The study also found that when people feel — at any age — that their life has meaning, they tend to be healthier, both mentally and physically. Older people (those over age 60) who say their life has meaning also tend to have stronger cognitive skills.
On the other hand, when people are still searching for meaning in life, their psychological health — and their cognitive skills if they are over age 60 — tend to be poorer, the study reports.
“Many think about the meaning and purpose in life from a philosophical perspective, but meaning in life is associated with better health, wellness and perhaps longevity,” said Dr. Dilip Jeste, the study’s senior author, in a released statement. Jeste is senior associate dean for the Center for Healthy Aging at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.
“When you find more meaning in life, you become more contented, whereas if you don’t have purpose in life and are searching for it unsuccessfully, you will feel much more stressed out,” he added.
Filling out questionnaires
The study is based on data collected from 1,042 adults, aged 21 to 100-plus (average age: 66), who were part of a larger study on aging being conducted in San Diego County. All the participants were living “in the community” (not in a nursing home or other type of care facility), and none had dementia or a terminal illness.
During phone interviews, the participants were asked a variety of questions, including ones designed to measure whether they had found or were still searching for meaning in life. They were asked, for example, to rate on a scale of 1 (absolutely untrue) to 5 (absolutely true) such statements as “I am seeking a purpose or mission for my life” and “I have discovered a satisfying life purpose.”
Other questions assessed the participants’ physical and mental health. Still others were used to screen for cognitive abilities.
The researchers divided the participants into two age groups: those 60 and younger and those 61 and older. (One of the more noteworthy aspects of this study is its inclusion of a large number of older adults. As the study’s authors point out, that age group has been underrepresented in most previous research on the relationship between meaning of life and health.)
Overall, the study’s participants reported their lives to be meaningful, with scores generally above the midpoint of the assessment’s scale. When the scores were plotted by age, they revealed an inverted U-shaped curve, with the top of the curve occurring around age 60.
In other words, that was the age when participants were most likely to say their life had purpose and meaning.
Conversely, the search for meaning in life had a U-shaped relationship with age, with the highest points of the curve appearing both early and late (past age 60) in adulthood.
“When you are young, like in your twenties, you are unsure about your career, a life partner and who you are as a person,” said Jeste. “You are searching for meaning in life. As you start to get into your thirties, forties and fifties, you have more established relationships, maybe you are married and have a family and you’re settled in a career. The search decreases as the meaning in life increases.”
“After age 60, things begin to change,” he continued. “People retire from their job and start to lose their identity. They start to develop health issues and some of their friends and family begin to pass away. They start searching for the meaning in life again because the meaning they once had has changed.”
The data also revealed a significant association between the presence of a sense of purpose in life and better physical and mental well-being, as well as better cognitive functioning among people older than 60.
Searching for a purpose in life was associated with poorer mental well-being — and with poorer cognitive function after age 60.
“These findings are consistent with prior literature both in terms of the direction and the strength of the associations,” the researchers write.
Limitations and implications
The study comes with plenty of caveats. Participants self-reported their physical and mental health, and such reports may not be entirely accurate. In addition, all the participants lived in San Diego County. The study’s results may not be applicable to people living in other geographical areas.
Most important, this was an observational study, which means it can’t prove a direct connection between meaning in life and better health. Other factors, not identified in the research, might also explain the results.
Still, the study supports previous research that has found people who perceive their lives to be meaningful tend to score higher on a variety of measures of psychological and physical health.
“The medical field is beginning to recognize that meaning in life is a clinically relevant and potentially modifiable factor, which can be targeted to enhance the well-being and functioning of patients,” said Dr. Awais Aftab, the study’s lead author and a former fellow in the department of psychiatry at UC San Diego, in a released statement. “We anticipate that our findings will serve as building blocks for the development of new interventions for patients searching for purpose.”
FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry website, but the full study is behind a paywall.