LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Scientists have shown that happiness and social connections can have positive health benefits. Now researchers find another aspect of well-being that may add years to our lives -having a sense of purpose. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Do you feel you wander aimlessly through life? Or do you feel you have a clear direction and know what you want? 14 years ago researchers posed this and similar questions to more than 6,000 adults of all different ages across the U.S. And recently psychologist Patrick Hill with Carleton University in Canada analyzed how those people are doing today.
PATRICK HILL: And what we show in the study is that individuals who reported a greater sense of purpose and direction in life were more likely to outlive their colleagues by the time that we reassess them fourteen years later.
NEIGHMOND: In fact people with a sense of purpose reduced their risk of death by 15 percent. Compared with those who said they were more or less aimless. And it didn't seem to matter when people found their direction, it could be in their 20s, 50s or 70s. Hills analysis controlled for other factors known to affect longevity, things like age, gender, emotional well-being, a sense of purpose trumped all of that.
HILL: Typically purpose is thought of as kind of a compass or a lighthouse that provides one this overarching aim and direction to follow in their day-to-day lives as well as in their weekly and monthly activities.
NEIGHMOND: Now of course purpose means different things to different people. Hill says it could be as simple as making sure one's family is happy. It could be bigger like contributing to social change. It could be more self-focused like doing well on the job or it could be about creativity.
HILL: Often this is individuals who want to produce something that is appreciated by others, either in written or artistic form. Whether it's music, dance, the visual arts or so on.
NEIGHMOND: It's not exactly clear how purpose might benefit health, purposeful individuals may simply lead healthier lives but Hill says a sense of purpose may protect against the harmful effects of stress. Cornell University psychologist Anthony Burrow tested this theory. He had college student volunteers ride the train through the diverse neighborhoods of Chicago. Research shows when people are surrounded by people of different racial and ethnic groups their levels of stress increase.
ANTHONY BURROW: Participants were given a packet that had the name of every stop in it and when they got to that stop they were asked to indicate with an X, for several discrete negative moods, things like scared, fearful, alone, distressed.
NEIGHMOND: Prior to boarding the train about half the students were asked to write about their sense of purpose. The other half about the last movie they saw. It turns out those who wrote about the movie felt stressed when the train was dominated by different racial and ethnic groups and those who wrote about purpose didn't feel any stress.
BURROW: So, if a sense of purpose in life, in what might otherwise be a stressful context or stressful setting can help people remain even keel that might deter or thwart these sort of downstream negative consequences that we see.
NEIGHMOND: Like all the harmful health problems of stress, including greater risk of heart disease and that could explain why people with a sense of purpose may live longer. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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