You may have heard Richard Leider, author of The Power of Purpose: Find Meaning, Live Longer, Better, say “Purpose is fundamental. Mattering, ultimately, matters.” Or maybe you’ve looked in to ikigai, the Japanese terms for purpose that the folks at Blue Zones tell us give older Okinawans a clear role into their 100s. Or maybe you’ve heard all about “encore careers” and Marc Freedman’s call for older workers to seek “passion, purpose and a paycheck.” Or maybe you’ve heard perspective from Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging.
Still not convinced that purpose has a role to play? We’ve curated several articles that make the case, as well as two stand-out reports you can download to learn even more.
In 1955, a physician named Robert Butler joined the National Institute of Health. In the years that followed, Butler and his research team would study the health and longevity of people over the age of 65 in great detail. Butler became fascinated with aging and would publish a wide array of ideas about how the elderly could live happy, healthy, and fulfilling lives in their final years. In 1976, he wrote about many of his findings in the book Why Survive? Being Old in America and won the Pulitzer Prize for his work.
One of the key discoveries that came from Butler and his research team involved the importance of a sense of purpose. As it turns out, people who had a strong sense of purpose in their lives lived longer than those who didn’t have a clearly defined purpose. Moreover, people who woke up each morning with clear goals for their life not only lived longer, they also lived better than their peers (higher quality of life).
Tara Gruenewald’s research highlights how important it is for older adults to feel they play a valuable role in the lives of others.
“I think what we often lose as we age into older adulthood is not a desire to contribute meaningfully to others but the opportunity to do so,” said Gruenewald, chair of the department of psychology at California’s Crean College of Health and Behavioral Sciences at Chapman University. Her research has found that people who perceive themselves as being useful had a stronger feeling of well-being and were less likely to become disabled or to die during a seven-year follow-up period than those who didn’t see themselves this way.
The physical benefits of a sense of purpose are well-documented, says Eric Kim of Harvard’s School of Public Health.
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.”
This study is good news for older adults as well as for the organizations that might recruit them into paid and unpaid roles. Growing evidence shows that purpose, generativity (the desire to nurture younger generations), and practices like volunteering have robust positive effects for older adults, including positive outcomes on mental and physical health. Further, goals related to positive human relationships, social contribution and spirituality are more closely associated with positive well-being than goals like achievement, power and material success. To increase community service opportunities for people who have beyond-the-self goals but may not be fully engaged in pursuing them, the authors suggest paying attention to transition points in the lives of people 50+, to their specific interests, and to potential barriers to engagement.
A growing body of research suggests that aging with purpose offers solutions not just to problems inherent in aging itself, but to an array of other challenges that demand attention. Older adults can infuse societies with transformative social and economic benefits. Through their insight and ability to mentor, they help the young learn and develop. As caregivers and volunteers, they help one another age with dignity and provide invaluable support. In work settings, they bring perspective, experience, and emotional stability. Let’s celebrate the fact that the aging population is, in the words of Encore.org CEO Marc Freedman, “our only increasing natural resource.”
(Learn more from the CEO of the Milken Center for the Future of Aging, in this Stria Q&A with Paul Irving.)