Being Social May Be Key to 'Sense of Purpose' as You Age

TUESDAY, July 12, 2022 (HealthDay News) -- Want to feel you matter after you retire? Start socializing, a new study suggests.

Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis found that positive connections with other people were associated with a sense of purposefulness in older adults.

Having a sense of purpose is defined as the extent to which a person feels that they have personally meaningful goals and directions guiding them in life.

The findings applied to both working and retired adults, but researchers found the strongest benefit from social interaction was tied to individuals who were retired.

The study involved asking 100 adults with an average age of 71 three simple questions throughout the day for 15 days. Each evening concluded with an assessment: On a scale of one to five, how much do you think your life had a purpose today?

At the end of the study, the investigators discovered that the more positive social interactions a person had during the day, the better and more purposeful they reported feeling in the evening.

"Specifically for our retired older adults, this is a construct we should really care about," said Gabrielle Pfund, who led the study as a PhD student in the lab of Patrick Hill, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at the university.

Pfund pointed out that the study illustrated just how dynamic a person's own sense of purpose can be.

"Most research on sense of purpose is focused on big-picture orientation of someone being purposeful versus someone being not purposeful," Pfund said in a university news release. "We found purpose can change from day to day. Everyone was experiencing fluctuations relative to their own averages."

In the study, published in the July issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry,the majority of data collected came out of Zurich, Switzerland, where the respondents were typically in good health. The researchers noted that findings may look different in other countries around the world or in older adults with poor health.

Previous research has shown that adults with a higher sense of purpose lead longer, healthier and happier lives, with lower rates of heart disease or dementia.

"The people in your life are going to have a very, very big impact on that," Pfund said. "If you find yourself surrounded by people who bring you down … that's going to have an impact."

The good news is that negative interactions aren't the only ones that leave a mark. If you decide to surround yourself with positive people who encourage you and lift you up, that'll have an impact, too.

"If you're feeling like your life has no purpose, that's not how it's always going to be," Pfund stressed. "That's not your life. That can change."

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on well-being.

SOURCE: Washington University in St. Louis, news release, July 7, 2022


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