Purpose in Life and Longevity

In various blog posts I have in the past pointed to the importance of a personal life goal or purpose in life for physical and mental health (“Does your life have purpose?” and “Victor Frank on the power of ‘meaning’ and the conception of psychiatry”). The Journal of the American Medical Association on May 24, 2019, published another article underlining this.

Life Purpose

The authors, with the first author Aliya Alimujiang, from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, studied nearly 7,000 participants from the American Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a longitudinal cohort study of Americans over the age of 50 (Alimujiang et al., JAMA 2019). The study had already begun in 1992. Members of the cohort who participated in a 2006 “Purpose in Life” survey were then followed up and deaths were recorded over the next five years, from 2006 to 2010.

I have already presented the “Purpose in Life” scale in my article from August 19, 2017, details can be found there. In short, The “Purpose in Life” scale was developed by Carol Ryff as part of the Ryff Psychological Well-being Scales (Ryff CD. Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. J Pers Soc Psychol 1989;57:1069-1081). For the current study, a composite score has been formed that has been sorted into five categories (1.00-2.99, 3.00-3.99, 4.00-4.99, 5.00-5.99, and 6.00, highest score 6.0).

In the current study, the mean age of study participants was 68.6 years at baseline. In the observation period, 776 deaths occurred, the majority due to cardiovascular disease, followed by cancer. People in the lowest category of Life Purpose died 2.43 times as often as those in the highest category, when based on all-cause mortality. Similar relationships were also found for specific causes of death. The mortality rate was also higher for older people, men and unmarried persons. Other risk factors included lower education, smoking status, and physical inactivity.

The study restates that purpose in life, religiosity and spirituality not only increase well-being, but also lead to better physical health and, ultimately, lower mortality. The authors conclude: “This study’s results indicated that stronger purpose in life was associated with decreased mortality. Purposeful living may have health benefits.” They suggest that interventions have to be developed to increase purpose in life, and they name volunteering, Well-Being Therapy and meditation as potentially helpful.

I believe that purpose in life is not something that can be achieved through simple “health interventions”. For me, the concept is too mechanistic. In my opinion, purpose in life is only possible through a connection to oneself, one’s fellow human beings and one’s surroundings. That requires a fundamental reflection on oneself.