Psychology Melbourne Blog

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The ageless value of purpose

Edited by Jill Wright,

Author and journalist Paula Span, who blogs about "the new old age" for the New York Times, recently highlighted just how important it is for good physical, as well as mental health, to have a sense of purpose in life: it can help you live longer, and avoid cognitive deterioration in old age.

I couldn't help but wonder whether having your government suddenly decide substantially to cut your entitlements might diminish one's sense of purpose. But it turns out that having a sense of direction and meaning in your life is quite robust.

According to Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist at the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Centre in Chicago, a sense of purpose is "a very robust predictor of health and wellness in old age”.

Her team kept track of almost 1000 people - whose average age was 80 - for up to seven years. They found that the ones with a high purpose score were 2.4 times more likely to remain free of Alzheimer's and were less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment..

Purposeful people were also less likely to develop disabilities. And they were less likely to die: in fact about half as likely.

Other researchers, at Canada's Carleton University found that the protective effect endures.

In her post, Span invites readers to respond to the following question: "So how can we help older people hang onto a sense of purpose if their strength and mobility declines and their dependence on others increases?"

That reminded me of the work of Harvard psychologist, Ellen Langer, captured in her book, Counterclockwise. In an extraordinary experiment 36 years ago, she created a setting which allowed a group of elderly men to live for a week as though it was 1959. According to the researchers, they seemed to grow younger.

Langer was working in an era which was less rigorous about this sort of research, and one of her studies in particular, which claimed to have found that even allowing people in aged care homes a little control over their environment extended their lives, has since been challenged.

Langer and her colleague, Judith Rodin, gave two groups of nursing-home residents a potted plant. They asked one group to take care of the plants and offered suggestions about doing more for themselves rather than leaving all responsibility to the staff.

The second group, with identical characteristics, was told that the staff would handle the plants, and everything else.

After only three weeks, Langer and her colleague claimed that the first group showed significant improvements in health and engagement and that after 18 months, the death rate of the first group was only 50 percent that of the second.

While tending a pot plant might not have the results Langer claimed for it, the most recent study certainly supports the underlying idea: that being more than a passive spectator in one's life has positive effects on health and well-being. 

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About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.