17Jan

Find Purpose & You'll Live Longer

Create meaning at work to improve your health and wellbeing.

Find Purpose & You'll Live Longer

When I was a student I worked many a labouring job on construction sites and in factories just to earn some money. One of the jobs I enjoyed the most was being a cleaner, because at the end of my job I could see the fruits of my labour. The work area was now clean; sure it would get dirty again but at least not immediately, and the other people working at the factory directly benefitted from the cleaner workspace. I actually felt proud of my accomplishment. I also used to work on production lines stacking bricks, this I disliked because it did not matter how hard or fast I worked there were always more and more bricks to stack. The job never seemed to end. All I wanted to do was get back to cleaning, at least there seemed to be some clear purpose to it.

Throughout the 1970s, American historian Studs Terkel travelled the country interviewing dozens of people about their jobs. After interviewing people from telephone operators to strip miners for his book Working, Turkel concluded: “Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash …” As Terkel saw it, most of us “have jobs that are too small for our spirit” – that is, a good job is about more than a steady wage.

Surveys show that a sense of meaning or purpose is often rated as one of the most desirable qualities in a job, sometimes even topping perks like a higher salary.

In a 2014 study published in Psychological Science, researchers Patrick L. Hill and Nicholas A. Turiano analysed data collected from over 6,000 people as part of the longitudinal Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study. As part of this questionnaire, participants answered questions gauging their sense of purpose in life as well as questions that gauged other psychosocial variables, including the experience of positive and negative emotions.

Fourteen years after the initial survey, approximately 570 of the original participants had died (about 9% of the sample). Interestingly, those who had self-rated themselves as having a high sense of purpose were more likely to have survived. Even after controlling for other factors of well-being, the results of the analysis showed that purposeful individuals outlived their more aimless peers.

“Our findings point to the fact that finding a direction for life, and setting overarching goals for what you want to achieve can help you actually live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose,” Hill said in a statement. “These findings suggest that there’s something unique about finding a purpose that seems to be leading to greater longevity.”

Feeling a sense of meaning in life, and in work specifically may also be good for our wallets. In a new study, Hill and Turiano found that a sense of purpose also predicted financial success.

“Studies show that purpose correlates positively with more expansive future time perspectives and with a greater sense that their time is being used effectively to fulfil long term goals,” Hill, Turiano, and colleagues write in the Journal of Research in Personality. Purposeful people may be more likely to save money or make investments that support long-term goals, and not squander resources based on impulsive decisions.

As in the previous study, the research team analysed data collected from MIDUS. This time, the research team also analysed self-report measures on income and net worth. The median net worth in 1995 was $32,500. Around 9 years later, when the second wave of the survey was conducted, the median net worth had risen to $137,700 in 1995 dollars.

More purposeful people came out ahead of their peers; a one standard deviation increase in purpose was associated with an “increase of $4,461 in income and $20,857 in net worth over time, even controlling for the other variables.”

Exactly why purposeful individuals gained an economic edge was unclear but these individuals could be more focused on their occupational objectives. If so, purposeful individuals may strive toward occupational success, which would likely increase personal income.

References

Hill, P. L., & Turiano, N. A. (2014). Purpose in life as a predictor of mortality across adulthood. Psychological Science, 25(7), 1482-1486.

Hill, P. L., Turiano, N. A., Mroczek, D. K., & Burrow, A. L. (2016). The value of a purposeful life: Sense of purpose predicts greater income and net worth. Journal of Research in Personality65, 38-42.

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