According to psychological and brain science research, there is a link between social interactions and having a sense of purpose in older adults.
According to research from the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, having positive social interactions is associated with older adults' sense of purposefulness, which can fluctuate from day to day.
Although these findings, which were published in the July 2022 issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, apply to both working and retired adults, the study discovered that, for better or worse, these interactions are more strongly correlated with purposefulness in people who are retired.
"This is a construct we should really care about, especially for our retired older adults," said Gabrielle Pfund, who led the study as a Ph.D. student in the lab of Patrick Hill, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences. Pfund graduated in June and is currently enrolled at Northwestern University.
The research team worked with a group of 100 adults, the average age being around 71. For 15 days, participants were asked three times per day about the quality of their social interactions. Every evening, they were asked to rate their level of satisfaction with their lives on a scale of one to five.
After analyzing the responses, they discovered that the more positive interactions a person had during the day, the more purposeful they reported feeling in the evening, relative to their own baseline. Other factors, such as employment and marital status, did not predict a person's sense of purpose.
What exactly is a sense of purpose?
A sense of purpose is defined as the degree to which a person believes they have personally meaningful goals and directions to guide them through life.
The study also demonstrated how dynamic a person's own sense of purpose can be, according to Pfund.
"The majority of research on sense of purpose is focused on the big-picture orientation of someone being purposeful versus someone not being purposeful," she explained. However, it turns out that purposefulness is more dynamic.
Although some people are more or less purposeful in general, according to Pfund, "We discovered that purpose can shift from day to day. Everyone was having fluctuations in comparison to their own averages."
The data showed that the association was much stronger in retired people: more positive social interactions were associated with a higher sense of purpose, while more negative interactions were associated with a lower sense of purpose.
"The people in their lives really matter for everyone, but especially for our retired older adults," Pfund said.
The study has limitations, two of which are that the sample was drawn from data collected in Zurich, Switzerland, and that the respondents were generally in good health. These results may differ in other countries or among older adults in poorer health.
A sense of purpose is about more than just feeling good. Previous research has found that adults who have a stronger sense of purpose live longer, healthier, and happier lives. They have lower rates of Alzheimer's disease, as well as heart disease and other cardiovascular issues.
"The people in your life will have a huge influence on that," she said. "If you find yourself surrounded by people who bring you down... it will have an effect."
"On the other hand, being surrounded by people who lift you up and infuse your life with positivity will have an impact."
That was good news, she said.
"If you feel like your life has no meaning, know that this will not always be the case. That is not your reality. That could change."