Tag Archives: purpose

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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Believing In A Natural Purpose

In the newspaper recently, I read about the “debate” between Science Guy Bill Nye and Ken Ham, self-styled biblical creationist and founder of the Creation Museum. The public debate, which occurred on February 4, was held at the Creation Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, and live-streamed online.

Ham believes that the universe is 6,000 years old because the Bible—or specifically the Book of Genesis—says so. Or so he says.

Mr. Ham had asked for the debate in response to Nye’s earlier comments about creationism. In Nye’s opinion, creationism is “a completely unreasonable explanation of the Earth’s natural history that is useless from a practical standpoint.” Nye has expressed his concern that young students who are the scientists and engineers of the future should not be “indoctrinated into that weird worldview.”

Nye agreed to debate the issue: “Is creation a viable model of origins in the modern scientific era?”

Now, I have to wonder just what the Science Guy was thinking. What did he hope to accomplish by his appearance at the Creation Museum? By framing the issue in scientific terms, Nye may have thought that the answer was obvious—that by any rational scientific analysis, Ham’s version of creationism is not a “viable model.” The flaw in this reasoning is that belief in creationism is not the product of rational scientific analysis. It is a matter of deeply held belief (or, as Ham would have it, biblical authority). It is incredible that Science Guy did not understand that. Ham, himself, rests his conception of creation on Genesis and not on any scientific inquiry.

It seems as though Nye believes that he was participating in a real debate—and he believes that he won. But this was not a debate. It was a creationist’s wet dream. My guess is that Mr. Ham was pleased by the outcome.

Following Nye’s own critique of his preparation for and performance in the Creation Museum spectacle, Ham commented via Facebook: “Sadly, Bill Nye wants generations of kids to be told they are just animals that arose by natural processes—thus ultimately, life is without meaning or purpose.”

I have been thinking a lot lately about “purpose,” and so the notion that life might have no meaning or purpose makes me pay attention.

Having a “purpose” seems to be an essential ingredient in the mix that makes retirement satisfying and ultimately enjoyable. I did not think about “purpose” so much before I retired. My work seemed to supply a sufficient sense of having a purpose. The job served something larger than myself. I felt that I was part of something that produced a public benefit, and I derived feelings of satisfaction from that.

Those were simpler days when all that was required to experience purpose in life was to devote my energies toward doing my job. In retirement, I am untethered from a job and detached from its purpose. My career has run its course. “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” (Bob Dylan, My Back Pages).

Now, purpose must grow from another source. Purpose, I suspect, must come from someplace within myself.

Which brings me back to the weird world of creationism. According to Ken Ham, if we are all animals that arose by natural processes, life ultimately has no purpose. The idea is bizarre on its face. Aside from the question whether humans belong to the animal kingdom, are the lives of all animals lacking in purpose?

Mr. Ham is not retired, so his personal experience is limited. He likely derives his own sense of purpose from his work on building a “full-scale, all-wood ark” based on dimensions provided in Genesis and operating it as a theme park just down the road from the Creation Museum. Although the ark will contain exhibits and “edu-tainment” features, there are apparently no plans to include “of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort” (Genesis 6:19).

Like Bill Nye, I accept the idea that natural processes have been at work on Earth for millions of years. Though a definition of my purpose eludes me now, I reject the illogic that there can be no purpose in life absent a belief in the supernatural.

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