Feeling like you have a sense of purpose in life -- no matter what how old you are now -- may help you live longer, new Canadian research suggests.

While it’s not news that having a sense of purpose can lead to better mental health, this study focused on life expectancy and looked not just at older adults and seniors but at adults of all ages.

Lead researcher Patrick Hill, an associate psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, worked with Nicholas Turiano of the University of Rochester Medical Center to look at data from a large, ongoing psychological study called Midlife in the United States (MIDUS).

They focused on 6,000 participants who were asked whether they felt they had purpose in life. Specifically, the participants were asked to answer which of the following statements best suited them:

  • Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them
  • I live life one day at a time and don't really think about the future
  • I sometimes feel as I've done all there is to do in life

The researchers also looked at other variables that assessed whether the participants had positive relations with others, and how they dealt with positive and negative emotions.

Fourteen years later, the researchers noted that 569 of the participants, or 9 per cent of the sample, had died.

The study revealed that those who had died had reported lower purpose in life and fewer positive relations than did survivors.

Interestingly, having purpose in life predicted a lower death risk no matter whether the volunteers were young, middle-aged, or older when the study started. In fact, the researchers were surprised at how consistently the link held true.

“To show that purpose predicts longer lives for younger and older adults alike is pretty interesting, and underscores the power of the construct,” Hill said in a statement.

The benefits of having a purpose in life held even after other factors were taken into account, such as poor relations with others and a lack of positive emotions.

“These findings suggest that there’s something unique about finding a purpose that seems to be leading to greater longevity,” Hill said.

The findings suggest that finding a direction for life, and setting goals for what you want to achieve can help you actually live longer, Hill believes. He says it may not matter when in life someone finds their purpose in life, although the earlier, the better.

“So the earlier someone comes to a direction for life, the earlier these protective effects may be able to occur,” he said

Hill added that being purposeful was particularly helpful to older adults.

“Adults might need a sense of direction more, after they have left the workplace and lost that source for organizing their daily events. In addition, older adults are more likely to face mortality risks than younger adults,” he noted.

The researchers say they would now like to know whether having a purpose extends longevity because it leads people to adopt healthier lifestyles.

The full study appears in the journal Psychological Science.