What Do Scientists Know About Finding a Purpose in Life?

What Do Scientists Know About Finding a Purpose in Life?

What Do Scientists Know About Finding a Purpose in Life?

Despite the large number of journalists, authors, and scientists who write on this topic, few provide a definition. Without clear language, it is hard to make inroads into understanding, detecting, creating, or living in accord with a purpose in life.

In 9 days, Viktor Frankl wrote about how he survived the German concentration camps. Unlike modern conversations about living the good life, there is nothing about happiness in his work. Uncover a sense of purpose in life and you can survive nearly anything. A profound idea that still awaits scientific evidence...

Since then, many have spoken about the importance of a purpose in life.

It is the denial of death that is partially responsible for people living empty, purposeless lives; for when you live as if you'll live forever, it becomes too easy to postpone the things you know that you must do

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross - mother of the 5-stages of grief and loss

Here lies another question that begs for scientific scrutiny. If someone refuses to discuss/contemplate/experience their inevitable mortality, does this interfere with the ability to develop and benefit from a life purpose?


Then there are George Bernard Shaw's thoughts on the topic:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrapheap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

Another set of questions are raised. Are the pleasures that arise from the pursuit of a purpose in life more potent and enduring than living hedonistically, virtuously, or somewhere in between?

Welcome to the psychology of ultimate concerns where one preposition determines whether or not we have moved beyond the province of science (purpose in life versus purpose of life). 

Despite the large number of journalists, authors, and scientists who write on this topic, few provide a definition. Without clear language, it is hard to make inroads into understanding, detecting, creating, or living in accord with a purpose in life. In hopes of increasing attention to this topic, let me offer the definition that my colleague Patrick McKnight and I created:

Purpose is defined as a central, self-organizing life aim. Central
in that if present, purpose is a predominant theme of a person’s identity.
If we envision a person positioning descriptors of their personality on a dartboard, purpose would be near the innermost, concentric circle.
Purpose is self-organizing in that it provides a framework for systematic behavior patterns in everyday life. Self-organization should be evident in the goals people create, the effort devoted to these goals, and decision-making when confronted with competing options of how to allocate finite resources such as time and energy. A purpose motivates a person to dedicate resources in particular directions and toward particular goals and not others. That is, terminal goals and projects are an outgrowth of a purpose. As a life aim, a purpose cannot be achieved. Instead, there are continual targets for efforts to be
devoted. (p. 304, Kashdan & McKnight, 2009(link is external))

There are more questions than answers to what purpose in life offers. Most of the existing research to date is overly simplistic. That is, scientists have shown that people that score higher on a questionnaire about purpose in life also score higher on other questionnaires given at the same time on other positive attributes (they feel happiness! have a lot of friends! favor recycling!). A good start but profound topics require profound research. If purpose in life is truly as powerful as Viktor Frankl, George Bernard Shaw, Helen Keller, Carl Jung, Thomas Carlyle, and George Eliot claim, then it is time for the scientific study of purpose in life to mature.

Instead of offering answers, I want to offer a parsimonious explanation of the underlying processes that might explain why purpose in life influences health and well-being. Here are 10 pathways detailed in this recent article with Patrick McKnight:

McKnight, P.E., & Kashdan, T.B. (2009).  Purpose in life as a system that creates and sustains health and well-being: An integrative, testable theory. Review of General Psychology, 13, 242-251.(link is external)


Todd Kashdan
Source: Todd Kashdan


Path 1: Unlike other motivational models (such as self-determination theory or terror management theory), we don’t view purpose as essential to everyday living.  People without purpose may merely be cognitively disengaged with only an increased chance of undesirable outcomes such as poorer mental and physical health, and shorter life expectancy. Long, healthy, and happy living is not essential to everyday living.

Path 2: Theories on human needs (self-determination theory, terror management theory) are making serious inroads into why people do the things they do. However, this work might suggest that a need arises from a higher order construct that remains elusive. We posit that the higher order factor is purpose. Given a purpose, people become more attuned to their intrinsic values, interests, and strivings to accomplish relevant goals (that component of Aristotle’s eudaimonia that people are fond of writing about with little mention of where it comes from or how to study it). Striving takes place regardless of whether a goal is attainable. 

