People who say they have a sense of purpose live longer, study says

Have you found meaning in life? People who say they have a sense of purpose live longer, study suggests

  • Researchers asked participants to rate statements such as ‘I am seeking a purpose or mission for my life’
  • Those who felt they found meaning in life reported better physical and mental health and overall well-being and tended to live longer
  • Participants who were still searching said they had worse mental health and well-being as well as poorer cognitive functioning
  • Finding purpose in life appeared to peak at age 60, when search for it was also at its lowest point 

Finding meaning in your life could lower your risk of early death, a new study suggests.  

Researchers looked at data from more than 1,000 American adults who filled out psychological questionnaires about the purpose of life.

They found that those who felt they have found life’s meaning reported better physical and mental well-being, and tended to live longer.

But those who were still looking for it had worse mental well-being as well as poor cognitive functioning. 

As the US population continues to age, the team, from the University of California, San Diego, says the findings suggest that life purpose itself is a risk factor for dying early and that finding it may help add years to your life.

A new study from the University of California, San Diego has found that those who feel they’ve found purpose in life had better physical and mental well-being (file image)

‘Many think about the meaning and purpose in life from a philosophical perspective,’ said Dr Dilip Jeste, professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

‘But meaning in life is associated with better health, wellness and perhaps longevity. Those with meaning in life are happier and healthier than those without it.’ 

For the study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, the team looked at data from more than 1,000 adults.

The participants, whose ages ranged from 21 to more than 100, they were taking part in an aging study in San Diego.

To determine whether or not the adults were searching for, or had found, meaning in life, they were asked to rate statements such as ‘I am seeking a purpose or mission for my life’ and ‘I have discovered a satisfying life purpose.’

Those who said they had found a meaning in life were in better physical and mental health, although details on how this was measured were not as clear.

However, still searching for a purpose was linked to worse mental well-being and cognitive functioning.

And the link to health differed in those older and younger than 60 – the age at which the presence of meaning in life peaks and the search for it was at its lowest point.  

‘When you are young, like in your twenties, you are unsure about your career, a life partner and who you are as a person. You are searching for meaning in life,’ Dr Jeste said.

‘As you start to get into your thirties, forties and fifties, you have more established relationships, maybe you are married and have a family and you’re settled in a career. The search decreases and the meaning in life increases.

‘After age 60, things begin to change.’ 

Most Americans retire between ages 60 and 65 and, just as developing a more stable career leads to a clearer sense of purpose, leaving that work behind can have the opposite effect.  

‘People retire from their job and start to lose their identity,’ said Dr Jeste. 

‘They start to develop health issues and some of their friends and family begin to pass away.

‘They start searching for the meaning in life again because the meaning they once had has changed.’ 

For future research, the team plans to examine other areas, including wisdom, loneliness and compassion, to see how these impact life meaning.

‘We also want to examine if some biomarkers of stress and aging are associated with searching and finding the meaning in life,’ Dr Jeste said.

‘It is an exciting time in this field as we are seeking to discover evidence-based answers to some of life’s most profound questions.’    

Earlier this year, a study of almost 7,000 middle-aged Americans found those without a strong life purpose were more than twice as likely to die during a five-year period compared with those who had one – mostly from cardiovascular diseases.

The association remained despite how rich or poor participants were, and regardless of sex, race or education level.

It was so powerful that having a life purpose appeared to be more important for decreasing risk of death than drinking, smoking or exercising regularly.

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