According to reports in the media, the latest edition of the publication Psychological Science sets out the results of a survey conducted by researchers at Carleton University in Canada demonstrating that – at any stage of your life – having a purpose in life is a good strategy for having a long life.
Lead researcher Patrick Hill, who worked alongside researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center in the USA, said “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”.
The survey examined data from a large-scale study of health and wellbeing conducted in the US amongst adults between the ages of 20 and 75, who scored themselves in the context of three statements:
(1) “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them”;
(2) “I live life one day at a time and don’t really think about the future”;
(3) “I sometimes feel as if I’ve done all there is to do in life”.
This study is the first to include younger age groups and its key finding was that having a sense of purpose was linked to longer lives across all age categories.
With older adults necessarily facing greater mortality risks, it had been thought that ‘having a purpose in life’ would be a more prominent feature of longevity, but it seems that all ages tend to show a similar pattern. Hill even suggests that “the earlier someone comes to a direction for life, the earlier these protective effects may be able to occur” and “These findings suggest that there’s something unique about finding a purpose that seems to be leading to greater longevity”.
Apparently, it remains unclear quite how having a sense of purpose increases a person’s life expectancy. The reasons include the possibility that those with a clear purpose are more physically active and/or gain benefit from achieving their goals regularly.
I was fascinated by these findings.
Leaving aside whether longevity is a desirable thing in itself – I’m now at an age where, contemplating the future, I am becoming increasingly attracted to the argument that quality of life is more important than ‘quantity’. To be honest, I’m less bothered about spending a decade or more being an ever-increasing burden, financially and emotionally, to my closest family members than I am about spending that long descending into ever-greater physical decline and personal feeding and sanitary degradation.
When we’re young, growing up as we do having idols in every field of human endeavour, we have an inner sense of belief that – once we find our ‘thing’ – we’ll have a better than even chance of achieving similar success.
Whatever the downsides of being a George Best, or a Beethoven, or a top Hollywood actor might be, we imagine there can be nothing in the world to match the knowledge that, wherever one goes and whomever one meets, we will be respected by others for our abilities and achievements.
However, there are always downsides, even for those who are super-talented or super-achievers. Without becoming one of them, we probably cannot appreciate what these are.
Some of us, of course, will never find out – which may be just as well.
The truth is that having purposes in life – short-term and otherwise – is what makes us get out of bed every morning.
I would feel sorry for anyone who ‘connects’ with that third statement in the Carleton University study set out above (“I sometimes feel as if I’ve done all there is to do in life”). It’s depressing just reading the concept in print, never mind ever getting to a point where one might agree with it.
Life is for the living. It’s what Samuel Johnson was alluding to when, according to James Boswell, he commented “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford …” on 20th September 1777.
I guess the moral of the story is to stop thinking or worrying about the motives and implications … and just get on with it.