The Hidden Fountain of Youth

One study finds those who feel content are 35% less likely to die prematurely. Best-selling author Daniel Goleman explains how purpose in work relates.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now. 

On a scale of 1-7 -- 1 being “strongly agree” and 7 being “strongly disagree” -- how do you rate yourself on this statement:

"Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them."

If you agree, congratulations, you might live longer. At least that’s the conclusion from a recent survey.

The question about “wandering aimlessly” actually aims to assess your feelings of having some guiding meaning or sense of purpose in your life. It comes from the Psychological Wellbeing Scale,  a 42-item survey that assesses a person’s happiness according to six scales, one of which is “Purpose in Life.” The tool does not ask you how you find meaning, it just asks you how much meaning you experience overall.

According to researchers, when it comes to psychological well-being, the actual purpose doesn’t matter. Whether you’re a parent who finds purpose in raising a child, an entrepreneur who finds meaning in developing sustainable products, or a mail carrier who builds meaningful community through your daily route -- all that matters is that you have a purpose.  That mere commitment, it seems, boosts your emotional wellbeing.

Then there’s your physical wellbeing. Over the past decade, many researchers have been keen to link happiness to longevity. In one recent five-year study, almost 4,000 people, middle-aged or older, were asked to record their levels of happiness, anxiety, and other emotions at four specific times over the course of a single day. The findings: people were up to 35% less likely to die prematurely if their typical day involved feeling happy, excited, and content.

If having a purpose correlates with happiness, and happiness with a longer life, it should follow that the more purposeful your life, the longer it extends.

This connection got even clearer with the release of a new study from the University of Michigan. Researchers set out to explore exactly what kind of relationship, if any, there might be between life purpose—defined as "a self-organizing life aim that stimulates goals”—and risks of early death.

The data came from nearly 7,000 American adults, mostly in their 50s, none of whom were living with a diagnosed chronic or life-threatening illness, and all of whom had filled out the Psychological Wellbeing Scale. The study followed these folks over a five-year period, during which time close to 800 of them died, mostly from heart problems.

After taking into account all the variables that science has found predictive of an earlier death (these include being depressed, lack of exercise, a too-high body-mass index, high levels of alcohol consumption, marital status, and education level) the researchers came away with a surprising finding. Those with the lowest life-purpose scores were twice as likely to have died than those with the highest, particularly of cardiovascular diseases.

In short, having a life purpose appears to be more important for decreasing the risk of death than whether you drink, smoke, or run on the treadmill four times a week. "I approached this with a very skeptical eye," said Celeste Leigh Pearce, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan and one of the study’s authors. "I just find it so convincing that I'm developing a whole research program around it."

As Pearce and her colleagues point out, these findings from the United States are similar to what other researchers have discovered abroad. A study in Japan found that adults who reported having ikigai—a Japanese term meaning “a reason for being” or “a source of value in one's life or the things that make one's life worthwhile”—often lived at least seven years longer than those without ikigai.

Across the globe, something is becoming clear. When it comes to our time on earth, the benefits of purpose are two-fold: Live better and live longer.

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence Coaching Certification.