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Having a sense of purpose is key to a long life, says new study

Having a sense of purpose is key to a long life, says new study
29th May 2019

People who have a sense of purpose to their lives are more likely to reach a ripe old age, according to new research. Scientists at the University of Michigan School of Public Health looked into the quality of subjects’ lives and the impact a meaningful existence had on them.

Epidemiologist Dr Leigh Pearce decided to focus on whether meaningfulness impacts mortality after a chance conversation with a colleague. It’s an idea that has been gaining momentum in recent years and in order to test it, Dr Pearce used a sample size of 6,985 people.

What she ended up with was a graph so uniform it couldn’t have been predicted. It showed a direct correlation between having a sense of purpose and living longer, prompting the doctor to suggest tools should be developed to help capture a feeling of meaning in the face of bleak diagnoses.

Dr Pearce suggested that therapy techniques could be the answer, as well as apps that can be accessed through a patient’s mobile phone. The pursuit of meaning is deeply rooted in humans, although it’s not entirely clear why this trait has developed.

Participants in the study were over the age of 50 and asked to complete a seven-question form, which touched on areas including life purpose and life satisfaction. Each could be rated on a scale from zero to six in order to determine where an individual felt they were at.

When it came to the definition of life purpose, for this study it was defined as “a self-organising life aim that stimulates goals, promotes healthy behaviours, and gives meaning to life.” This is something that can easily be lost in later life, especially if an elderly person has suffered a significant bereavement.

Years after the initial questionnaires were filled out, the researchers compared the answers to data on physical health and deaths. The results were unequivocal, with a direct link between those with a sense of purpose and a longer life.

Those who identified as having meaningful lives were more likely to make doctor’s appointments, create a community around themselves and have healthier day-to-day habits. They were also most likely to have a better outcome in the aftermath of a stroke.

Relatives of older people and those who work with them on a regular basis can therefore help improve the life expectancy of the elderly by aiding them in finding meaning. While this is not a straightforward task, there are a number of ways it can be approached.

A focus on family is one way, with significant relationships with younger generations proving important to many people. Others may like to work on a project, such as a written work or even some art, to establish the contribution they can make to the world.

Dr Pearce told the Daily Mail: “It is very individualised. But what's interesting is, I think about whether there is an overall approach to helping people find is what's most important to them. Helping someone better understand what makes them tick, what their purpose is, their meaning. 

“And because it can be individualised, that's where the value is. There's no one-size-fits-all. But that means you can develop it in your own way.”