Purpose and Meaningful Engagement are Keys to Aging Well
McKinsey Health Institute analysis shows older adults are happier and healthier when they engage more in society
A recent McKinsey Health Institute (MHI) survey of adults aged 55 and older across 21 countries finds purpose and meaningful engagement are keys to aging well. It found that having purpose in life and meaningful connections with others were among the most important factors bolstering the health of older adults around the world. Respondents frequently cited personal fulfillment and social connection as primary motivators for working or volunteering. What were also deemed important were lifelong learning and participation in community organizations or activities.
These findings all align with the concept of “societal participation,” defined by MHI as “consistent involvement in deliberate activities that lead to meaningful engagement with one’s society and community.” This covers activities that older adults can pursue in their communities such as working, volunteering, pursuing lifelong learning, or participating in community activities.2 Through these activities, older adults can fulfill many of the factors that influence their health—from finding purpose to connecting with others and staying active.
The UN Decade of Healthy Ageing lists “ability to contribute to society” as one of its five functional ability domains required for healthy aging. Similarly, the National Academy of Medicine’s Global roadmap for healthy longevity outlines eight long-term goals to aspire toward, four of which relate to enabling societal participation of older adults.
Societal participation is also good for older-adult health. Among MHI survey respondents, those who participated in societal activities had a 4 to 8 percent uplift in overall perceived health compared with those who didn’t participate but wanted to. This finding aligns with existing literature. MHI analyzed more than 70 recent, peer-reviewed academic studies on the societal participation of older adults and found six thematic health benefits: reduced mortality rates; reduced cognitive disability; less functional disability and frailty; decreased loneliness and depression; increased physical activity levels, and enhanced meaning and quality of life.
Some of the strongest evidence on the positive effect of purpose and engagement comes from the decades-long Harvard Study of Adult Development. “The people who were the happiest, who stayed the healthiest as they grew old, and who lived the longest were the people who had the warmest connections with other people,” said Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard study and author of The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness (Simon & Schuster, January 2023) in an interview for McKinsey’s Author Talks series. “In fact,” he said, “good relationships were the strongest predictor of who was going to be happy and healthy as they grew old.” McKinsey’s research indicates that while there is universal unmet demand for older adults to be more actively engaged in their societies, there are also promising ways forward. As we have highlighted, encouraging societal participation of older adults requires an all-of-society approach: from governments investing in creating opportunities to employers shaping age-inclusive workplaces and older adults themselves propelling the changes they wish to see.
Finding mediums that naturally convene stakeholders to work together—such as the cities we live in together—is imperative to creating a more vibrant, healthy society. More importantly, we must recognize that every member of society has a role to play in moving toward a more inclusive, more engaged future, regardless of age.