Fighting loneliness by finding purpose

July 9, 2023

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Fighting loneliness by finding purpose

A new study 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.

What the researchers say: “Loneliness is known to be one of the biggest psychological predictors for health problems, cognitive decline, and early mortality,” said the study’s co-author. “Studies show that it can be as harmful for health as smoking or having a poor diet.”

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.

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,” the researchers 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 they 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, they 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,” the co-author 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,” the researchers explained. 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.”

So, what? There’s nothing really new about this study, but that might be its great value—it reinforces a lot of prior research in the area of both purpose and loneliness.

I am a bit unsure about some aspects of the current study, however. I am not sure that any purpose—no matter how “trivial”—can be separated from the social context of the individual. A stamp collector will want to show their collection to others and to engage with other stamp collectors and cement their commonalities. Without these interactions—even if they’re virtual—I am not sure that the “purpose” will be very satisfying or have any effect on loneliness.

I am also unsure about the idea that all purposes are equal in terms of their ability to provide the individual with a sense of belonging, status (value in the eyes of others) and learning. These three are essential both for mental health and the absence of loneliness.

In a book that I began working on for Ark publications—but so far have not finished—on “purpose” I defined a truly worthwhile life purpose as one which: “strives for social benefit, is pursued with others and which will outlive the individual (but have meaningful—to the individual—and achievable goals along the way).” Examples could be working to improve education, eliminate poverty, eliminate child or spousal abuse, reduce inequality, conserve nature, or restore historic buildings. I am sure you could come up with your own equally valid list.

As an aside, a lot of recent research has shown that there is a sense of loneliness in most organizations and that this had been increasing in the pre-COVID years. Much of this is due to two factors: first the dehumanization of the workplace and second the lack of a sense of purpose in most work. Making a business more profitable is not a “purpose” as I would define it. Most, but by no means all, businesses provide goods and services that we don’t really need, and this disconnect between what you do and what you need (a sense of worthwhile purpose) is a cause of much mental ill-health and lack of meaning.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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