Positive social interactions lead to a greater sense of purpose

ST. LOUIS — Having a sense of purpose is often the driving force which keeps many people going each day. Now, a new study finds the people we interact with play a key role in shaping that purpose.

Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis say positive social interactions help to increase someone’s sense of purpose. Moreover, they found that this is especially true for older adults — specifically, retired adults.

Study authors say that, for better or worse, social interactions display a strong connection to the level of purposefulness an older person feels. Interestingly, social interactions play a bigger role than a person’s employment or relationship status.

The team worked with roughly 100 older adults with an average age of 71. For 15 days, the group reported on the quality of their social interactions three times a day. Each evening, they also answered the question, using a scale of one to five, “how much do you think your life had a purpose today?”

After establishing each person’s baseline score for how much purpose they feel their life has on a given day, the team found that more positive interactions with others led to older adults feeling more purposeful at night.

“Most research on sense of purpose is focused on big-picture orientation of someone being purposeful versus someone being not purposeful,” she said. But it turns out, purposefulness may be more dynamic,” says lead study author Gabrielle Pfund in a university release.

“Although some people do tend to be generally more or less purposeful overall,” Pfund adds, “we found purpose can change from day to day. Everyone was experiencing fluctuations relative to their own averages.”

‘The people in their lives really matter’

While the connection was apparent for all older participants, researchers say retirees see the biggest impact. Positive social interactions resulted in a greater sense of purpose, while negative encounters led to retirees feeling they did not have a sense of purpose anymore.

“For everyone, but specifically for our retired older adults, the people in their lives really matter,” Pfund says.

Previous studies have shown that having a great sense of purpose can improve memory, while finding more human connections have helped seniors stay resilient throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Having a sense of purpose also has a lot to do with feeling good. Prior studies show having a sense of purpose also contributes to longer lifespans, better sleep, and a lower risk for heart disease and Alzheimer’s.

Study authors note that their findings only examined a group of relatively healthy adults in Zurich, Switzerland. They caution that the results could differ in countries where seniors are in poorer health.

“The people in your life are going to have a very, very big impact on that,” Pfund concludes. “If you find yourself surrounded by people who bring you down … that’s going to have an impact. On the flipside, if you’re surrounded by people who lift you up and who infuse your life with positivity, that’s going to have an impact, too.”

“If you’re feeling like your life has no purpose, that’s not how it’s always going to be. That’s not your life. That can change.”

The findings are published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

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