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3 Crucial Discoveries About Purpose in Life

We all strive to find meaning and cultivate a sense of purpose.

Key points

  • Purpose has been the focus of significant scientific research.
  • Research has shown that purpose is correlated with health, wealth, and happiness.
  • Research has shown that purpose can alter our perceptions.
  • Research has shown that purpose just might be increased by perceiving connections in our world.
Krakenimages com/Shutterstock
Source: Krakenimages com/Shutterstock

Purpose in life is a hot topic. Particularly these days, we're all striving to find meaning and cultivate a sense of purpose in our life. Yet few people know that there is actually a large and established body of empirical psychological research examining this topic. Decades of study on purpose in life has shown us three important things:

1. Purpose is correlated with health, wealth, and happiness.

Cross-sectional research has shown that possessing a sense of purpose in life is a powerful predictor of numerous positive outcomes. Purposeful people have stronger immune systems (Fredrickson et al., 2013), recover more quickly from surgery (Kim et al., 2013), and even live longer (Hill & Turiano, 2014). Possessing a sense of purpose has also been shown to correlate with economic success (Hill et al., 2019). Finally, people at every stage of life are happier when they possess a sense of purpose (Bronk et al., 2009).

2. Purpose can alter your perceptions.

In a clever study spearheaded by my colleague, Dr. Anthony Burrow, participants were placed at the bottom of a steep hill (Burrow, Hill & Sumner, 2015). Participants were then asked to gauge the angle of the grade up the hill and how much effort would be required to ascend it. Those who possessed a greater sense of purpose actually viewed the hill as less steep and more easily surmountable, suggesting that purpose can shape how individuals perceive their environment.

3. Purpose is all about patterns (maybe).

Significant study has highlighted how purpose affects one's psychology. Yet, the million-dollar question remains: How can someone actually develop a sense of purpose, and can we increase our sense of purpose? If purpose is so beneficial, everyone should want to foster this salubrious sense. Unfortunately, the research on this front isn't so clear, but one interesting study does implicate the "Meaning Maintenance Model" (or "MMM").

Essentially, human beings are pattern detectors. We expect that certain things will be associated with one another: Good people will make good decisions, winter will bring cold weather, and dogs will bark (rather than meow). According to the MMM, these "congruent" experiences are necessary in order to sustain one's sense of purpose in life. Whenever expected associations are violated by unexpected experiences ("incongruence"), we feel that our life does not make sense, and our feelings of purpose decline.

In their seminal four-part study, Heintzelman, Trent & King (2013) found for the first time that one's subjective sense of purpose in life could be manipulated by external cues. Participants were randomly split into "coherent" and "incoherent" conditions. In Studies 1 and 2, participants in the coherent conditions viewed photos of trees in seasonal change presented in a natural order (spring, summer, autumn, winter), whereas the incoherent conditions saw the same photos in a random order. In Studies 3 and 4, participants in the coherent conditions were exposed to word triads with a common association (e.g., food, knife, napkin) whereas participants in the incoherent conditions were exposed to discordant word triads (e.g. guitar, airplane, cold).

In each of these four studies, participants exposed to coherent stimuli reported experiencing a greater sense of purpose than those exposed to incoherent stimuli. These exciting results suggest that simply perceiving coherent connections in virtually any sphere of life might promote a sense of purpose.

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Bronk, K. C., Hill, P. L., Lapsley, D. K., Talib, N., & Finch, H. (2009). Purpose, hope, and life satisfaction in three age groups. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4, 500–510.

Hill, P. L., Cheung, F., Kubel, A., & Burrow, A. L. Life engagement is associated with higher GDP among societies. (2019). Journal of Research in Personality, 78, 210-214.

Fredrickson, B. L., Grewen, K. M., Coffey, K. A., Algoe, S. B., Firestine, A. M., Arevalo, J. M., ... & Cole, S. W. (2013). A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(33), 13684-13689.

Kim, E. S., Sun, J. K., Park, N., Kubzansky, L. D., & Peterson, C. (2013). Purpose in life and reduced risk of myocardial infarction among older US adults with coronary heart disease: a two-year follow-up. Journal of behavioral medicine, 36(2), 124-133.

Hill, P. L., & Turiano, N. A. (2014). Purpose in Life as a Predictor of Mortality Across Adulthood. Psychological Science, 25(7), 1482–1486.

Heintzelman, S. J., Trent, J., & King, L. A. (2013). Encounters with objective coherence and the experience of meaning in life. Psychological Science, 24(6), 991–998.