QUESTION

I’ve read that having a sense of purpose is supposed to help people live longer. Is that really true? 

ANSWER

Yes, it is. To explain why, let me give you a little background and a recap of some exciting recent research. First, let’s start with some good news on the human lifespan. Based on the latest statistics, the average life expectancy for a male or female born in the US in 2014 is nearly 79 years. That’s more than 10 years longer than the predicted life expectancy in 1950! Meanwhile, there’s an ever-increasing group of people who are exceeding these expectations. Centenarians are now one of the fastest-growing age groups in the country. And the majority of these older adults have a good quality of life until quite near the very end. While advances in medical care are a key driver of these positive trends, there’s no question that healthier lifestyles also make a difference. So, with this backdrop, most people are now wondering: “What can I do to increase my own longevity?” Even though there are lots of ways that people try to extend their life spans, my favorite approach is represented by research on places where the people actually live the longest. Highlighted in research by longevity expert Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones, these communities, which are scattered around the planet, have essential characteristics that are similar. For example, the longest-living people maintain physically active lifestyles…eat plant-based diets without excess calories (and include a daily glass of wine in some places)…have strong community and/or religious ties…and hold fast to an outlook on life that is accepting and purposeful. That last point is worth focusing on, because a bevy of research findings from the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study have shown that having a strong sense of purpose is associated with fewer heart attacks and strokes—and longer life spans. The leader of this study, Carol Ryff, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has found that having purpose is, in fact, one of the pillars of overall well-being. Takeaway: People who make a point to create meaning and purpose to their lives—whether it’s organizing activities for an alumni group, volunteering at a nearby homeless shelter, taking up oil painting or becoming a master mahjong player—are more apt to maintain good health longer than those whose lives have no real purpose. Add to this the important findings of Becca Levy, PhD, a professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University, and you’ll see that there’s another crucial component to living a long and purposeful life. According to Dr. Levy’s research, individuals with positive self-perceptions toward aging had a median survival that was 7.5 years longer, on average, than those with more negative self-perceptions. Takeaway: If you embrace aging as a meaningful and positive period of transformation rather than a slow slide into decrepitude, then you’re more likely to gain a few extra years. So, rest assured, that purpose and positivity are both protective. It’s a combination that helps us to not only live longer, but also to live better!