Sense of purpose 'adds years to life'

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A clear direction in life has health benefits, say researchersImage source, Thinkstock
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A clear direction in life has health benefits, say researchers

Having a sense of purpose may add years to your life, regardless of what the purpose is, research suggests.

Not only does it contribute to healthy aging, but it may also stave off early death, according to a study of 7,000 Americans.

The research, published in Psychological Science, applies across adult life, says a US-Canadian team.

It may be because purposeful people look after their health better and are physically fitter, they believe.

The study tracked the physical and mental health of more than 7,000 US adults aged 20 to 75 years.

Their purpose in life was assessed by the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with three statements:

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

When followed up 14 years later, the researchers found purposeful people had outlived their counterparts, even when controlling for other factors such as negative mood.

Furthermore, the added years did not appear to depend on the person's age, or whether or not they had retired from work.

In other words, having a purpose in life appears to be good for you across the adult years, the researchers say.

Dr Patrick Hill, of the department of psychology at Carleton University in Canada, said the notion of living a life of purpose - setting large goals that direct your day-to-day activities - seemed to be protective on a number of fronts.

"In this study it is mortality, but other studies have shown people report better health," he told BBC News.

"There is clearly a benefit from feeling a sense of direction or feeling you have these goals directing your day-to-day life."

Overarching goals

Having a life worth living has long been linked with healthy ageing in several cultures, from Japan to the US.

But until now, it was thought that being purposeful might help protect older adults more than younger ones.

"To show that purpose predicts longer lives for younger and older adults alike is pretty interesting, and underscores the power of the construct," said co-researcher Nicholas Turiano, of the University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester in New York.

Dr Hill added: "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."

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