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"Knowing Your Why" Is Good for You

Research demonstrates that a sense of purpose boosts well-being.

Andriy Brazhnykov/Adobe Stock
Source: Andriy Brazhnykov/Adobe Stock

The question “What’s your why?” has become a common part of our language; you’ll see it in books about leadership and management, hear it in motivational podcasts, and see it as part of online talks and workshops.

And there’s a good reason. The idea of having a purpose is appealing. It helps us find meaning amid the hustle and bustle of our modern society. Researchers are discovering that having purpose is healthy for you.

Anthony Burrow is a developmental psychologist and director of the Purpose and Identity Processes Laboratory at Cornell University. His work contributes to a growing body of research on the benefits of developing a sense of purpose. In a study published in 2018 in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, Burrow and his colleagues documented some of these benefits. They tracked nearly 2,000 middle-aged adults for eight days to find out if having a sense of purpose helped them cope with life’s daily stresses.

Participants rated their own sense of purpose on a seven-point scale. Then they completed daily interviews where they were asked about stressful experiences, any physical symptoms, and their emotions each day.

No matter how participants rated their sense of purpose, they tended to report a similar number of stressful events—from three to four over the eight-day period. However, those who reported feeling a stronger sense of purpose in their lives were significantly less likely to experience negative emotions, such as being nervous, hopeless, lonely, or irritable, as a result of the daily stress. They were also more likely to report feeling positive emotions such as being calm and peaceful, cheerful, active, and confident. In addition, they were significantly less likely to report physical symptoms, such as fatigue or having a headache or cough.

The take-home message here: People who feel a sense of purpose in their lives may be better able to handle daily stress and regulate their emotions.

“What is perhaps most interesting about these findings is that daily life is not necessarily easier for purposeful individuals, as they too commonly report stressful events,” Burrow said. “Instead, the key difference between them and those with less purpose appears to be in their response. Stressful days are simply less emotionally disruptive to individuals with greater purpose.”

In a separate study published in the Journal of Research and Personality, Burrow and his colleagues asked if having a sense of purpose helps you to earn money. This study used survey data from more than 4,600 middle-aged adults who participated in phone interviews in 1995 or 1996 and again in 2004, 2005 or 2006. Participants talked with researchers for about a half hour on average, answering questions about their sense of purpose, personality traits, life satisfaction, household income, and net worth.

Participants who reported having a sense of purpose earned on average $2,578 more a year and had a net worth $14,680 greater than those who did not have a sense of purpose. And those with a sense of purpose were more likely to improve their financial status over the course of the study.

“With much attention given to the value of having a sense of purpose for greater health and well-being, it was interesting to explore its value in the context of material wealth,” Burrow said. “Taken together, there is growing evidence a sense of purpose in life is truly an asset worth cultivating.”

And in a smaller experiment, Burrow found that having a sense of purpose helped to reduce the impact of social media “likes” on participants’ self-esteem. That is, people with a sense of purpose were less reactive to the number of likes they received on Facebook compared with those without a sense of purpose. The take-home message is that a sense of purpose not only lowers our emotional reactions to the bad things that happen to us, but also makes our self-worth less contingent on whether or not good things happen.

The bigger picture here is that understanding your own personal “why”—what drives you to do what you do—is an important component of overall well-being.

“Across our work we consistently find that a sense of purpose in life is well worth having,” Burrow said. “From improving our well-being, to reducing our reactivity to everyday stressors, and even to predicting downstream financial earnings and longevity, purpose emerges as a real resource for people.”

In addition to providing personal benefits, having a sense of purpose may also improve your community or even society as a whole, Burrow said.

“An even greater benefit may emerge when we begin to consider the impacts of whatever the contents of one’s purpose may be for the world around them,” he said. “It is one thing to consider that a sense of purpose can improve a person’s well-being. It is another thing altogether to consider that benefit sits in addition to whatever good work that purpose has inspired them to actually do in the world, that may also be in the service of others. In whatever way that comes, it likely means that the benefits of purpose are much larger than any single study can reveal.”

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work solving human problems.

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