Sense of Purpose—The Most Important Strength?

The one strength that stands above the others.

Posted Jan 31, 2020

Several years ago, I started working toward a goal.  I wanted to identify the psychological strengths—individual, family, and community—that were most important for thriving after violence or other adversities.  My colleagues and I started by reviewing the literature and grouped the research that had been done so far into 3 broad categories of strengths:  self-regulation skills, meaning making, and interpersonal resources.  In terms of resilience after trauma, self-regulation and interpersonal strengths have received the most attention.  There is a ton of research on emotional regulation (albeit all mostly regulation of negative emotions, such as sadness or anger) and social support.  There are several models of strengths out there, and many of these have lots of strengths.  For example, the popular Values in Action model has 24 strengths.  Some other models have even more.

 I knew from other people’s research that not all 24 strengths in the Values in Action model were equally associated with resilience.  Still, there are huge research literatures for many strengths, and it seemed that many were important.  Unfortunately, though, there’s a much smaller literature that compares strengths to each other.  What is really important for guiding prevention and intervention is not whether something is good, but whether it is more useful than other strengths.  Where do you get the most bang for you buck, focusing on emotional regulation, social support, or something else?  I thought that the hardest job would be to narrow it down to perhaps the 9 or 10 that were most important. 

However, that’s not what happened.  So far, we have examined 35 different strengths, and the results have been surprisingly consistent:  A sense of purpose appears to contribute to well-being more than other strengths.  In one head-to-head comparison, purpose was the only strength that was uniquely associated with healthy functioning after adversity

A sense of purpose can be found in many places.  All of them involve connecting to something larger than yourself.  Dedication to a cause is one.  That’s where I find a lot of meaning in my life—by working to reduce the burden of trauma on individuals, families, and societies.  Commitment to a role is another.  For me, that includes being committed to my role as parent, and I keep going for the sake of my kids sometimes when I don’t feel like it.  Having a child is one of the most common turning points that people tell us about when they talk about what creates meaning in their lives.  Of course, religion and spirituality are age-old pathways to meaning and still central for many people.  Others are committed to a code of honor or sense of duty, such as the oaths that members of the military swear to.  There are many good ways to find meaning (and only a few problematic ones, such as joining a cult). 

Of course, this idea has been around for a while.  Finding meaning was the centerpiece of Victor Frankl’s logotherapy, which was based in part on the experiences of Holocaust survivors.  However, strangely, current research and practice often neglects meaning making in favor of focusing on factors such as self-regulation and interpersonal resources.  These are good things too, of course, but they may not be as key for overcoming trauma as connecting to something larger than yourself.  Fortunately, though, there has been a lot of work on building meaning in other fields. 

Writing For Meaning

One of the best ways to develop a sense of purpose is through narrative writing.  Almost any type of writing that is personally meaningful to you can help.  You can write about key turning points in your life, people who meant a lot to you, how you coped with difficult experiences.  Several researchers have found that a “life review” approach is helpful for increasing meaning and reducing depressionOne version of the life review intervention had people focus on several life domains over a period of 12 sessions: your name, smells from the past, past homes, resources, hands, photographs, friendship, balance, turning points, longing and desire, the future, and identity.   We have found that it works well to ask people to think about key scenes from their life, such as their high points, low points, and turning points.  These can often help illuminate what is important to you and what values drive the decisions you have made in life.  One great thing about these programs is that they do not require a lifelong commitment to journaling.  Consider writing as a path to getting in touch with what is most important to you and developing your sense of purpose.  Perhaps you, too, will feel better.

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© 2020 Sherry Hamby. All rights reserved.