Purposeful Engagement, Healthy Aging, and the Brain


Purpose of Review

Research on psychological well-being in later life has identified strengths and vulnerabilities that occur with aging. We review the conceptual and philosophical foundations of a eudaimonic model of well-being and its empirical translation into six key dimensions of positive functioning. We also consider its implications for health, broadly defined.

Recent Findings

Numerous findings from national longitudinal samples of US adults are described. They show declining scores on purpose in life and personal growth with aging, but also underscore the notable variability among older persons in these patterns. Recently, health benefits have been identified among older adults who maintain high levels of a particular aspect of well-being, namely, purposeful life engagement. These benefits include extended longevity, reduced risk for various disease outcomes, reduced physiological dysregulation, and gene expression linked to better inflammatory profiles. The brain mechanisms that underlie such outcomes are also examined via a focus on affective style. Adults with higher levels of purpose in life show more rapid recovery from negative stimulus provocation, whereas those with higher well-being overall show sustained activation of reward circuitry in response to positive stimuli, and this pattern is associated with lower diurnal cortisol output. Volumetric findings (right insular gray matter volume) have also been linked with eudaimonic well-being.


Eudaimonic well-being predicts better health and longer lives, and thus constitutes an important direction for future research and practice. Intervention studies designed to promote well-being, including among those suffering from psychological disorders, are briefly described.

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Fig. 1


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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Carol D. Ryff.

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Conflict of Interest

Dr. Carol D. Ryff declares grants from the National Institute on Aging, on which some findings in this article are based (Grant number 1U19AG051426-01A1). Dr. Stacey M. Schaefer and Dr. Richard J. Davidson declare a grant from the National Institute on Aging (P01 AG020166). Dr. Aaron S. Heller and Dr. Carien van Reekum declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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This article does not contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by any of the authors.

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This article is part of the Topical Collection on Geropsychiatry & Cognitive Disorders of Late Life

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Ryff, C.D., Heller, A.S., Schaefer, S.M. et al. Purposeful Engagement, Healthy Aging, and the Brain. Curr Behav Neurosci Rep 3, 318–327 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40473-016-0096-z

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  • Eudaimonic well-being
  • Purpose in life
  • Morbidity
  • Mortality
  • Biological risk factors
  • Neural mechanisms
  • Intervention studies