Purpose is a relatively new thing to research. Viktor Frankl initiated studying meaning in life as an actor on well-being and life outcomes in the 1940’s, inspiring us to look at meaning and purpose in a new light. The majority of purpose research has emerged since the 1990s, becoming more popular into the 2000’s.
This page is an overview of many of the benefits associated with having a sense of Purpose, offering descriptions of supportive studies. If you’re looking for the simple statements that summarize the benefits, refer to the titles and bolded statements throughout the page (or read the bulleted summary). However, if you’re curious to understand the nuance behind how these conclusions have been drawn, please enjoy exploring the curated science below!
Please note the important scientific principle, correlation is not causation. While the following studies are fascinating and may indicate that Purpose brings with it life-changing benefits, they do not necessarily mean that Purpose is the cause of these outcomes. It is possible that these other associations cause Purpose, or that a third unidentified variable is responsible for the presence of both.
Emotional and Mental Well-being
Purpose is correlated with greater happiness, optimism, hope, and overall life satisfaction.
Kendall Bronk has dedicated much of her career to studying Purpose. She surveyed three age groups (adolescents, emerging adults, and adults) regarding the impact of having and searching for Purpose on life satisfaction.
“…having identified a purpose in life is associated with greater life satisfaction in adolescence, emerging adulthood, and adulthood. Searching for a purpose, however, is associated with greater life satisfaction for adolescents and emerging adults, but not for adults.”(Cotton Bronk 2009)
A 2010 study took a look at four different ways youth could engage (or not) with their identity and how that stage corresponded with Purpose: Achieved (purpose is explored and committed to), Foreclosed (purpose is committed to but options haven’t been explored), Uncommitted (lots of exploration but no commitment), and Diffused (no exploration and no commitment). They found that youth who committed to a purpose were happier, more hopeful, and had a higher sense of agency (Burrow 2019). This study foreshadows William Damon’s work on Dreamers, Dabblers, Disengaged, and Purposeful.
Gary Reker and other researchers studied several attitudes towards life in the context of five different life stages. They measured sense of control in life, purpose in life, will to meaning, and goal seeking amongst a few others. One notable discovery was that an increasing sense of purposefulness as one ages is associated with an increase in life-satisfaction when compared to younger age groups (Reker 1987).
McKinsey is a global consulting firm that aids other companies in implementing change and technology for success. In one of their recent research projects done during the COVID-19 pandemic, they found that people who claimed to be living their purpose at work reported levels of well-being 5x higher than those who said they were not. Those with purpose were also 4x more likely to say they were highly engaged (Emmett et. al 2020).
Purpose predicts less boredom, less anxiety, less loneliness, less depression.
Researcher Gary Reker did a study with community dwelling and institutionalized elderly in 1997 to understand the relationship between having a sense of agency and feeling depressed. Through overlapping various surveys he found that people with a higher sense of purpose, agency, and personal meaning were less likely to have depression (Reker 1997).
In a study focusing on the role of purpose in depression, suicide, and substance abuse, 722 adolescents filled in surveys. The results showed that purpose in life mediated suicidality, depression, and alcohol usage. Interestingly enough, the study also demonstrated that college-aged men and women respond differently to a lack of purpose or depression. For depression, men were more likely to drink whereas women were more likely to ideate. In the instance of lack of purpose, the reverse was true (Harlow 1986).
A study focusing on retired volunteers showed that those who reported feeling purposeful were far less prone to boredom (Weinstein 1986). Another study showcased that changes in sense of meaning in life was a better predictor of boredom than depression and anxiety (Fahlman 2009).
Another study conducted during COVID-19 showed that people who reported having a purpose in life were less lonely (Kang 2021). Beyond the pandemic, a study focusing on older men in New Zealand demonstrated that a greater sense of purpose was likewise an indicator of less loneliness (Neville 2018).
Purpose can contribute to greater resilience by aiding in emotional regulation, energizing you, and reducing fear and stress.
In general, studies indicate that having a sense of meaning is related to feeling less stressed through enhancing resilience and affirming our personal values (both components of purposefulness) (Mascaro 2006; Crowell 2015). An interesting study focusing on black youth showed that kids with more purpose and less depression were better able to withstand the influence of exposure to violence in their communities. Those with a greater sense of purpose exhibited less violence in relation to higher levels of exposure (DuRant 1994).
