Finding purpose in life can protect against feelings of loneliness

ST. LOUIS — Looking to rid your life of a feeling of loneliness? Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis have found that a sense of purpose can go a long way toward staving off feelings of loneliness and isolation. “Purpose” can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. For one person, it could be a noble quest to really make a difference in the world or their local community. For others, it could be something as simple as picking up a hobby with personal meaning.

“Loneliness is known to be one of the biggest psychological predictors for health problems, cognitive decline, and early mortality,” says study co-author Patrick Hill, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences, in a media release. “Studies show that it can be as harmful for health as smoking or having a poor diet.”

This project was based on surveys encompassing over 2,300 adults living in Switzerland. Researchers note that people who reported leading a purposeful life generally reported fewer feelings of loneliness — regardless of their age. Mathias Allemand of the University of Zurich in Switzerland and Gabriel Olaru of Tilburg University in the Netherlands co-authored this study.

Survey respondents were asked to indicate their feelings regarding lack of companionship, isolation from other people, and a sense of being “left out or passed over” during a four-week period. Participants also completed the six-item Life Engagement Test, which asks users to rate various statements such as “there is not enough purpose in my life” and “I value my activities a lot.”

“A sense of purpose is this general perception that you have something leading and directing you from one day to the next,” Prof. Hill adds. “It can be something like gardening, supporting your family, or achieving success at work.”

Woman gardening looking at vegetable
(© Joshua Resnick –

Many reported activities that can provide a sense of purpose, such as joining a club, volunteering at a school, or playing in a sports league, revolve around interacting with others, providing at least one reason why a purpose-filled life is usually less lonely. On a related note, respondents who said they received or provided social support were especially likely to also report feeling like they had a purpose.

However, Prof. Hill notes there’s certainly more to conquering loneliness than simply attending social gatherings.

“We’ve all had time in our lives when we’ve felt lonely even though we weren’t actually alone,” the researcher explains, adding that there appears to be something about having a sense of purpose that protects against loneliness – regardless of how many other people are involved.

Researchers also found a slight increase in feelings of loneliness among participants who were in their 70s and older, which is an age bracket when a sense of purpose can be especially important.

“We’re trying to dispel the myth from previous generations that this is simply a time for retiring and resting,” Prof. Hill comments. “There are no downsides to finding something meaningful later in life.”

In conclusion, researchers add that while seeking out purpose in life is a good idea for everyone, it’s also worth noting that such a lofty endeavor can become somewhat self-defeating if taken too seriously. You don’t have to save the world, or create the next great piece of art. Just finding a rewarding way to spend your time will do.

“Feeling like you need to save the world can lead to existential dread and distress,” Prof. Hill concludes. “It’s OK if someone else thinks that your purpose is trivial, as long as it’s meaningful to you.”

The study is published in the journal Psychology and Aging.

You might also be interested in:

YouTube video

Follow on Google News

About the Author

John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

The contents of this website do not constitute advice and are provided for informational purposes only. See our full disclaimer