This fall we are tackling the four pillars of resilience:
In the last post, we examined the protective power of traveling back in time to assign strength-based meaning to past struggles.
In this post, we will take a look at the importance of cultivating purpose in both our daily interactions and larger life pursuits.
To review, Dr. Anthony Burrow, the author of “The Ecology of Purposeful Living Across the Lifespan”, describes purpose as the why that propels us forward, the reason we do what we do, the inspiration we have for being in this world (check out his interview on Hidden Brain).
The John Templeton Foundation gives this fancy definition: Purpose is a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once personally meaningful and at the same time leads to productive engagement with some aspect of the world beyond the self.
In other words, purpose combines the why behind what we do with a long-term desire to make a dent in the world.
Let’s say you are a teacher. To “be a teacher” would not be your purpose but a vehicle for your purpose. The answer to “Why do you want to teach?” combined with “How might that make a positive contribution to the world?” would begin to give us hints about your purpose. For instance:
Having a sense of purpose predicts a multitude of positive outcomes that allow us to overcome obstacles, thrive in tough situations, and live healthier lives.
Below is a list of some of these outcomes, arranged in a Top 10 Countdown (though many of them were a tie for me). Some references are included within each section; others can be found in the Reference section found at the bottom of this post.
#10: May be related to higher income over time. A nine-year study of 6,000 American adults showed that people who rated themselves as having a higher sense of purpose had higher incomes at the start of the study and increased their income more over time, compared with their peers who said their life felt more “aimless.” (However, we also know that higher income leads to increases in wealth through other pathways, such as investments, avoidance of fees, and less participation in predatory practices.)
#9: Makes us more likable. A 2010 study showed that people who self-reported a more meaningful life were rated by others as more likable, more desirable conversation partners, more attractive, and having more “friend” potential.
#8: Helps us be more even-keeled. Having a sense of purpose seems to help us stay off the emotional roller coaster of despair and joy caused by outside events, potentially creating more equanimity and peace in our lives.
#7: Helps our brains resist aging and dementia. A 2015 study of 453 seniors in their 80s found that, after they died, those who had “a strong sense of life purpose were 44 percent less likely to have suffered major brain tissue damage, infarcts visible to the naked eye.” A series of studies by Patricia Boyle’s team at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center also found astounding effects of Purpose in Life (PIL) on dementia symptoms. “After following more than 900 older people at risk for dementia for seven years, they found that those with a high PIL were only half as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those with a low PIL… and were 30 percent less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment.”
#6: Helps us live longer. Several studies suggest that a sense of purpose is related to longevity. For instance, one five-year longitudinal study found that older adults with a higher sense of purpose had a “substantially reduced risk of mortality,” even after controlling for differences in previous conditions, depression symptoms, and income.
#5: Improves our health. Related to #6 above, purpose in Life (PIL) has been shown to dramatically lower the risk of heart attack, stroke, and cardiovascular diseases, and reduce the likelihood of developing a sleep disorder. In a correlational study, older women who scored higher on a measurement of purposeful well-being (sense of purpose, autonomy, environmental mastery, and other constructs) had lower levels of daily cortisol (a stress hormone) and lower inflammatory responses.
#4: Improves academic success. Students who rate themselves as having more purpose have better outcomes including increased persistence, a sense of self-efficacy, time spent studying, and satisfaction with school. Students who felt more connected to their purpose at the beginning of a college semester were more likely to exhibit “grit” or stick with it when things became difficult.
#3: Increases work satisfaction and success. For instance, hospital custodians who believed they were an integral part of the hospital’s mission of saving lives and improving people’s health, had greater work satisfaction than those who believed they were doing a menial or technical job. A 2016 international study of over 26,000 LinkedIn members found that employees with a higher sense of purpose had more satisfaction, self-efficacy, and leadership opportunities.
#2: Protects us from some of the negative effects of stressful events such as COVID-19, cancer treatment, bereavement, financial recession, surgery, daily stressors, looking at upsetting pictures, stressful social situations, and being the only minority in a majority group. On the flip side, people with low sense of purpose have been found to be more likely to experience depression, addiction, anxiety, loneliness, and boredom (see Templeton review below).
#1: Helps us experience more hope, optimism, and life satisfaction. According to the extensive Templeton Foundation report on the Psychology of Purpose, “Purpose is a central component of most leading conceptions of optimal human development and psychological well-being (Bronk, 2013).” The report summarizes numerous studies showing that being connected to one’s purpose increases satisfaction in life, sense of efficacy, self-esteem, and hope in both adults and youth. Sense of purpose (especially with a prosocial focus) may be particularly potent in changing the trajectory of young people’s lives. Youth from low-income backgrounds experience similar levels of purpose and positive outcomes as youth from higher-income backgrounds, and can find meaning in their hardships. Teens who pursued meaningful lives “beyond self-gratification” experienced less depression a year later than those who were not connected to a sense of purpose. However, research also shows that purpose is important in midlife as well.
As stated by the Templeton report, although there are some exceptions,
“Researchers have found that across the ages, one of the best predictors of happiness is having a purpose in life.”
Interested in more positive practices like these? Check out Elaine’s new workbook on Amazon, with 40 “challenges” that help grow purpose, possibility, connection, and courage in the new year.
Besides the links included in each section, below are some resources that summarize multiple studies on purpose: