In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl recounts his experience surviving Nazi concentration camps and how the experience helped him formulate “logotherapy” — which emphasizes the importance of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most painful ones.  He teaches: Finding a “why” in life is crucial to dealing with any “how.”  And not just “how,” but according to new research, “how long,” i.e., a meaningful life may mean a longer one as well.

A study published recently in Psychological Science of 7,000 Americans ages 20 to 75, beginning in 1994 posed questions aimed at assessing this sense of life purpose.  For example: Do you generally feel as if you’ve done all there is to do in life?  Do you feel as if you wander aimlessly through life?  When a team from the University of Rochester Medical Center, in collaboration with Canada’s Carleton University, looked at these answers after a 14 year follow-up, they found that those who survived were more likely to see their lives as consequential and worthwhile.  Observed lead researcher, Patrick Hill, Ph.D.: “Our findings point to the fact that finding a direction for life, and setting overarching goals for what you want to achieve can help you actually live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose.”

Why might this be? One theory is that those who see themselves less as passive victims of fate and more as active co-creators in their destiny may have more motivation in adhering to a healthy lifestyle.  Previous research suggests that 75% of your longevity potential comes from choices which affect not just the length of life, but its quality as well. Perhaps self-directed seniors are less likely to seek escape in television and alcohol than more apathetic peers. Guzzling in the golden years could increase risk of falls and interfere with medication, and statistics show that more than a third of seniors exceed guidelines for moderation.  By contrast, regular brisk walking can increase brain volume as we age — a simple regimen of  walking three times a week can improve aerobic ability. Eating more than two cups of veggies a day was found to yield a nearly 40% decrease in the rate of cognitive decline.

Looking for ways to find more meaning in life’s “Why”?  You may want to look into attending religious services (those who do enjoy a 25% lower mortality rate). Volunteer, take up a new hobby, learn a new skill (brushing up on bilingual ability could ward off cognitive decline). Above all, focus on gratitude — you’ll get fewer headaches, less back pain, and your  smiles will make you appear younger!

Published September 1, 2014