The idea that being healthy, wealthy, and wise is the key to happiness has a long tradition and was, in fact, the title of a British television show that ran in the mid-90s, based on part of the quote that begins “Early to bed and early to rise.” Any one of these key factors alone, so the reasoning went, isn’t quite enough to bolster well-being.
A team of British researchers recently turned this idea on its head. University College London’s Andrew Steptoe and Daisy Fancourt (2019) examined a wide range of possible influences on well-being, examining independently the roles of such factors as health, income, cultural involvement, and social relationships over a four-year period on a large sample of adults 50 and older living in the U.K. Happiness, as it turns out, may not be linked simply to health, “wisdom,” or income but to the belief that your life has purpose.
The U.K., along with a number of other countries, has made it a priority to promote well-being among its citizens. In this context, the question of whether people feel that their life has purpose has become one of the key indicators of this state of positive mental health. As Steptoe and Fancourt note, “the sense that one is living a meaningful and worthwhile life is a key component of subjective well-being and human flourishing and is related to a range of social, economic, and health factors.”
Previous studies have established that a sense of purpose is related, over time, to living longer, developing less age-related disability, lower rates of cardiovascular disease, and healthier lifestyles but not necessarily using samples of older adults. Feeling that your life has meaning at this point, Steptoe and Fancourt believe, “may be particularly important at older ages when social and emotional ties often fragment, social engagement is reduced, and health problems may limit personal options.”
To focus in on an older adult sample, then, they took advantage of the extensive data set contained in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (or “ELSA”), focusing on the sample of over 7,300 participants tested on six occasions. Their ages ranged from 50 to over 90 with a mean of 67 years old. The unique feature of this particular study, in addition to focusing on life purpose factors in an older sample, was also to take advantage of the questions included in ELSA on people’s ratings of how they spent their time on a daily basis.
Here’s where the “wisdom” component comes into the picture. Researchers who study wisdom regard it as involving, at its essence, an interpersonal component. People who are wise, in this view, spend their time with other people who, in turn, value being with them. Extensive engagement in solitary activities would, therefore suggest that the individual either places little value on being with other people or is not someone people seek to spend time with. Additionally, they asked about the amount of engagement in the arts to assess the component of wisdom involved in appreciating aspects of culture.
Participants rated their sense of purpose in life by rating on a 0 to 10 scale the extent to which they feel that the things they do in life are worthwhile. The average in this sample was 7.4, with most participants scoring between 5.2 and 9.7. These scores then became the basis for categorizing participants into five categories from lowest to highest, allowing the research team to compare them on their daily use of time and several measures of health and healthy behavior in addition to other key variables.
The findings from baseline testing revealed that people with higher purpose ratings were more likely to be in a close relationship, had more close relationships, and had more frequent contact with their friends. Additionally, ratings of life’s purpose were related to belonging to more social organizations such as clubs, gyms, or churches, spending more time doing volunteer work, and feeling less lonely. The highly purposeful also were more likely to engage in cultural activities such as enjoying the arts (going to concerts, galleries, and museums). Over time, these purposeful individuals were also more socially and culturally engaged than people lower on the life-is-worthwhile ratings.
There were a host of other positive relationships to the initial feelings that life is worthwhile, including higher self-rated health, less chronic illness, having an easier time with daily activities such as bathing and dressing, and experiencing less chronic pain. Ratings on a scale of depressive symptoms were better, too. Indeed, even their handgrip and walking speed performance was healthier in the high-purpose groups. All of these advantages continued over the four years of the study.
Staying healthy, in the high purpose-in-life group, appeared to be related to the maintenance of a healthier lifestyle. These participants ate more fruit and vegetables, said that they slept well (early to bed?), and were less likely to smoke. Over the study’s period, they continued in their healthy habits, and some even became more likely to do so, perhaps heeding the advice of their many friends. Additionally, those with high purposeful-life ratings scored better on a variety of objective health measures, including markers of cardiovascular disease.
Turning now to perhaps the most behavioral measure of all, which is time spent in various activities over the day, the life-is-worthwhile participants reported spending more time with their friends on the previous day, walking or exercising, and volunteering; they spent less time watching television. In fact, people with low worthwhile ratings spent twice as much time alone than those with high ratings of purpose.
On that question of wealth, the life-is-worthwhile participants worked more hours and had higher incomes (prior to retirement age, at least), a wealth advantage that remained regardless of work status over the four years of the study.
We now know about the lifestyles of the highly purposeful older adults in the study, but what about their well-being? As Steptoe and Fancourt suggest, “The sense of life being worthwhile is a component of eudemonia [i.e. feeling energized by life]. It is also correlated with hedonic well-being (feelings of joy or sadness) and with evaluative well-being (life satisfaction), and these facets together contribute to overall subjective well-being.”
The purposeful life, in other words, is the happy one. As the study suggests, it may also be the life that drives further happiness via the routes of social relationships, healthy behavior, and engagement in the world outside one’s own home—though it’s important to note that because the study was observational, the researchers could not conclude that purpose itself necessarily caused the improved outcomes. Returning to that question of prosperity’s role, however, the study’s authors were able to test the contribution of economic indicators to the positive growth of the purposeful, and determined that wealth did not account for the associations.
To sum up, the British study points to the significance of feeling that your life has purpose, even into very late adulthood. Furthermore, because many of the associations occurred independently of starting levels of purposefulness, the results show that you don’t have to be stuck throughout your life feeling you have no purpose. Fulfillment truly comes, as you can see, from the belief that what you do really matters, and it’s a belief that you can gain no matter how late you start.