Why purposeful people are likely to live longer

A strong sense of purpose 'provides an overarching aim and direction in day-to-day lives'.
A strong sense of purpose 'provides an overarching aim and direction in day-to-day lives'. Photo: iStock

Last week I was flying from Sydney to Brisbane and I sat next to Tony, a 69-year old who had the energy and spark of a man half his age.

I'm one of those people that like to sit on planes and not engage in too much conversation (I'm not a snob, I just like the quiet time and solitude of a plane flight), but this time was different.

Mr Buzz v Captain Grumpy

Tony had me captivated from the moment we sat down. You know when you meet someone and they have an instant energy and buzz about them? That was Tony.

I asked him what he was doing and he excitedly told me he was going to be in Brisbane for the day working with a large construction company to help them put together a marketing plan for a new development. Then he was catching up with his eldest son and his grandkids on the Sunshine Coast and they were surfing together over the weekend.

I couldn't help myself. I had to ask Tony what it is that keeps him so energised. He looked at me and said: "It's pretty simple; as you get older you spend more of your time doing what you enjoy and less time doing things that make you feel miserable."

I flew back from Brisbane that evening and sat next to another man, half Tony's age and with exactly the opposite attitude. Everything was wrong – the food was cold, the service was crap, the day had been long. Out of curiosity, I asked Captain Grumpy what he did. His response - "I work for a pack of bastards who drive me into the ground" - said it all.

I have no doubt that some employers are bastards, but I couldn't help but think about what made Tony and Captain Grumpy behave the way they did. Via the short window I had into their lives, why did they appear to have such different purposes in life?

What drives you?

Inspired by Tony, I'm going to ask a question that will make some people a little uncomfortable, especially the sceptics out there. So here goes: I want to know what is your purpose in life.

I don't want you to rattle off motivational hype like "my purpose is to take my daily vitamins – Vitamin A for attitude, B for belief, C for courage, D for determination and E for Enthusiasm". I'm not looking for diatribe like "my purpose is to add power, passion and profits to people who's lives are barren, broken and busted" (I actually heard a speaker at a conference say this when someone asked him what he does, and all I could think of is a word that rhymes with banker and starts with 'w').

No, I'd really like to know what it is that drives you, what engages you and excites you, and what motivates you to get out of bed each day?

Patrick Hill, a psychologist at Carleton University, looked at data from the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study to see how more than 6000 people responded to questions like "some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them" along with other questions that gauged positive and negative emotions. The researchers found 14 years after the questions were asked, people who reported a greater sense of purpose and direction in their lives were more likely to outlive their peers. People with purpose had a 15 per cent lower risk of death than those who responded that their lives were aimless.

Previous studies on ageing have looked at factors impacting longevity such as age, gender, fitness levels and emotional wellbeing. A sense of purpose trumped all of these factors and Hill described it "like a compass or a lighthouse that provides an overarching aim and direction in day-to-day lives".

The importance of purpose

Andrew Burrow, a development psychologist at Cornell University, wanted to test whether thinking about your sense of purpose protects against the harmful effects of stress.

When put into a stressful situation, students who wrote about the last movie they saw experienced the expected rise in stress levels. Students who spent 10 minutes writing about their life's direction reported very little feelings of increased stress.

Burrows noted: "Having a sense of purpose may protect people against stress with all of its harmful effects and may actually support people to live longer."

Now it's your turn. Take 5 to 10 minutes to answer the following questions and really thinking about your overall purpose in life.

  • What would you really like to achieve in your life?
  • Who are the most important people in your life and how much quality time do you spend with them?
  • What do you do best?
  • How much of your time do you spend doing what you do best?
  • What makes you really happy?
  • How do you want people to remember you?
  • If you had the time and resources to do whatever you wanted in life, what would it be?
  • What are the most important things in your life?
  • How can you make a difference to the world?

If you're completely honest in your answers, it should become clear that a sense of purpose and personal identity can reduce the risk of anxiety and depression. This, in turn, allows us to accept forgiveness and respond readily to love, and helps to bounce back from adversity.

Tony doesn't need to read the research; he's living proof that having a sense of purpose is helping him flourish in both his personal and professional life.

How do you think having a sense of purpose helps us live longer?

(Reference Sources: People who feel they have a sense of purpose in life live longer, Patti Neighmond, NPR Health Shots, July, 2014).

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