A sense of purpose = longer life

If Patrick Hill is looking for inspiration for how to cultivate a lifelong sense of purpose, he doesn’t have to look further than his own family. His mother, recently retired after more than three decades as an art teacher, still occasionally works as a substitute teacher. His father left his career in sales and retrained as a computer programmer later in life, and he continues to teach at university. Hill’s grandmother played bridge for years and remained an avid player into her golden years.

Card player

(Carlos Sánchez Pimienta, flickr.com)

“She was sharp as a tack till the day she died,” says the Carleton University psychologist

This familial inspiration could explain Hill’s commitment to understanding how to promote health and well-being across a lifetime. His own fascination with this research has led him to build a career around studying how a sense of purpose guides our lives.

Hill examines how personality differences affect health outcomes throughout life. He also works to understand how, and in which circumstances, people can influence their own future good health and well-being. His research shows that having a sense of purpose is a major factor.

A study he published with colleagues in 2014 shows that having a purpose in life appears to protect against early death across the adult years. Using data from the longitudinal Midlife in the United States sample, they found that of the more than 7,000 participants aged between 20 and 75, purposeful individuals lived longer than their counterparts.

“Living a purposeful life entails having a long-term direction or aim that helps you organize your activities and goals in a manner that helps you progress toward that aim,” says Hill. “Purposeful individuals tend to be more goal-oriented and engage in activities that they deem worthwhile and important.”

Hill believes a key way people can strengthen their sense of purpose is to focus on improving the well-being of others. This is good both for the person being helped and the helper. It is, as he says, a “win-win.”

Gratitude is good for you

His research shows other positive tendencies, such as being grateful for the good in your life or forgiving of others, are also linked to being happier and healthier as you age.

In a 2012 study, he and his team found that people who are grateful are generally physically healthier. This is because they are generally psychologically healthier, they pursued healthy activities, and they were willing to get help when they had health concerns. Additionally, findings showed that individuals who scored higher on life satisfaction often smoked less and exercised more because being positive promotes healthy behaviours

His research also shows that encouraging hope is one way to foster a sense of purpose. This could mean something as simple as focusing outside oneself, such helping others or learning a new skill.

Retired people are especially vulnerable to losing their sense of purpose, he says. This makes it an ideal time to start new hobbies, new social engagements or even, as with Hill’s father, a whole new career. Promisingly, his studies show a sense of purpose later in life, regardless of retirement status, leads to a longer life.

“The pursuit of purpose is a lifelong process,” he says. “It can make all the difference in a person’s life.”

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