Find a Purpose, Lengthen Your Life?

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Call it a passion or a mission. A calling. A purpose.

Whatever name you choose, most people agree that the ability to define yourself through what you do adds value and worth to life. A purpose not only fulfills your days and hours, it fills – forgive the Hallmark overtones – your mind and heart as well.

Pop psychology has accepted this maxim hook, line and sinker; religious leaders vouchsafe the benefits of mission wholeheartedly; the blogosphere is rife with advice on how to find one’s calling and what to do with it once you do. The supposed benefits run the gamut from greater happiness to more serenity to better relationships.

But is this really anything more than a cozy idea we all enjoy snuggling up to? Does having a purpose confer anything measurable on those who possess it?

New research suggests it does. A 2013 study conducted by Patrick L. Hill and Nicholas A. Turiano, entitled “Purpose in Life as a Predictor of Mortality Across Adulthood,” found that people with purpose live longer than people without it. Even after the study controlled for psychological and affective well-being, which can also impact how long people live, the researchers found a positive correlation between purpose and longevity. Similarly, age and subject’s employment status mattered little.

To recap: You’ll live longer if you put your life to good use.

This might sound grandiose, but wider research on the subject suggests that “purpose” is broadly defined. You don’t need to end gang violence or write a best-selling self-help book in order to reap the benefits of meaning in your life.

For example, another series of studies, conducted in 2012 and entitled “To Belong Is to Matter,” found that people with a higher sense of belonging, support and social value reported higher levels of meaning in life. Perhaps it is simply enough to feel as though you matter somewhere.

Whatever the case, I find this news reassuring. My mission to cultivate passion, to fulfill dreams, to find the right work and spend my days doing the right thing for me sometimes feels selfish or pigheaded. It can be tempting to limit our strivings for the sake of someone else (a spouse or child, for instance) or for a higher ideal (stability, perhaps, or security).  When our basic needs are met, however, it’s hard to argue a higher ideal than long life, which speaks strongly in favor of finding purpose.

And if that happens to come with an extra dose of happiness and fulfillment along the way, so much the better.

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