Feeling that you have a sense of purpose in life may help you live longer, no matter what your age, according to research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
The research has clear implications for promoting positive aging and adult development, says lead researcher Patrick Hill of Carleton University in Canada:
"Our findings point to the fact that 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," says Hill. "So the earlier someone comes to a direction for life, the earlier these protective effects may be able to occur."
Previous studies have suggested that finding a purpose in life lowers risk of mortality above and beyond other factors that are known to predict longevity.
But, Hill points out, almost no research examined whether the benefits of purpose vary over time, such as across different developmental periods or after important life transitions.
Hill and colleague Nicholas Turiano of the University of Rochester Medical Center decided to explore this question, taking advantage of the nationally representative data available from the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study.
The researchers looked at data from over 6000 participants, focusing on their self-reported purpose in life (e.g., "Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them") and other psychosocial variables that gauged their positive relations with others and their experience of positive and negative emotions.
Over the 14-year follow-up period represented in the MIDUS data, 569 of the participants had died (about 9% of the sample). Those who had died had reported lower purpose in life and fewer positive relations than did survivors.
Greater purpose in life consistently predicted lower mortality risk across the lifespan, showing the same benefit for younger, middle-aged, and older participants across the follow-up period.
This consistency came as a surprise to the researchers:
"There are a lot of reasons to believe that being purposeful might help protect older adults more so than younger ones," says Hill. "For instance, adults might need a sense of direction more, after they have left the workplace and lost that source for organizing their daily events. In addition, older adults are more likely to face mortality risks than younger adults."
"To show that purpose predicts longer lives for younger and older adults alike is pretty interesting, and underscores the power of the construct," he explains.
Purpose had similar benefits for adults regardless of retirement status, a known mortality risk factor. And the longevity benefits of purpose in life held even after other indicators of psychological well-being, such as positive relations and positive emotions, were taken into account.
"These findings suggest that there's something unique about finding a purpose that seems to be leading to greater longevity," says Hill.
The researchers are currently investigating whether having a purpose might lead people to adopt healthier lifestyles, thereby boosting longevity.
Hill and Turiano are also interested in examining whether their findings hold for outcomes other than mortality.
"In so doing, we can better understand the value of finding a purpose throughout the lifespan, and whether it provides different benefits for different people," Hill concludes.
A groundbreaking study published in the journal Population and Development Review by IIASA population researchers Warren Sanderson and Sergei Scherbov reorients the way demographers study population aging, providing a new toolbox of methodologies for demographers to better understand the impacts of an aging population on society.
Previously, studies of aging used only one characteristic of people, their chronological age. The new study provides a framework for measuring aging based instead on characteristics of people that change with age, including life expectancy, health, cognitive function, and other measures. These measures can be used by demographers to better understanding aging societies.
"Your true age is not just the number of years you have lived," says IIASA researcher Sergei Scherbov. "It also includes characteristics such as health, cognitive function, and disability rates."
Demographers have not traditionally used such measures in studies of population and society, instead using age as a proxy for those characteristics. But as lifespans get longer, the same age no longer correlates with the same level of health and other such characteristics.
"We use to consider people old at age 65," says Scherbov. "Today, someone who is 65 may be more like someone who was 55 forty-fifty years ago in terms of many important aspects of their lives."
The authors show that policy recommendations with respect to aging differ depending on exactly which characteristics of people are measured. "For different purposes we need different measures. Aging is multidimensional," says Scherbov. By reconceptualizing population aging to incorporate how people actually function, the study provides the foundation of a much richer and more realistic view of population aging.