared with the surviving survey participants, those who had died had a lower sense of purpose, based on the responses to these questions.

Longevity was associated with having a greater sense of purpose. This finding was consistent across all age groups and regardless of retirement status. Experiencing positive relationships and having emotional well-being were not significant factors differentiating those who lived longer. Follow-up research is focusing on whether having a sense of purpose motivates people to adopt healthier lifestyles, resulting in longer lives. Nevertheless, Hill concludes, “These findings suggest that there’s something unique about finding a purpose that seems to be leading to greater longevity.”

It is intuitively satisfying to conclude that having a high sense-of-purpose score leads to a longer life. The reports about the Carleton University research, however, do not say how many of the survivors had an equally low score. Most of the participants were alive after 14 years (91%). Among the survivors, there may have been many who felt comparatively adrift 14 years ago. Although the study appears to confirm that having a strong and clear sense of purpose is associated with longevity, that does not mean that perceiving your life as lacking in purpose necessarily spells an early doom.

Survey participants may have interpreted the three sense-of-purpose questions in inconsistent ways. The lack of certainty about the meanings of the statements raises doubt about whether the questionnaire responses were a reliable measure of the range or intensity of perceptions about having a purpose in life.

Aimless wandering, for instance, is not necessarily a bad thing at times. Wandering can lead to new discoveries and can stimulate creativity. Sometimes it is better to be aimless than to be so goal-oriented that you are unable to see the possibilities of a different course. I do not know how the statements were presented on the MIDUS questionnaire, but typically, questionnaires ask you to rate yourself from 0 to 10 on whether you agree or disagree with a statement. I would give myself a five on this one.

Statement 2 is likewise open to interpretation. The question seems to assume that not thinking much about the future indicates little sense of purpose. Planning for the future implies having a goal while living life one day at a time smacks of a lack of direction or ambition. On the other hand, many wise people through the centuries have advised us to “seize the day.” In 23 BC, Horace wrote, “Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero”–seize the day, put very little trust in the future. Or, as modern-day philosopher Oprah Winfrey tells us: “Living in the moment means letting go of the past and not waiting for the future. It means living your life consciously, aware that each moment you breathe is a gift.” And then there are the immortal words of poet Robert Burns on the futility of planning for the future:

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane [you aren’t alone]
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promised joy.

[From the poem, To a Mouse, 1786]

Though I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about what lies ahead and making plans, I know that the future is uncertain and that I can only live one day—one hour, one minute—at a time. I aspire to seize the day, even if I often fail to grasp it. On this question, I give myself another five.

There is little room for interpretation in the third statement. If you think that you have “done all there is to do in life” then you lack imagination and may be seriously depressed. On this question, a low score (strongly disagree) would indicate a greater sense of purpose. I give myself a most-purposeful zero.

All told, I scored 10 out of a possible 20—presumably just a middling score of purposefulness. I hope the company that sold me life insurance does not find out.

I aim to beat the odds and live a long life, possibly 200 years. It could be that I have a high sense of purpose but have not yet discovered it. Purpose grows from a source within, I have speculated. In those aimless moments when I am not thinking much about the future, aware that there is so much more to be done, I may find myself in a quiet place, enjoying the beauty of the moment, and listening closely to hear the message from that source. And here’s to a good long life!

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