Research Says Positive Social Interaction can Give a Sense of Purpose to Older Adults 

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Research in psychological and brain sciences shows a link in older adults between social interactions and having a sense of purpose. And although these findings, published in the July 2022 issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, apply to both working and retired adults, the research found that for better and for worse these interactions are more strongly correlated to a purposefulness in people who are retired.

“Specifically for our retired older adults, this is a construct we should really care about,” said Gabrielle Pfund, who led the study as a PhD student in the lab of Patrick Hill, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences. Pfund graduated in June and is now at Northwestern University.

The research team worked with a group of some 100 adults with an average age of about 71. For 15 days, participants were asked three times daily about the quality of the social interactions they’d had that day. Every evening they were asked to use a scale of one to five to answer the question: How much do you think your life had a purpose today?

After analyzing the responses, they found — relative to each person’s own baseline — the more positive interactions a person had during the day, the more purposeful they reported feeling in the evening. Other measures, including employment and relationship status, did not predict a person’s sense of purpose. What is a sense of purpose? Having a sense of purpose is defined as the extent to which one feels that they have personally meaningful goals and directions guiding them through life. Of note, Pfund said, the study also showed how dynamic a person’s own sense of purpose could be.

“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.

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