Sense of Purpose May Shield Against Loneliness

Summary: A sense of purpose in life, irrespective of its nature, can be a robust defense against loneliness.

A new study, involving over 2,300 Swiss adults, found fewer instances of loneliness among individuals who led a purposeful life. While some activities that provide a sense of purpose entail social interactions, the study stresses that combatting loneliness transcends mere company.

A purposeful life can be especially valuable in older adults, demonstrating the importance of finding meaning at all life stages.

Key Facts:

  1. The study found that feelings of loneliness were less common in people who led a purposeful life, irrespective of their age.
  2. While activities involving social interactions can provide a sense of purpose, it’s not merely the presence of others but the sense of purpose that combats loneliness.
  3. Finding purpose becomes crucial in older adults, especially those in their 70s and beyond, a period often associated with increased loneliness.

Source: WUSTL

A new study co-authored by Patrick Hill, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences, offers an important message for our times: A sense of purpose in life — whether it’s a high-minded quest to make a difference or a simple hobby with personal meaning — can offer potent protection against loneliness. 

“Loneliness is known to be one of the biggest psychological predictors for health problems, cognitive decline, and early mortality,” Hill said. “Studies show that it can be as harmful for health as smoking or having a poor diet.”

This shows a woman walking with a balloon.
But Hill noted that there’s more to fighting loneliness than simply being around others. Credit: Neuroscience News

The new study, based on surveys of more than 2,300 adults in Switzerland, found that feelings of loneliness were less common in people who reported a purposeful life, regardless of their age. It was co-authored by Mathias Allemand of the University of Zurich in Switzerland and Gabriel Olaru of Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

Respondents were asked to score their feelings on a lack of companionship, isolation from other people, and a sense of being “left out or passed over” during a four-week period. Participants also filled out the six-item Life Engagement Test, which asked them to rate 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,” Hill said. “It can be something like gardening, supporting your family, or achieving success at work.”

Many of the activities that can provide a sense of purpose — joining a club, volunteering at a school, playing in a sports league — involve interaction with others, which is one reason why a purpose-filled life tends to be less lonely. In the study, people who said they received or provided social support were especially likely to report feelings of purpose.

But Hill noted that there’s more to fighting loneliness than simply being around others. “We’ve all had time in our lives when we’ve felt lonely even though we weren’t actually alone.” There’s something about having a sense of purpose that seems to fight loneliness regardless of how many other people are involved, he said.

The study found a slight uptick in reports of loneliness for people in their 70s and beyond, an age 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,” Hill said. “There are no downsides to finding something meaningful later in life.”

Still, it’s important to keep in mind that a quest for purpose can be somewhat self-defeating if taken too seriously. “Feeling like you need to save the world can lead to existential dread and distress,” Hill said.

When it comes to purpose and meaning, even small things can matter. “It’s OK if someone else thinks that your purpose is trivial, as long as it’s meaningful to you.”

About this social neuroscience research news

Author: Talia Ogliore
Source: WUSTL
Contact: Talia Ogliore – WUSTL
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Do associations between sense of purpose, social support, and loneliness differ across the adult lifespan?” by Patrick Hill et al. Psychology and Aging


Do associations between sense of purpose, social support, and loneliness differ across the adult lifespan?

Past research has suggested that the path to purpose involves connections with people along the way. In support, sense of purpose appears higher amongst those adults with more positive social relationships and interactions.

However, research has yet to consider whether associations between sense of purpose and social relationship variables differ across adulthood.

The present study examined this claim using a sample of Swiss adults, who completed measures for sense of purpose, loneliness, received support, and provided support. A large, nationally representative sample of 2,312 Swiss adults (52.34 years old; SD = 17.35) completed these measures, as part of a larger survey.

Local structural equation modeling was employed to estimate the means and associations of these constructs across adulthood. Sense of purpose was negatively associated with loneliness, but positively associated overall with both support variables.

No evidence was found for age moderation for the association between sense of purpose and loneliness. However, moderation was evidenced insofar that sense of purpose was less associated with both support variables with age.

Sense of purpose again appears related to more positive social well-being and relationships, and consistently linked to lower loneliness. The age moderation effects for purpose-support associations are discussed with respect to theories of adult development.

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  1. Hi:) You are not getting many replies because persons of our age, 40’s – 70’s something‘s are not the majority. Younger people do not hear your desire to make a meaningful contribution in your later years – but let it be known that Senior Citizen’s want and need to work. Let any child or adult seeking an education, night schools or whatever, say “My tutor is too old too teac”! They won’t. You have more much to offer – seek Community Education to fulfill your need to make a positive change in our communities. You are a brave soul!

  2. Since you are only an hour away, even a young, busy person can make that drive. Perhaps someone can come to pick you up?

  3. Being Lonely is pure hell if you are married and your husband will not acknowledge your presence. Over 15 years of loneliness has made me broken hearted and wondering if it will ever end. Can’t talk about this he just yells and tells me to stop talking about our relationship problem that has left me crying most nights. I am 61 years old and I have never been so lonely in my life. A marriage without closeness is hell. Why do I stay, I love my husband and I keep praying things will get better. He sees a doctor for his problem but he refuses to take medication for fast acting solution. He’s taking testosterone now for 3 years and nothing has happened. Probably I am just stupid and not excepting my reality.

  4. Your children should be there for you, but it seems in the USA our children act as if they raised themselves and have no responsibilities but to their own personal needs. Try to ask your kids for help, family is our original social network not cell phones and computers.

    Peace and wellness to you

  5. I’m 83 yrs and recently had to move after 30 yrs in one place. I’m struggling to connect up with local community centres activities.
    But am very busy with invites from the children to come over for a sleepover. They’re all about an hours drive away.
    I have early dementia and poor hearing and sight so sometime won’t be able to drive so get in a panic “ what to do with my life then”.

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