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Purpose adds years to your life, and life to your years

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) on adults over 50 adds to the rapidly growing body of scientific evidence showing that a sense of purpose in life positively influences our overall physical and emotional wellbeing — as well as our longevity.

The association between life purpose and mortality

It stands to reason that those living with a deep sense of purpose in life experience better overall mental and physical health. Now, it also stands to science.  A new study published by JAMA evaluating the association between life purpose and all-cause and cause-specific mortality among older adults in the United States is furthering our understanding of how purpose plays an important role in quality — and quantity — of life.

The study’s findings builds on others showing how purpose drives positive health outcomes for sleep disturbances, stroke incidence, poststroke quality of life, depression, diabetes, and cardiovascular events. Using a comprehensive dataset on adults ages 51 to 61 collected for The Health and Retirement Study (HRS), the researchers (Celeste Leigh Pearce, PhD, MPH; Aliya Alimujiang, MPH; Ashley Wiensch, MPH; Jonathan Boss, MS; et al) focused their analysis on the years 2006 through 2010, when the HRS implemented the Ryff and Keyes Scale of Psychological Well-being.

They found significant associations between life purpose and all-cause mortality — individuals with the highest life purpose rating were 2.24 times more likely to survive than individuals with the lowest life purpose ranking. And significant associations between life purpose and heart, circulatory, and blood conditions were discovered as well, although the study calls for additional research into cause-specific mortality.

“What’s really fascinating about this study is the approach,” said Vic Strecher, CEO and chief purpose officer of Kumanu. “It’s not the first time researchers have looked at the association between life purpose and mortality. In fact, it’s not the first time anyone has looked at the association between the two using the HRS dataset. What’s really unique about this study is how many variables the researchers controlled for. They included not just the usual age, smoking status, etc, but also psychological wellbeing constructs like anxiety, cynical hostility, negative affect optimism and other factors that up until now simply haven’t been controlled for in this kind of analysis.


Survival curves illustrating the association between life purpose and mortality

Lead investigator, Celeste Leigh Pearce, PhD, MPH, who teaches epidemiology at the University of Michigan, recently told NPR that she was skeptical as she approached this research.  Now she says “I just find it so convincing that I’m developing a whole research program around it.”

Overall, the study’s findings are clear that having a purpose in life is associated with lower all-cause mortality rates. The authors discuss various interventions designed to develop a sense of purpose in life, including Purposeful by Kumanu.

Putting purpose into action

If purpose is important, then being purposeful is the natural next step. For us, that means bringing your best self to what matters most.  Ready to give it a try? Start by giving yourself the gift of a few minutes to simply reflect.

  1. Think about how you are when you’re at your best. What words come to mind? Write these down.
  2. Who are the people, and what are the causes, organizations, or issues that matter most to you. Write these down, too.
  3. Now the action part. Write down one small thing you can commit to today — or tomorrow if it’s evening — to bring your best to what matters most.

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