Finding Meaning in Life Could Make You 'Physically and Psychologically Healthier,' Scientists Have Found

Finding meaning in one's existence has been linked to better physical and mental health, in the latest study to suggest a person's attitude affects their quality of life.

The study involved 1,042 adults aged 21 to over 100-years-old living in San Diego. The participants completed surveys on their perceptions of the meaning of life, their health, and also spoke to researchers on the phone to test their cognition.

The authors found a U-shaped relationship between having meaning in life and age. People developed this attitude with age, peaking at around 60 years of age before declining. The search for meaning hit its lowest point at around this age, too, and then increased.

Study co-author Dr. Awais Aftab of the University of California, San Diego Department of Psychiatry told Newsweek: "This makes intuitive sense, because young adults in twenties and adults in thirties are going through various stages of psychological development, and they are actively seeking out careers, friendships, and romantic relationships.

"People in their forties and fifties usually have more established careers and relationships; many of them have families and children. The active pursuit for meaning decreases and the perception that their life is meaningful increases," said Aftab.

"After age 60, these trends begin to reverse," he explained. "With retirement, bereavement, and increasing health issues, the established sources of meaning in their lives begin to fade and people tend to start searching for other sources of meaning."

Aftab said the team also found meaning in life "doesn't exist in a vacuum."

"The perception that your life possesses meaning is linked to your overall state of well-being," he said. "People with purpose in life are physically and psychologically healthier."

Testing for meaning in life could be a way of identifying people vulnerable to poor physical, mental and cognitive health, the researchers wrote in their paper published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

Meaning in life
A stock image of a young girl with a big smile throwing confetti in the air. A study has found that people who find meaning in their lives are "physically and psychologically healthier." iStock

However, Aftab acknowledged the study was limited because it relied on people's honesty; the sample was restricted to people in San Diego so may not relate to other populations; and also meaning in life and health outcomes were assessed at about the same time.

"So while we can demonstrate a correlation between various measures, we cannot demonstrate that one causes the other," he said.

Aftab said his team's research provides further impetus for all of us to find activities and relationship that can provide us with a sense of meaning.

"There is a lot of variation from person to person regarding what creates the perception of a meaningful life, and I think it's safe to say that everyone's path to meaning in life is a little different," he said.

"There is a vital role played by factors such as a coherent sense of one's identity, authentic relationships with friends and family members, engagement in long-term goals which provide a sense of accomplishment and contribute to the society, and acting with genuine altruism for the betterment of the world," said Aftab.

This study is the latest to explore the link between a person's attitude towards life and their health. Earlier this year, the authors of a paper published in the journal PNAS found optimistic people are more likely to live until their 85th birthday and beyond. And a separate study presented in the journal JAMA Network Open found people who have a sense of purpose in life appear to live longer.

Celeste Leigh Pearce, Associate Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, who co-authored the JAMA research told Newsweek at the time: "The association between life purpose and health outcomes is becoming increasingly clear."