Past studies have indicated that many factors may help prolong life; eating nuts every day, increasing fiber intake and getting married are among a few. Now, new research suggests that having a “sense of purpose” in life may help us live longer.

Lead study author Patrick Hill, of the Carleton University in Canada, and colleague Nicholas Turiano, of the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, NY, recently published their findings in the journal Psychological Science.

The researchers note that previous studies have already discovered an association between having a sense of purpose in life and lower risk of mortality. But Hill says there has been limited research looking at whether the benefits arising from a sense of purpose changes over time, such as after important transitions in life or over different periods of development.

To find out, Hill and Turiano analyzed data from over 6,000 participants who were a part of the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study. Subjects were followed for an average of 14 years.

The researchers focused on participants’ self-reported sense of purpose in life from statements – such as “some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them” – and other psychological factors that provided information regarding positive and negative emotions and relationships with others.

During the follow-up period, 569 of the participants died. The team found that those who passed away had fewer positive relations and reported having a lower purpose in life than those who survived.

Overall, individuals who reported having a greater purpose in life had a lower mortality risk. The researchers say they were surprised to find that this association was true across all age groups during the follow-up period.

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

He continues:

To show that purpose predicts longer lives for younger and older adults alike is pretty interesting, and underscores the power of the construct.

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. So the earlier someone comes to a direction for life, the earlier these protective effects may be able to occur.”

Hill and Turiano note that the study results remained, even after accounting for other factors that may influence mortality, such as retirement status.

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Having sense of purpose in life may boost longevity, regardless of what age purpose is found.

According to Hill, the findings clearly suggest that there is “something unique” about having a sense of purpose that appears to increase lifespan. But he notes that further research is required to find out what it is.

Along with Turiano, Hill is in the process of looking at whether having a sense of purpose may encourage people to follow healthier lifestyles – a factor that could boost longevity. They also plan to investigate whether having a sense of purpose provides any other benefits, other than a longer lifespan.

“In so doing,” says Hill, “we can better understand the value of finding a purpose throughout the lifespan, and whether it provides different benefits for different people.”

Medical News Today recently reported on a study from the University of Michigan, which suggested that seniors who have a positive attitude have a lower risk of heart failure than those who are pessimistic.