Purposeful People Live Longer and Better

Purpose in life is a big deal

Live with Purpose comprises one of the nine lifestyle choices featured in my recent book, Choose Better, Live Better – Nine Healthy Choices that Nurture Body, Mind, and Spirit. Living with purpose predicts many aspects of better health and well-being. Finding greater meaning in life is just one compelling reason to live with purpose. Readers who want to learn more about this underappreciated but evidence-based healthy lifestyle choice can read Chapter 8 in my book. The following provides more recent evidence that living with purpose can increase your health and quality of life.

Lower risk of premature death

Can living with purpose help you avoid premature death? Researchers at the University of Michigan tested this idea with data from a nationally representative sample of 6,985 participants at least 50 years of age in the 2006 wave of the Health and Retirement Study. Participants in the lowest category of life purpose more than double the risk of premature death than participants in the highest category of life purpose over four years of follow-up. This result accounted for a host of sociodemographic and health factors. Similarly, participants in the lowest category of life purpose had more than double the risk of dying from cardiovascular-related causes.

Does gender affect the relationship between increased purpose in life and reduced risk of premature death and better health? A new study addressed this question with data for 13,159 US adults in the Health and Retirement Study. After 8 years of follow-up, participants in the highest quartile of purpose in life had less than half the risk of dying from any cause compared to participants in the lowest quartile (15.2 vs. 36.5 percent, respectively). Increasing purpose in life at baseline also predicted increasingly better physical health and lower prevalence of depression during after 8 years. The protective effect of purpose in life was greater for women than for men. Happily, purpose in life predicted lower risk of premature death for both men and women.

Lower risk of dementia

Accumulating evidence suggests that having a sense of purpose in life predicts healthier cognitive outcomes, including lower risk of dementia, across adulthood. Researchers at Florida State University conducted a meta-analysis of data from four ongoing cohort studies and two published studies to determine the robustness of the link between purpose in life and dementia. The four cohort studies included the Health and Retirement Study, the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing, and Health Trends and Aging Study, collectively encompassing 30,034 participants with average ages ranging from 68 to 77 years. Meta-analysis showed that a sense of purpose predicted significant 23 percent lower risk of dementia over follow-up of up to 17 years. Their analysis accounted for a host of sociodemographic, clinical, and behavioral factors. The results were not modified by age, gender, or education, suggesting that life purpose can benefit a wide range of people. Purpose in life might reduce risk of dementia through several pathways including more positive and less negative mood, greater concentration and persistence, and more engagement in cognitively demanding activities that would keep the brain active.

Multiple health and well-being benefits

What aspects of living predict greater or lower purpose in life? Researchers at the University of British Columbia and Harvard tested 61 possible predictors using data from 13,777 participants with an average of 71 years in the Health and Retirement Study. As you might expect, all six factors associated with psychological well-being predicted greater purpose in life, while 11 of 13 factors associated with psychological distress predicted lower purpose in life. Greater physical activity, high levels of volunteering, and helping friends, neighbors, and family members all predicted greater purpose in life. Plus, these factors may indirectly boost life purpose by reducing loneliness, sleep problems, and physical functioning limitations, all of which predicted lower life purpose.

Can increasing your purpose in life improve your health and well-being?

People who have greater purpose can expect to enjoy positive health and well-being benefits. It’s possible that purpose develops over long periods of time along with better health and well-being. Thus, boosting purpose in life would seem to be worth doing. But does increasing purpose in life over a relatively short period predict better health and well-being? Researchers at the University of British Columbia, University of Wisconsin, and Harvard tested this idea using data for 35 indicators of physical health, health behaviors, and psychosocial well-being from 12,998 participants with an average of 65 years at baseline in the Health and Retirement Study. Researchers used an unusual design that controlled for purpose in life, numerous confounding factors, and the 35 indicators pre-baseline, thereby allowing investigators to measure change in purpose in life from baseline to four years later.

Compared to participants in the lowest quartile of change in purpose, participants in the highest quartile showed significantly greater positive and fewer negative aspects of health and well-being. These included 46 percent lower risk of dying, 28 percent reduced risk of developing physical functioning limitations, 23 percent lower risk of having a stroke, 17 percent reduced risk of developing lung disease, 16 percent reduced risk of developing cognitive impairment, and 13 percent reduced risk of sleep problems. In addition, greater increase in purpose in life predicted greater likelihood of seven aspects of psychological well-being (such as positive mood, optimism, life satisfaction) and lower likelihood of five measures of psychological distress (such as depression, hopelessness, negative mood).  Increased purpose in life also predicted more frequent physical activity and less loneliness. Quite a list!

The foregoing notwithstanding, greater increase in purpose in life did not predict lower risk of some health problems including diabetes, hypertension, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, or chronic pain. Perhaps the four-year follow-up didn't provide enough time for these conditions to manifest. Thus, increasing your purpose in life won’t eliminate all possible health problems but can lead to better physical health, more positive health behaviors, better psychological well-being, less psychological distress, and a better social life. Increasing your level of physical activity, volunteering for your favorite community organization, and helping people in your life could build your purpose in life, as well as other positive aspects of your health and well-being.

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