What Brings Meaning and Purpose in Life?

Ongoing research helps uncover clues as to what shapes meaning in life.

Posted Jan 27, 2020

What Brings Meaning and Purpose in Life?

Happy New Year from the Human Flourishing Program! One of the ongoing research projects of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard is to understand better what gives rise to a sense of meaning and purpose in life. With the new year dawning, and New Year’s resolutions in place, or perhaps still being formed, it seemed a good time to have an update on our research on this topic.
 
There has been recent increased interest in meaning and purpose. For example, a group of researchers at the University of Michigan published a paper last year that indicated there were considerable longevity benefits to having a sense of purpose in life for adults above age 50, and this study created a substantial media buzz. 

Our own research on the topic was published last year in the American Journal of Epidemiology. We examined the role that having a sense of purpose played among 6,000 young adults in the Growing Up Today Study (GUTS) by investigating those who affirmed having experienced a sense of mission in life. The participants were assessed in adolescence and followed up for six years into early adulthood. We wondered whether and how having such a sense of mission would affect other aspects of health and well-being.

What we discovered about purpose

As in previous analyses, our study controlled for a rich set of other potentially confounding factors, including numerous social, demographic, and economic characteristics, parental variables, including maternal attachment, participation in religious services, and also prior values of the outcome variables whenever available. Even after such control, there was evidence that, over time, a sense of mission subsequently improved flourishing in numerous domains, including happiness and psychological well-being (e.g., life satisfaction, positive affect, self-esteem, emotional processing, and emotional expression), promotion of physical health (greater use of preventive health care), possibly mental health (fewer depressive symptoms), and character (more volunteering). 

Although we did not find associations with specific physical health outcomes in our study, it must be remembered that this was a relatively young group of participants (essentially in their 20s during the study follow-up), and major health problems usually begin later in life. And again, prior research from the group at the University of Michigan indicated substantial health benefits (greater longevity) among older adults. Clearly, having a sense of purpose matters. It matters for its own sake, and it matters for affecting other aspects of health and well-being.

What gives rise to a sense of meaning and purpose?

Remarkably little longitudinal research over time has been carried out on this question of what actually shapes meaning and purpose in life. Our program is trying to remedy that. In our analyses with the Growing Up Today Study, we found that religious service attendance, maternal attachment, and volunteering during late childhood were among the strongest predictors of subsequently having a higher sense of purpose during adolescence; marijuana use and depression tended to lead subsequently to lower levels of purpose.

Although there is certainly a need for replication in other settings, these initial analyses may help provide guidance for parents trying to shape a sense of mission and purpose for their children. At the policy level, many of the debates around marijuana legalization have focused on questions of health effects, but perhaps issues concerning the formation of purpose in life should come into play as well.

Some of our current research is also examining similar associations concerning the determinants of purpose among older adults. What we have found thus far is that purpose in life seems to be somewhat less malleable later in life than it is in adolescence and young adulthood. Although we will report more fully when our research papers are out, it seems that volunteering, in particular, has one of the largest effects on increasing purpose in life among middle-aged and older adults. But we still have more work to do.

It is clear that more research needs to be done on this important topic. Almost everyone desires to have a sense of meaning and purpose in life. The fact that we know so little, at least empirically, about what gives rise to such meaning and purpose is truly remarkable.

A New Measurement Tool

To facilitate a more careful study of the determinants of meaning and purpose, we recently introduced a new measurement tool: the Comprehensive Measure of Meaning. This measure is intended to incorporate important philosophical insights into existing psychological approaches that suggest meaning is experienced along three dimensions: cognitive coherence (having a sense of the “meaning of life”), affective significance (having a sense of “meaning in life” in one’s activities), and motivational direction or purpose (having important goals and pursuits). The Comprehensive Measure of Meaning makes use of a variety of items from previous scales, but it categorizes these in ways that are consistent with important distinctions in the philosophical literature.

We have collected data concerning the measure on a sample of over 4,000 undergraduates at the University of British Columbia and are beginning to assess its psychometric properties and to incorporate it into other datasets as well. Its use by other researchers is also most welcome. We hope that by building these new data resources, we will, over time, come to a more comprehensive understanding of what gives rise to a sense of meaning and purpose in life. We will keep you updated!

The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University aims to study and promote human flourishing, and to develop systematic approaches to the synthesis of knowledge across disciplines. You can sign up here for a monthly research e-mail from the Human Flourishing Program, or click here to follow us on Twitter. For past postings please see our Psychology Today Human Flourishing Blog.

References

Chen, Y., Kim, E.S., Koh, H.K., Frazier, A.L., and VanderWeele, T.J. (2019). Sense of mission and subsequent health and well-being among young adults: an outcome-wide analysisAmerican Journal of Epidemiology, 188(4):664-673. 

Hanson, J.A. and VanderWeele, T.J. (2020). The Comprehensive Measure of Meaning: psychological and philosophical foundations. In: M. Lee, L.D. Kubzansky, and T.J. VanderWeele (Eds.). Measuring Well-Being: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from the Social Sciences and the Humanities. Oxford University Press, forthcoming.