NOTE: Purpose and goals are not synonymous. People who live purposeful lives ought to have well-defined goals and strive to accomplish them. Purpose does not necessitate a outcome to be attained but it ought to motivate the person to be goal oriented. (William Wallace, the Scottish Patriot vs. compatriots with similar goals but without the same overarching purpose).  Reasonable goals have terminal outcomes and provide a temporal understanding of a person.  Understanding the totality of a person, across time and context, requires an even higher level construct.  One’s purpose cannot be another’s goals; purpose is at the highest level of analysis in defining a person’s identity.

Paths 3-4: A purpose in life ought to stimulate behavioral consistency; serving as the motivating force to overcome obstacles, seek alternative means, and maintain focus on the goal in spite of changes to the environment that may interfere with the pursuit (note the negligible effect in Path 4). The negligible effect, for people with strong purpose, represents perseverance against barriers or resilience.

Paths 5-6: Any realistic model of health needs to account for Person x Environment interactions. At times, purpose can be disadvantageous. In some cases, environmental conditions ought to have a negative influence on perceived stress. When environmental conditions (e.g., incarceration) interfere with the pursuit of a purpose then the person perceives greater stress (e.g., Gandhi). Purpose likely causes people to perceive higher levels of psychological and physical stress (Path 6) but their stress response may be attenuated when environmental conditions are suitable to pursuing the purpose.

Path 7: Much of the existing work on purpose in life has been limited to  religion/spirituality. We offer a compromise to attempt to understand robust findings that suggest that greater religiosity is linked to greater health. Purpose may influence and be influenced by religious conviction (Path 7) at different times in a person’s life. Most people engage in religious activities early in life because of their parent’s beliefs. Those beliefs, while perhaps to a degree heritable, tend to come from modeling and nurture as opposed to within the individual (temperament, biology). Thus, religious affiliation early in life may cause a person to form a purpose. Once a person forms a purpose, the causal influence likely changes direction where the purpose defines the person’s religiosity. Our model of purpose accounts for the indirect relationship between religiosity and physical (Path 8) and mental (Path 9) health by defining purpose as the mediator.

Path 10: There are boundary conditions such that purpose may not be available to every human being. One of the more likely conditions is very low general cognitive ability. A person unable to grasp abstract concepts might find it difficult to generate a purpose since purpose (and goals) requires insight, introspection, and planning. General cognitive ability may be altered by inherited g, injury (e.g., traumatic brain injury), disease (e.g., dementia), or neglect (e.g., alcoholism). 

NOTE: People without the ability to form a purpose may live long, happy and fruitful lives but not by the mechanism proposed. In fact, we suspect that a moderate number of people meeting the boundary conditions but lacking purpose live less satisfying lives than those who fail to meet the boundary conditions. Just because a person is able to form a purpose does not mandate that a purpose will be formed and sought; recognizing this absence can lead to suffering. In contrast, people unaware of the nature of purposeful living might be immune to this form of suffering.

If meaning and purpose in life is your area of interest, here is our first attempt at creating an idiographic measure. Use it, modify it, improve it, just make sure to email me your findings.

Kashdan, T.B., & McKnight, P.E. (2013). Commitment to a purpose in life: An antidote to the suffering by individuals with social anxiety disorder. Emotion, 13, 1150-1159.

NOTE: This study also tests a main tenet of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy - namely, how important is behavioral commitment to valued life aims in the reduction of suffering?

One of the beautiful things in science is that every study leads to more questions. There are some interesting, lingering issues when it comes to understanding, developing, and benefitting from a purpose in life. I will be looking forward to the next wave of scientific studies on this topic.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan (@toddkashdan) is a public speaker, psychologist, and professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His new book, The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self - not just your “good” self - drives success and fulfillment(link is external) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Booksamillion, Powell's or Indie Bound. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, go to: toddkashdan.com

This article oroginally appeared at Psychology Today 

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