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Positive Psychology

What Gives Life Purpose?

It's more than a temporary motivational state.

Key points

  • A sense of purpose in life is an underlying concept in positive psychology relating to overall well-being.
  • A new paper proposes that a sense of purpose is more than a motivational state. It is an enduring trait.
  • Taking stock of sense of purpose can provide the first step to reaching this key element of fulfillment.

How would you characterize the motivation that sustains you as you go about your everyday activities? Perhaps you’re visiting an older relative daily in the hospital during their recovery period from major surgery. It’s out of your way and time-consuming, and you don’t exactly like medical settings. Even so, you faithfully show up each day after work, and when you leave, you actually feel a slight boost in your well-being, knowing that you’ve served a useful function.

Within positive psychology, a “sense of purpose" in life is a concept that rests at the cornerstone of much of the field’s efforts. In contrast to the “search” for meaning, a sense of purpose refers to a deep conviction that your life is moving in a certain direction.

The Many Ways to Think About Sense of Purpose

As widespread as the concept is within positive psychology, sense of purpose actually does not have a clear and consistent definition. According to Northwestern University’s Gabrielle Pfund (2023), there are at least three completely different ways to measure it. See how you would score on the sample items from these tests:

Brief Purpose Measure

  1. There is a direction in my life.
  2. My plans for the future match my true interests and values.

Purpose in Life Scale

  1. I live one day at a time and don’t think about the future (reverse-scored).
  2. My daily activities often seem trivial and unimportant to me (reverse-scored).
  3. Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.

Life Engagement Test

  1. To me, the things I do are worthwhile.
  2. I value my activities a lot.
  3. I have lots of reasons for living.

If you went through and rated yourself on each of these items, you can see how they all center around this quality of actively trying to put the pieces of your life together in some semblance of an organization. However, as Pfund pointed out, there is an important distinction between “purpose” and “meaning.” You can feel that what you’re doing has a purpose, but does it have meaning?

Thus, you might be very organized and able to get things done, but do these things matter? The resolution of this issue, Pfund suggested, is to view “sense of purpose” as an inner-directedness or “the extent to which one feels they have personally meaningful goals and direction” vs. “purpose in life” as “an individual’s specific overarching goal and direction.”

Sense of Purpose as an Enduring Quality of Personality

Although the wording of these phrases may seem to represent trivial variations, Pfund suggested that they have differing implications. Sense of purpose is more logically conceived of as a “trait” or consistent pattern within personality. As such, it would be a consistent set of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The “overarching goal” implied in purpose in life relates to motivation or the desire to achieve certain goals.

By viewing sense of purpose as a personality trait, the Northwestern psychologist maintains, this can become a “necessary step in understanding how to help individuals develop and harness it.” Consider the parallel case of conscientiousness, a well-established trait within the Five Factor Model. You might be low in this quality; hence, your office or home may not be all that tidy. However, are you fated to live a sloppy life forever? Knowing that your conscientiousness needs some attention, you might decide to muster your resources and change your ways.

Similarly, if someone acknowledges that they just don’t have that strong of a sense of purpose, they can be in a good position to take that “necessary step” to see their life as having more direction.

To back up the idea that sense of purpose is a trait, Pfund turned to the work of personality psychologist Gordon Allport, who set forth eight criteria for a psychological concept to fit the definition of a trait. Significant among these is that sense of purpose is not better explained by other traits and that it predicts a “vast” number of significant life outcomes. These include better subjective health, greater adherence to health-promoting behaviors, higher income and net worth, satisfaction with romantic relationships, and greater commitment to those relationships. Even more impressive, other researchers have shown that, after correcting for depression, sense of purpose predicts risk for mortality and even walking speed.

Not only are people high in sense of purpose better at organizing their activities daily, but purposeful people are more likely to be happier. They also prioritize the people in their lives, which helps to promote better relationship outcomes.

How to Become a More Purposeful Person

With this background in mind, it’s time to return to the question of how you can put yourself on the pathway to enhancing sense of purpose in your life. The process may be, as Pfund noted, an “uphill battle,” but it's one worth waging.

You can begin your journey by reading over the items on the above sense-of-purpose questionnaires. When you took stock, was it evident that your life had no particular direction? Do you find your daily activities to be a string of repetitive chores?

If so, think about some ways that you can enhance at least one or two of the activities you routinely engage in that can potentially acquire more meaning. If these activities involve feeding your family members, your pet, or even yourself, think about how they promote and sustain life. Adding some mindfulness to the equation could further help. Focus on what you’re doing, make the “presentation” of the food as attractive as possible, and then take pleasure in observing the outcomes as those people (or pets) you’re feeding sit down to enjoy their meals.

Returning to the example of visiting your relative in the hospital, that should be an activity that would be relatively easy to frame as consistent with a sense of purpose. You may be fulfilling a family obligation, but at the same time, you are expressing your love and concern for the person you clearly have given “priority” to, in the words of Pfund.

Changing a trait may be challenging; as the author noted, it requires “humility and caution.” If you come up short after making some of these initial forays into changing your own, don’t get discouraged. More importantly, don’t despair if it becomes a work in progress.

To sum up, a strong sense of purpose can be not only lifesaving but a key component of your own pathway to fulfillment.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Oleksii Didok/Shutterstock


Pfund, G.N. (2023). Applying an Allportian trait perspective to sense of purpose. Journal of Happiness Studies, 24, 1625–1642

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