The Power of a Sense of Purpose

As we age and as our career come towards a close, science suggests that either we replace the void left by retirement with new interests, passions and creativity or our very health may suffer. How do we know that creativity and purpose in our older years matters to our health?

Some prior research studies have suggested that finding a purpose in life as we age lowers the risk of mortality above and beyond other factors that are known to predict longevity such as smoking, diabetes, and blood pressure. While it remains critically important to follow a low risk lifestyle, our psychological well-being and relationships may be almost as important to our aging and health.

Recently researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center explored this question further. They analyzed data from over 6000 research participants, asking them about whether they had a clear purpose in life. They were questioned whether they were “wanderers” or had goals clearly defined that they were working on,. Over the 14-year follow-up period, over 500 of the participants being followed had died. The analysis showed that the participants who had died had reported a lower sense of 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. The researchers observed that a sense of purpose benefited older participants more than younger ones.

The lead researcher said that “There are a lot of reasons to believe that being purposeful might help protect older adults more so than younger ones. 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. 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”.

Are you nearing retirement or are in those golden years? Have you developed a sense of mission that keeps our days full, connected and meaningful? Do you volunteer, help with elderly parents or young grandchildren, or are involved in self-education on a new language or skill? These simple activities of staying connected, having goals and working towards a new passion may make the difference between life and death after retirement. In studies such as the Longitudinal Study of Aging, an analysis of over 7,500 participants indicated that those that volunteered regularly had significantly lower death rates in follow up than non-volunteers. Those that visited with friends frequently, attended religious services, and volunteered had the lowest mortality rates of all groups.

Maybe right now you do not have a clearly defined sense of purpose to your days but I encourage you to explore and strive to identify one or several. Giving of your time and knowledge can prove good for the spirit and good for the health of your body too.

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