Having purpose matters. Science proves it.

(Image: Shutterstock)

“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”

― Fyodor Dostoyevsky,
The Brothers Karamazov

Dostoyevsky was right: We all need something to live for.
Finding purpose makes life worth living.

Science agrees:

People with a sense of purpose had a
15% lower risk of death
compared with those who said they were more or less aimless.

(Hill & Turiano, 2014)

Percentage of workers who prioritize purpose over pay:

(Purpose at Work, 2016 Global Report | LinkedIn and © Imperative)

People with purpose are more likely to:
– be confident in their abilities
– feel optimistic and hopeful
– have more grit and diligence

(Boyle, Buchman, Wilson, & Bennett, 2010; Kass et al., 1991; Lyubomirsky, Tkach, & DiMatteo, 2006; Steger & Frazier, 2005;
Bronk, Hill, Lapsley, Talib & Finch, 2009; Damon, ORBITER interview, 2018)

Having a purpose in life makes you more likely to:
• be in good health • have lower cholesterol • get better sleep • be more active
• eat more veggies • floss more often (really!) • avoid Alzheimer’s disease

Note: Results are correlational, not necessarily causational.
(Ryff, Singer, & Love, 2004; Boyle, Buchman, Barnes, & Bennett, 2010;
Boyle, Buchman, & Bennett, 2010; Hill, Edmonds, & Hampson, 2017)

Do you know the purpose of life?
How 1,022 people from around the world answered:

    (Survelum Public Data Bank)

    What is purpose?

    (Credit: Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely, 1965, via Creative Commons)

    In his 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, wrote about his experiences at Auschwitz. Frankl observed that prisoners who had found purpose in life were more likely to survive the experience. Finding meaning sustained them through horrific conditions. Frankl writes:

    “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”

    Frankl would go on to suggest that all people desire to discover a purpose for their lives. His book and research laid the groundwork for studying the role of purpose in human functioning. The more recent advent of “positive psychology” has led to still more scientific interest in understanding the role of purpose.

    Modern science says the best definition of purpose includes three aspects:

    1. A long-term, far horizon goal 2. that is personally meaningful, and 3. inspired by a desire to make a difference in the broader world.

    “The reality is that adolescents want to think about their purpose in life. When we talk to them, they say, ‘This is the stuff I want to think about and talk about, but nobody asks me about it.’ But I’m very hopeful for this generation.”

    — Kendall Cotton Bronk

    Associate Professor of Psychology, Claremont Graduate University

    Superheroes on Purpose

    Researchers discovered a relationship between purpose and heroism while reviewing historical documents — including these two cases: For Óscar Romero, purpose begat heroism. A Catholic archbishop, Romero spoke out against poverty, injustice, and persecution in El Salvador — noble purposes indeed. A day after delivering a sermon on government repression and violations of human rights, he was gunned down while celebrating Mass at a small chapel, dying a martyr’s death. For Miep Gies, heroism begat purpose. An Austrian who hadn’t felt strongly one way or another about the plight of Jews, Gies and her family ended up hiding Anne Frank’s family in their home, protecting them from the Nazi regime. After that dangerous and heroic act, Gies spent the rest of her life advocating for equal treatment for all.

    (Bronk & Riches, 2017; Images — Romero by J. Puig Reixach, 2013, via Creative Commons; Gies by Rob Bogaerts / Anefo, 1987, via Creative Commons.)

    30,000 Days

    living life with meaning and purpose

    How to Find Your Purpose in Life

    6 steps to a more meaningful existence

    Reading is a great way to connect with people you’ll never know, across time and space. One study found that teens who read the Bible more tend to have a stronger sense of purpose. Another showed a link between reading poetry and fiction and a sense of purpose. And of course, reading about people or causes that inspire you can help you zero in on a particular purpose.

    People who turn pain into something positive tend to grow in purpose . . . especially if that “something positive” is directed toward others. One young woman who grew up in poverty and domestic violence turned to self-destructive habits as a teen. But as she matured, she was drawn to kids with “issues,” and reached out to help them. She now makes a habit of helping damaged people find healing.

    Certain behaviors and mindsets — like gratitude, awe, and altruism — help promote a sense of purpose. Giving thanks helps us contribute to a world outside of ourselves. Awe makes us feel connected to something bigger than ourselves. And altruism helps us make a difference beyond ourselves. Anytime your actions and attitudes are for the sake of others, you’re practicing purpose.

    When someone tells you you’re good at something, take it not just as a compliment, but as an affirmation that using your gifts well is a way to act with purpose. One man who works with children with behavioral issues thought his job was a dead-end . . . till a former client told him he’d changed her life. “Something clicked,” he said, “and I knew this was my path.”

    Finding and building community are key ways to discover your purpose, because sometimes it’s found in the people around us — and the way we interact with or help them. After growing up in a strict, conservative home, one woman decided she’d exhibit more grace and compassion in her own faith, “to be a good Christian and role model, to be a blessing to other people.”

    You have a story to share; we all do. What obstacles have you encountered? How did you do so? How did others help you? How did you help others? “We all have the ability to make a narrative out of our own lives,” says Emily Esfahani Smith, author of The Power of Meaning. “It gives us a framework that helps us make sense of our experiences.” Creating a narrative can help us to see how our strengths can make a difference in the world. And there’s no better purpose than that.

    (adapted from Greater Good magazine)


    And find out just how purpose-driven you are.

    on a scale of 12-60 possible points
    (12 = very low, 60 = very high)

    Modern research says there are three primary aspects to overall purpose—personal meaningfulness, orientation toward a goal, and a desire to make a difference in the world.

    Note: This online survey is meant only for general usage and is not intended to give you a definitive answer or “diagnosis” of your purpose in life. Studies find that purpose develops over the course of adolescence and adulthood. As a result, adults are likely to have higher scores than college-aged youth, who are likely to have higher scores than high schoolers. Adapted from Claremont Purpose Scale (Bronk, Riches, & Mangan, 2018). Special thanks to Kendall Cotton Bronk for permission to use in this context.

    Purposeful Cinema

    24 movies on the search for meaning.

    Arrival (2016) | Babette’s Feast (1987) | Born into Brothels (2004) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Contact (1997) | Fearless (1993) | Groundhog Day (1993) | Ikiru (1956) | Into Great Silence (2005) | The Iron Giant (1999) | Life Is Beautiful (1997) | Millions (2004) | My Dinner with Andre (1981) | Paterson (2016) | Ratatouille (2007) | The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) | Selma (2014) | Signs (2002) | The Station Agent (2003) | Stranger Than Fiction (2006) | Tender Mercies (1983) | Three Colors: Blue (1993) | The Tree of Life (2011) | Up (2009)

    Dig Deeper

    More reading and viewing on purpose and meaning.

    A special shoutout to the John Templeton Foundation and the Adolescent Moral Development Lab at Claremont Graduate University for their help in compiling this project.