Having a sense of meaning and purpose can certainly make life more enjoyable, but can it lengthen your life? According to researchers publishing in The Lancet, the answer is yes.
Researchers from University College London (UCL) in the UK collaborated with colleagues from Princeton University and Stony Brook University in the US to conduct their research.
Previous studies have demonstrated the benefits of positivity in aging. Medical News Today recently reported on one such study that suggested subliminal positive messages result in improved physical function in older people.
For this latest study, the researchers - led by Prof. Andrew Steptoe, director of the UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care - employed questionnaire answers to measure a type of well-being known as "eudemonic well-being," which relates to an individual's sense of control, feeling that what they do is worthwhile and their sense of purpose in life.
The study included 9,050 English people who were an average age of 65, which the researchers divided into four categories based on their answers - ranked from highest to lowest well-being. There was also an 8.5-year follow-up period.
The team adjusted the results for age, sex, socioeconomic status, physical health, depression, smoking, physical activity and alcohol intake, in order to rule out factors that could impact on health and well-being.
People with higher well-being lived 2 years longer
The researchers observed that during the follow-up period, 9% of people in the highest category of well-being died, compared with 29% in the lowest category.
After taking into account all other factors, the researchers found that study participants with the highest level of well-being were 30% less likely to die during the study period and lived an average of 2 years more than those with the lowest levels.
Prof. Steptoe notes that their previous studies have found that happiness is linked with a lower risk of death. Their current study adds to this field by demonstrating sense of purpose in older people is linked to their survival.
"We cannot be sure that higher well-being necessarily causes lower risk of death," he notes, "since the relationship may not be causal. But the findings raise the intriguing possibility that increasing well-being could help to improve physical health."
As part of their study, the team also assessed data on "evaluative well-being" - a measure of life satisfaction - and "hedonic well-being" - which is related to feelings of happiness, sadness, anger, stress and pain.
Though international data from the Gallup World Poll showed that life satisfaction dips around middle age and rises in older age among residents of high-income English speaking countries, this pattern varied across the world.
For example, in the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries, older people reported very low rankings of life satisfaction, compared with younger people, and the same pattern was observed in Latin America and Caribbean countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, reported life satisfaction was very low at all ages.
'It is important to engage with the world and other people as we get older'
"There are several biological mechanisms that may link well-being to improved health," says Prof. Steptoe, "for example through hormonal changes or reduced blood pressure."
However, he adds that further research is needed to determine whether these changes affect the links between life expectancy and well-being in older populations.
When asked what individuals can do to improve their well-being at older ages, Prof. Steptoe told MNT that there is no "magic recipe." However, he noted that their research suggests "it is important to continue to engage with the world and other people as we get older." He added:
"The things that seem worthwhile vary tremendously between people but don't have to be very ambitious - gardening, cooking, being involved with family and children, helping neighbors can all bring a sense of meaning and control into one's life."
He told us he and his colleagues are "continuing to try to understand what links well-being with health. Are there particular biological responses involved? How does well-being relate to social and cultural activity? Can we modify well-being to promote health? These are the sorts of issues we are interested in pursuing."
A recent study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine suggested seeing aging as positive may improve mental health.