Just this past weekend I heard esteemed psychologist Martin Seligman speak on the subject of happiness (his specialty) and he said that feeling a sense of purpose in life was one of the key ingredients of well-being—this is according to his exhaustive scientific research on the subject.
He was giving the commencement address at the college graduation of a relative of mine, and so advising young people who are just starting out, but it turns out that a sense of purpose is equally important (maybe even more so) to adults in the later part of their lives. A recent study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry finds that older adults who feel a sense of life's purpose have protection against dementia.
The researchers followed a group of older adults for about ten years, interviewing them about their purpose in life and testing their cognitive abilities. Once the study subjects died their brains were examined for protein tangles and plaques that are associated with Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia. The researchers found that people who possessed a strong sense of life's purpose were less affected by brain plaques and tangles than were people without that sense of purpose. In other words, even though their brains were physiologically diseased, something about having "purpose" prevented the disease from fully manifesting in cognitive decline.
Alzheimer's research is usually focused on preventing plaques and tangles in the brain (which so far has had very minimal success) but this study suggests that behavioral modification may be another Alzheimer's-prevention strategy.
Alzheimer's disease is one of the most dreaded consequences of aging, and finding risk factors that we can modify to prevent, or at least delay, the disease is a top public health priority," said Patricia Boyle, PhD, principal investigator and a researcher in the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center, in a statement. "Our findings may provide precisely this opportunity — a treatment target for interventions aimed at enhancing the health and well-being of older adults. With behavioral strategies, we can help older adults identify personally meaningful activities and engage in goal-directed behaviors, and possibly help them ward off the symptoms of Alzheimer's."
The study doesn't go into detail on what it means to feel "purpose" but I imagine it could be taking care of family members, volunteering, or passionately pursuing a hobby.
For more about the importance of feeling a sense of purpose in life, and other facets of well-being, visit Martin Seligman's website or read his most recent book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being.
More on preventing dementia: