Does having a sense of purpose help people live longer? Patrick Hill and Nicholas Turiano recently tried to answer this question. Over 7000 people had been asked questions about purpose back in 1994-95. For instance, they were asked how much the agreed with this statement: “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.” The authors checked which of them were still live 14 years later. Controlling for many things measured at baseline (age, sex, minority status, education, retirement status, affect…), purpose predicted mortality. Those a standard deviation lower in purpose were 15% more likely to have died.
Now this wasn’t an experiment. (Imagine that one for a moment…”Dude, you have been randomly assigned to the condition in which you judge your life to have no purpose! We’re going to come back in 14 years to see if you are still alive.” This study won’t be done, at least as long as I’m chair of AU’s Institutional Review Board.) So we don’t know for sure that the lack of purpose killed, but the authors did rule out a number of the usual suspects. And this fits with a study by Oishi and Diener that I mentioned in my recent happiness interview–higher GDP countries report lower meaning, and higher suicide rates.
Perhaps if we want to improve people’s health we should not only reduce pollution and have them eat more fresh produce. Perhaps it would also help them to find a life purpose, to instill meaning.
And perhaps the fact that MacBeth concluded that life was but a walking shadow set him up for his demise just a short while later. My apologies if you’ve not read/seen that Scottish play and this was a spoiler. The Hill/Turiano paper appeared in the July issue of Psychological Science.