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Can you add more years to your lifespan with a purpose ask researchers?

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Having a sense of purpose may add years to your life, says a new study, "Purpose in Life as a Predictor of Mortality Across Adulthood," published online May 8, 2014 in the journal Psychological Science. Feeling that you have a sense of purpose in life may help you live longer, no matter what your age, according to research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The research has clear implications for promoting positive aging and adult development, says lead researcher Patrick Hill of Carleton University in Canada. “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,” says Hill, according to the May 12, 2014 news release, Having a sense of purpose may add years to your life. “So the earlier someone comes to a direction for life, the earlier these protective effects may be able to occur.”

Previous studies have suggested that finding a purpose in life lowers risk of mortality above and beyond other factors that are known to predict longevity

Hill points out, almost no research examined whether the benefits of purpose vary over time, such as across different developmental periods or after important life transitions. Hill and colleague Nicholas Turiano of the University of Rochester Medical Center decided to explore this question, taking advantage of the nationally representative data available from the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study.

The study revealed that those who had died during the 14-year followup had reported lower purpose in life and fewer positive relations than did survivors. So, does it pay to have purpose, and also perhaps a passion such as enthusiasm about that purpose?

The researchers looked at data from over 6000 participants, focusing on their self-reported purpose in life. For example: “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them,” and other psychosocial variables that gauged their positive relations with others and their experience of positive and negative emotions.

During the 14-year follow-up period represented in the MIDUS data, 569 of the participants had died (about 9% of the sample). Those who had died had reported lower 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. This consistency came as a surprise to the researchers:

“There are a lot of reasons to believe that being purposeful might help protect older adults more so than younger ones,” says Hill, according to the news release. “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.”

“To show that purpose predicts longer lives for younger and older adults alike is pretty interesting, and underscores the power of the construct,” he explains, according to the news release. Purpose had similar benefits for adults regardless of retirement status, a known mortality risk factor. And the longevity benefits of purpose in life held even after other indicators of psychological well-being, such as positive relations and positive emotions, were taken into account.

Purpose had similar benefits regardless of retirement status

“These findings suggest that there’s something unique about finding a purpose that seems to be leading to greater longevity,” says Hill, according to the news release. The researchers are currently investigating whether having a purpose might lead people to adopt healthier lifestyles, thereby boosting longevity.

Hill and Turiano are also interested in examining whether their findings hold for outcomes other than mortality. “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,” Hill concludes, according to the news release.

Preparation of the manuscript was supported through funding from the National Institute of Mental Health (Grant T32-MH018911-23), and the data collection was supported by Grant P01-AG020166 from the National Institute on Aging. For more information, check out the MIDUS website. All data and materials have been made publicly available via the Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research and can be accessed. Or see the MIDUSColectica.org website.

Midlife in the United States

Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) is a national longitudinal study of health and well-being. It was conceived by a multidisciplinary team of scholars interested in understanding aging as an integrated bio-psycho-social process. Since its inception in 1995 MIDUS has continued to grow, such that it now includes data from over 10,000 individuals, comprising thousands of variables in different scientific areas among distinct cohorts.

This website is a one-stop repository that provides MIDUS data and metadata (information about data) for exploration and analysis. Users can read project abstracts, search for variables within or across datasets, download instruments, documentation, and codebooks, and download datasets from the official MIDUS archive.

The MIDUS study and this repository are supported by multiple grants from the National Institute on Aging (5R37AG027343, 5P01AG020166, 1R03AG046312) and by the University of Wisconsin Institute on Aging. This repository is based on the Data Documentation Initiative (DDI) metadata standard and is powered by Colectica software, the MIDUS website explains. The complete Open Practices Disclosure for this article can be found at the supplemental data link. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/by/supplemental-data.

This article has received badges for Open Data and Open Materials. More information about the Open Practices badges can be found at the view site and at the content site. You also may wish to see the website of the Association for Psychological Science. Noteworthy also is a May 9, 2014 NPR podcast about another study from different researchers, "Learning A New Skill Works Best To Keep Your Brain Sharp."

You also may wish to see the abstract of a different study, "Does Your Personality Drive You to Express Lanes?" There also are noteworthy studies (or check out their abstracts) such as "Psychology Needs to Take Scientific Method Seriously" and "The Psychological Toll of the Smartphone."

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