Religion, Ethics, & Morality
Economic & Political Stability
“It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” – Anne Frank
Anne Frank was 13 years old when she went into hiding from the Nazis in 1942 and began keeping a diary. Her diary reveals a hopeful, determined, and compassionate young woman living through a terrifying experience with courage unadulterated by doubt. Anne was committed to one day publishing her writing and through sharing her work hoped to improve the world.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, research shows that people in dire circumstances can have a stronger sense of purpose than those without existential pressures. This type of purpose, defined by existential urgency, is different from the kind advocated for in the purpose section overall.
Someone’s impoverishment or the presence of violence and instability can create an existentially urgent purpose while coming from a wealthier and more stable nation may create more opportunities for the experience of chosen purpose.
The primary focus of the purpose section on this site is purpose as it’s been defined and researched by academics in relation to well-being; namely, purpose as it relates to agency. This agentic type of purpose is a combination of something personally meaningful, goal-oriented, and impactful for the world beyond the self. It is self-defined and self-cultivated, and can also be referred to as Purpose in Life, growth purpose, or chosen purpose.
Chosen purpose is different from the kind that emerges during dire life circumstances (such as war, starvation, etc.). Although it is not often explicitly distinguished in the academic literature, it will be distinguished here as existentially urgent purpose. Because life itself in dire circumstances is seen as (or actually is) threatened, actions and experiences can take on more significance. Therefore personal actions may feel more meaningful and have a deeper effect on others.
While trying circumstances can certainly inspire and define a variety of purposes in Life (and often do!), occasionally the measures in research will mix chosen purposes together with the increased sense of meaningfulness that comes from existentially urgent purpose. Existentially urgent purpose suits Viktor Frankl’s theory that humans are motivated by a “will to meaning,” or the desire to have a meaningful life. Frankl witnessed that those who found a sense of meaning during their suffering in the concentration camps were more likely to survive.
It is this second flavor of purpose, i.e. purpose defined partially by traumatic circumstance, that is most relevant to the content below.
Socioeconomic factors are related to value systems; Both influence our sense of purpose
A world survey on values published in 2005 explored values along two spectrums: self-expression vs security values and secular-rational vs traditional values. The outcomes were fairly easily overlapped with the socio-economic status of the countries measured, showing that poorer nations were more likely to value survival and traditional values, while wealthier nations were more likely to value secular and self-expression values.
Take a look through the breakdown of value systems they measured. Which of these categories do you most align with?
Quoted directly from report15:
Secular Rational Values
“…have the opposite preferences to the traditional values. These societies place less emphasis on religion, traditional family values, and authority. Divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide are seen as relatively acceptable. (Suicide is not necessarily more common.)”
“…emphasize the importance of religion, parent-child ties, deference to authority, and traditional family values. People who embrace these values also reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. These societies have high levels of national pride and a nationalistic outlook.”
“…give high priority to environmental protection, growing tolerance of foreigners, gays and lesbians and gender equality, and rising demands for participation in decision-making in economic and political life.”
“…place emphasis on economic and physical security. It is linked with a relatively ethnocentric outlook and low levels of trust and tolerance.”
Researchers plotted out the data by country and each fell into a category along each axis. When you reference the map that plots out each country according to their values, one can see that countries defined by the World Bank as being high-income societies often ranked higher in Secular-Rational and Self-Expression values.
The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map – World Values Survey 7 (2020) [Provisional version]. Source: http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/
Did you find your country on the chart? Do you feel that your country’s general location on this chart reflects your own? How do you think your economic status relative to your country overall impacts your value system?
The socioeconomic status of your nation and related culture relates to purpose because when someone is in a poorer, less stable environment, they are more likely to have not only traditional and survival values, but also a higher sense of existentially urgent purpose- namely, heightened meaningfulness (not necessarily agentic/chosen purpose). On the other hand, those in wealthier, more stable environments may have less of this type of inherent meaningfulness, but greater aptitude for agentic purpose, as their value systems allow for a different relationship to purpose.
Paul Froese dug up statistics from the 2007 Gallup World Poll and discussed the interesting patterns in On Purpose. Liberia, one of the poorest countries in the world with the most hardship, ranks first in purposefulness in the poll (that asked, “Do you feel that your life has an important purpose or meaning?”). Because they live in a time of crisis, purposelessness is unfathomable to them. Likewise, 99% of people in Congo, Ghana, Mali and Nigeria respond the same. Froese points out that all of these countries, “are either poor or corrupt or war-torn or all of the above.”
While one may point to the purpose of life supplied by religiosity (that tends to be higher in these areas of the world),9, 17, 18, 19 Froese credits this sense of purposefulness and meaning to the ‘existential urgency’ demanded by the trying life circumstances in these places. One must fight to survive in such environments, and basic survival is the original purpose for humans. Like Scott Barry Kaufman’s sailboat of needs, people in insecure life circumstances are working on keeping their boats afloat. The meaningfulness lies in keeping their boats floating, while in more developed nations people have the choice to build a sail.
The choice to build a sail and move your boat in an elected direction becomes a privilege of modern, more economically advanced and secure nations. Froese argues that purposelessness (choosing not to move your boat towards something) becomes possible here due to the absence of existential urgency. Without needing to fight to survive, purpose transforms into a transcendent, non-necessary element. Catching the wind is optional; all you really need to do in life is keep your head above water, right?
Certainly this is what many folks (with the means to choose) choose. There is nothing wrong with this outcome, although it must be acknowledged that these people probably miss out on an opportunity for greater fulfillment.
None of this is intended to persuade you that you need to be impoverished or otherwise experiencing instability or “existential urgency” to cultivate a sense of purpose. This data is offered to explore possible explanations for correlational patterns that emerge in purpose data, and to explore the different conceptions of purpose that are measured internationally. The crux of this piece is to illuminate that life circumstances influence our sense of purpose, and those life circumstances may determine the type of purpose we are most likely to engage with.
- Chosen purpose is different from the kind that emerges during dire life circumstances (such as war, starvation, etc.), i.e., existentially urgent purpose.
- The socioeconomic status of your nation and related culture relates to purpose because when someone is in a poorer, less stable environment, they are more likely to have not only traditional and survival values, but also a higher sense of existentially urgent purpose- namely, heightened meaningfulness (not necessarily agentic/chosen purpose).
- Purposelessness becomes possible in the absence of existential urgency when security and affluence are also present. Without needing to fight to survive, purpose transforms into a transcendent, non-necessary element.