Read the full article at Greater Good Magazine.
Having a purpose in life means caring deeply about a goal that you are willing to work toward achieving—often to help others or affect the world in some positive, productive way. Researchers like Kendall Bronk and educators like Patrick Cook-Deegan have done a lot to understand how we foster a sense of purpose in adolescents.
But what about older people like me? Do we need a sense of purpose, or should we just sit back and enjoy life? For young adults, the world and their possibilities seem wide open—college students embark on a career path, and young parents start their families. How do we find a sense of purpose after we’ve had the career and raised our children?
Though purpose may seem like it belongs to the realm of younger people, evidence is mounting that having a purpose is important throughout one’s lifespan. Researchers are finding strong associations between having a purpose in life in adulthood and better physical health and well-being down the road. Their findings point to the need to foster purpose in older adults, especially in those who may find themselves adrift after children move away or post-retirement.
Not only could encouraging a new purpose in life result in happier, healthier midlife adults, it could motivate older adults to use their gifts for the greater good—thereby benefitting us all.
The physical benefits of a sense of purpose are well-documented, says Eric Kim, of Harvard’s School of Public Health. Kim received his Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan.
Using data from the Health and Retirement Study at the University of Michigan, he and his colleagues have found that people who report higher levels of purpose at one point in time have objectively better physical agility four years later than those who report less purpose. There is even a “dose response”—meaning, for every jump in purpose scores, people were 13-14 percent less likely to experience physical declines in grip strength and walking speed.
Though initially skeptical that purpose could have this kind of an impact, Kim is now convinced otherwise.
“It’s very interesting to see how this construct of purpose—which has long been discussed by philosophers and theologians—is associated with all of these benefits,” Kim says. “It’s not counterintuitive to me anymore; though it is when I present this kind of research to cardiologists or other scientists.”