Daily Social Interactions Give Older Adults a Sense of Purpose, Especially Retirees

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science & Technology

    Having positive social interactions is associated with older adults’ sense of purposefulness, which can fluctuate from day to day, according to research from the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. The findings were published in the July 2022 issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

    Although the research applies to both working and retired adults, social interactions more strongly correlated to feelings of purposefulness in people who are retired.

    “Retirees, in particular, seemingly benefit more from having more positive interactions,” said Gabrielle Pfund, PhD, who led the study before graduating from Washington University in St. Louis in June. The study was done through the lab of Patrick Hill, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences.

    The research focused on a group of adults with an average age of 71.

    “The data collection process occurred over a year. There were 106 people reporting on their social interactions every morning, afternoon and evening – three specific weeks over the course of the year,” said Pfund. “And (reporting) if they have social interactions, how positive or negative they were and then how a collection of those social interactions throughout the day ends up predicting how purposeful they feel that day when reflecting upon the entire day.”

    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.

    “And what we end up finding is that on days in which people had more positive social interactions, they felt more purpose. And then, of course, the reverse of that is on days in which they had more negative social interactions, they felt less purposeful,” Pfund explained.

    Other measures, including employment and relationship status, did not predict a person’s sense of purpose.

    “The value of this current study is that it helps us understand an older adult population is often the population experiencing sense of purpose decline,” she said. “We have found a variable that might help promote it, which is social interactions. So, from day to day, if older adults are able to focus on engaging in positive social interactions, that might be one way for them to kind of combat the decline often experienced in this construct so they can hopefully also experience the benefits that are associated with a higher sense of purpose.”

    Prior research has shown that adults with a higher sense of purpose lead longer, healthier and happier lives. They have lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease and heart and other cardiovascular problems.

    “If someone is consistently not feeling purposeful, they’re not doomed, that is something that can change. That is something that can fluctuate and so if you’re someone who has older parents or grandparents, this research emphasizes how important the time is that you spend with them,” said Pfund. “As an older adult, really embrace those connections that you have with family and close friends because it can really make a difference in your daily life.”