New York Times (June 4, 2014): The New Old Age - Living on Purpose

Publication Date: 
Wed, 06/04/2014

My late father had a longtime friend, a retired kosher butcher, who lived down the hall in their South Jersey apartment building. Past 90, Manny was older and frailer than my father; he leaned on a cane and could barely see well enough to recognize faces. But every morning, and again in late afternoon, he walked through my dad’s unlocked front door to be sure he was all right and to kibitz a bit.

Manny made the rounds, also looking in on several other aged residents in their so-called N.O.R.C. (naturally occurring retirement community). Unless he was ill himself, he never missed a day.

Manny’s regular reconnaissance missions come to mind when I read about purpose, which is one of those things we recognize without quite knowing how to define. To psychologists, “purpose reflects a commitment to broader life goals that helps organize your day to day activities,” Patrick Hill, a psychologist at Carleton University in Ottawa, told me in an interview.

It’s a hard quality to measure, so researchers rely on how strongly people agree or disagree with statements like these:

“Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.”
“I feel good when I think of what I have done in the past and what I hope to do in the future.”
“I live life one day at a time and do not really think about the future.”
“I sometimes feel as if I have done all there is to do in life.”

It turns out that purpose is, on many counts, a good thing to have, long associated with satisfaction and happiness, better physical functioning, even better sleep. “It’s a very robust predictor of health and wellness in old age,” said Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago.