Purpose: The definition and why it’s good for you

Studies across different ages and different populations all lead to one major health benefit when it comes to purpose: You’ll live longer, says Schaefer.

“It doesn’t matter how old you are, whether you’re 20, 30, 40, 60, 70,” she says. “People who have a higher purpose in life are less likely to be dead if followed up.”

Schaefer points to an important paper published in the journal in 2009 psychosomatics.

This longitudinal study, conducted with the Rush Memory and Aging Project, showed that those who had a higher purpose in life at the start of the study were more likely to be alive five years later than those with a lower purpose.

This particular study focused on older adults and included people of different demographics and with different chronic medical conditions. It was found that targeting improved survival in a relatively large number of people.

That means, whether it’s from illness, accidents, suicide, or other factors, a sense of purpose appears to be protective and promote longevity, says Schaefer.

Hill explains that there may be a few reasons for this connection between purpose and longevity.

One, he says, is that people who have purpose are less distracted by daily events (and potential stressors). As he puts it, when you feel like you have a path in life, you may be less stressed by the little things that get in the way of those who may not have such a clear direction. It’s not that you don’t have to face these obstacles (spilled coffee or difficult conversations), but they’re less likely to ruin your day.

In studies that showed people negative or stressful images, including a study led by Schaefer, people with a relatively high sense of purpose were able to recover faster.

Another reason purpose can boost health, Hill says, is that people with a strong sense of purpose tend to take better care of themselves, whether it’s through their diet, how active they are, how much alcohol they drink, or how often they go to the doctor.

Hill co-authored a 2021 study showing that people with greater purpose in life were generally more willing to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Even when the researchers adjusted for demographic factors, political affiliation, and psychological well-being, adults who reported higher levels of goal-directedness were more likely to also report that the vaccine was important to personal health and the health of others, and returned to regular activities.

Another key study, also conducted with the Rush Memory and Aging Project, took a different approach. The researchers used interviews and assessments of cognitive function and meaning while the participants were still alive, and then autopsies of their brains (which the participants had consented to) after they died.

The data showed that higher levels of goal-directedness reduced the harmful effects of Alzheimer’s disease: people who had reported higher levels of goal-directedness showed better cognitive function despite signs of the disease in their brains.

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