People with a strong life-purpose live longer

More older people are taking up surfing as a way of negotiating their way through ageing. Photo: Getty

More older people are taking up surfing as a way of negotiating their way through ageing. Photo: Getty

Yet another study has found that people with a strong purpose in life have less heart disease and are much less likely to die early.

Over the last decade, research into “life’s purpose” as a modifiable lifestyle factor – like exercise, diet, smoking and drinking booze – has bloomed.

In other words, getting a purpose in life is something you can take up – as a preventative health measure – or abandon.

This might smack of “positive psychology” mumbo-jumbo.

But it’s not.

More than mindfulness

It runs a lot deeper than being mindful when washing the dishes – or saying a dozen affirmations before going into a sales meeting.

It’s about coming up with a make-do response to the big unanswerable questions – without having to go through a head-wrecking discussion.

In 2019, Dr Alan Rozanski, a professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, who has studied the relationship between life purpose and physical health, told NPR:

Dance lessons feel dorky at first. But the health benefits are immense. Photo: Getty

“Just like people have basic physical needs, like to sleep and eat and drink, they have basic psychological needs.”

He said the need for meaning and purpose was number one.

That’s a big claim

Much life-purpose research looks at people aged over 50, when one’s peers begin to drop from the tree, at first surprisingly, and then at a faster clip.

It’s a time when good health is no longer easily taken for granted.

It’s then you might find yourself wondering: ‘bloody hell, what’s the point of it all?’.

However, a handy explainer from Berkely details how these questions start to pop up, in a different way, when we’re teenagers, and scrounging around for a foothold on who we are and where we’re going.

In other words, as a 2011 study found, life-purpose is closely tied up with – and reliant on – establishing a stable identity.

The health benefits are persuasive

Here’s a sample from a mountain of research.

A large 2013 study of older adults found that life-purpose was associated with reduced incidence of stroke. Subsequent research has confirmed the finding.

A 2022 study that looked at different positive psychology markers of wellbeing found that life-purpose was associated with a reduced risk of dementia.

A 2020 Harvard study involving 13,770 adults over the age of 50 found that those with a higher sense of purpose had:

  • A 24 per cent lower likelihood of becoming physically inactive
  • A 33 per cent lower likelihood of developing sleep problems
  • A 22 per cent lower likelihood of developing unhealthy body mass index

Gardeners aren’t thinking about life’s purpose. They just get on with it. Photo: Getty

A 2019 study drew a lot of media attention when it found that people without a strong life purpose were more than twice as likely to die, compared with those who had one.

The findings held regardless of participants being rich or poor, or their gender, race or education level.

The study drew on data from Health and Retirement Study – a large ongoing sample of adults over the age of 50 used in many of these life-purpose studies.

The latest Harvard study, published this month, also drawing on the same Health and Retirement Study, confirmed those findings.

So how do you get a purpose in life?

There is a lot of material online, and too much of it is vague and self-important.

As Yoda once said: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Sitting around and wondering “what is the meaning of life?” will just send you mad.

From what I’ve read, a purpose in life is an activity that isn’t limited by a set of goals, but is an ongoing pursuit or project that you can follow until… well, you plop your clogs. In effect, it outlives you.

Get back to your roots

The best and most obvious example I can give is gardening, whether it’s at home or in a community space.

For one thing, it’s ridiculously good for you, the benefits matching up pretty well with life-purpose research.

Gardening is great for your mental health, increases longevity, and reduces stress.

In fact, doctors in the UK have started prescribing gardening as an alternative to drugs.

Dancing will do it

You go to a party, everyone’s dancing, mostly the drunken chicken or the snobby swimmer. Maybe there’s a handful of people who know what they’re doing. They’re doing the cha-cha, the triple swing, salsa, even the tango.

When dipping their chips or sipping their wine, they look like everybody else. They might even appear to be dorkier or … old. But on the dance floor, they are transcendent.

Old school dance studios are full of widows and older guys carving out a whole new and healthier life.

As I reported last year, a study from Brazil (home of the saucy Samba) found that dancing may “effectively lower cholesterol levels, improve fitness and body composition and in the process, improve self-esteem” – issues that are directly related to menopause.

A 2017 study found that dancing, which supports balance and co-ordination, helps stall the degradation of white brain tissue, the connective tissue that breaks down as we age.

Because the body is moving from side to side, front and back, and turning this way and that, muscles become stronger and more supple.

All of this serves ageing people well.

More than that, as it goes with teens, finding purpose in life, such as dancing, lets you take on a healthier sense of self.

I’m a dancer. How about that?

The rise of the silver surfer

There is no doubt that surfing is a life-purpose for many of its devotees.

For younger surfers there’s a greater sense of competing with others and with themselves.

Taking a giant leap, into the ocean, is another way of finding purpose. Photo: Getty

Over time, as they confront their physical limits, a deeper quest for meaning often comes to the fore – seeking to be at one with the ocean and so forth – and a greater appreciation for the sense of community.

In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of the silver surfer – long-time enthusiasts who refuse to go quietly, and an increasing numb er of people taking up the sport in middle age.

It’s am pretty gusty thing to so, confronting ageing and mortality head-on.

A 2016 study observed: “While ageing is often conceptualized as a phase of cognitive and physical decline, recreational surfing is being used as an identity resource in the extension of ‘mid-life’ and in the process of negotiating anxieties about ageing.”

In 2013, the Surfers Medical Association published some advice for the silver surfer, including:

“Focus more on surfing friendships and interaction rather than agro-aggression and quantity of waves. Focus on the “Art of Surfing” not on the destroying a wave and being a surfer who wants to impress others.”

The quiet side

Of course, following one’s life-purpose can be a wholly private affair.

A beautiful example of this can be found in the 2016 film Paterson.

Adam Driver, the bus driver poet.

It’s about a young man who drives a bus in New Jersey. Every day he gets up, dresses for work, writes a few lines of poetry, and heads out to ferry people around the town.

At night, he has dinner with his wife, walks the dog, pops into a local bar for a quick beer and goes home. Now and then he’s moved to write a few more lines.

He’s not seeing to be published or to even share what he’s written. He’s creating something for its own sake, and for the sake of his own wellbeing.

Sometimes that’s all it takes.

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