Life is likely to last longer if it has a purpose and seems worthwhile, new research suggests.
Scientists found that pensioners with the greatest sense of well-being were 30% less likely to die within a decade than those who were least satisfied.
Researchers measured “eudemonic well-being” – an emotional state that relates to feeling in control, doing something you think is worthwhile, and having a purpose in life – in 9,000 English people with an average age of 65.
Over the next eight-and-a-half years, 9% of people in the highest well-being category died, compared with 29% in the lowest.
“The findings raise the intriguing possibility that increasing well-being could help to improve physical health”
Taking into account a range of factors that could influence health and life-satisfaction, participants with the highest levels of eudemonic well-being were 30% less likely to die.
On average, they lived two years longer than those in the lowest well-being group.
Study leader Professor Andrew Steptoe, director of University College London’s Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, said: “These analyses show that the meaningfulness and sense of purpose that older people have in their lives are also related to survival.
“We cannot be sure that higher well-being necessarily causes lower risk of death, since the relationship may not be causal,” he said. “But the findings raise the intriguing possibility that increasing wellbeing could help to improve physical health.
“There are several biological mechanisms that may link well-being to improved health, for example through hormonal changes or reduced blood pressure. Further research is now needed to see if such changes might contribute to the links between well-being and life expectancy in older people,” he added.
The research, published in The Lancet medical journal, is part of a special series of papers on health and ageing.
Scientists found that in the former Soviet Union and eastern European countries, older people had very low life satisfaction ratings compared with their younger neighbours.
The same pattern was seen in Latin America and Caribbean countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, life was generally grim, with low satisfaction levels apparent at all ages.
US co-author Professor Angus Deaton, from Princeton University, said: “Economic theory can predict a dip in wellbeing among the middle-aged in high-income, English-speaking countries.
“This is the period at which wage rates typically peak and is the best time to work and earn the most, even at the expense of present wellbeing, so as to have increased wealth and well-being later in life,” he said.
“What is interesting is that this pattern is not universal. Other regions, like the former Soviet Union, have been affected by the collapse of communism and other systems,” said Professor Deaton.
“Such events have affected the elderly who have lost a system that, however imperfect, gave meaning to their lives, and, in some cases, their pensions and healthcare,” he added.