Similarly resilience through purpose has been shown in the realms of burnout, trauma and stress amongst social workers in the United Nations. Those with purpose had less burnout, trauma and stress! (Singer 2019) Recalling the work of Viktor Frankl, a meta-analytic focusing on the impact of meaning in life and PTSD in military personnel found that having a sense of meaning in life was related to better adjustment to traumatic events (Fischer 2020). As purpose is heavily correlated with higher overall psychological well-being, one could also extrapolate resilience benefits of psychological well-being to purpose, namely that those with higher psychological well-being are slower and less likely to judge an aversive event as negative versus neutral, so they recover faster emotionally (van Reekum 2007).
Additional Research: Kashdan & McKnight 2009
“He who has a Why to live can bear almost any How.” – Nietzsche
Purposeful people are often more confident, behaviorally consistent, and stick with their goals.
“Grit” is a personality trait coined by researcher Angela Duckworth and refers to a combination of perseverance and passion. Some credit the ability to succeed to grittiness. In a study with Canadian college students in which grit was measured, it was found that purpose correlated more strongly with higher levels of grit than happiness alone (Hill et. al 2016).
Kendall Bronk focuses her research on youth development at the moral development lab through Claremont University. In a small scale study she ran focusing on eight adolescents, she asked people in the community to nominate adolescents they knew who were exemplars of purpose. She followed them for five years, completing interviews occasionally. The study concluded that a sense of purpose enhances identity formation which in turn reinforced commitment to purpose-related goals (Bronk 2011).
A fascinating study from 2016 showed that folks who wrote a few sentences about their purpose in life or scored high on a sense-of-purpose test were able to more accurately predict both the effort involved in climbing a hill and how steep it was, while the control group significantly over-estimated both (Burrow, Hill, & Sumner 2016). Purposefulness could play an important role in helping people stay motivated while more accurately understanding what is involved in attaining their goals.
In optimal purpose, the specific goals involved in your purpose are those that align with your personal values, interests, and skills. These types of goals are known as “self-concordant.” A meta-analytic study on self-concordant goals showed they were better predictors of motivation, persistent effort, and goal attainment (Sheldon 2014)(Torrance 1995).
People with Purpose often have better and more abundant relationships.
In a survey of over 7,000 people, researchers explored the impact of believing your life and actions were meaningful and worthwhile (an essential component of purpose). More meaningfulness in life was correlated with stronger, more abundant relationships, more social engagement, and less loneliness (Steptoe & Fancourt 2019). In another study exploring people who were self-reportedly “living the good life,” (defined as purposeful and including goals that are meaning-based) reported 24% more feelings of being loved and 29% well-liked (Leider 2009).
Learning and mental acuity is enhanced by having Purpose.
Gallup is a global analytics and advice firm that regularly collects data on international issues. The State of Global Well-Being report from 2014 showcased interesting findings on the role of purpose in well-being. In terms of cognitive advantage, a higher sense of purpose was correlated with doubling the likelihood of learning something new each day (Gallup 2014).
Through a series of phone interviews focusing on cognition and aging, one study showed that purpose in life was associated with higher scores for memory, executive functioning, and overall cognition (Lewis et. al 2017). In similar longitudinal studies and meta-analyses, purpose has also correlated with faster brain processing speed, more accurate memory, lower levels of disability and depression in aging adults and protects against cognitive decline overall (Windsor et al 2015) (Kim et al 2019) (Sutin et. al 2021).
Additional Research: Kashdan & McKnight 2009
Purpose seems to have a big role in addiction recovery.
A study focusing on cocaine-addicted patients in a 30-day treatment program showed that those with a higher sense of purpose were significantly less likely to relapse six months after treatment (Martin et. al 2011).
Internet Gaming Disorder is a condition of persistent involvement in online gaming that mimics other addictions. In a study of 500 Chinese college students, the University of Macau found that feeling purposeful and pursuing a purpose was protective against developing Internet Gaming Disorder (Zhang et. al 2019).
Several studies indicate that a higher sense of purpose is correlated with less drug abuse. Whether concerning drugs amongst middle-class 10th graders, drug abuse or suicidal ideation in response to depression, drug use amongst those with little meaning, or the temptation to drink generally, a lack of purpose and meaning in life are deeply related to the likelihood of abusing drugs and alcohol (Padelford 1974) (Harlow et. al 1986) (Nicholson et. al 1994) (Roos et. al 2015) (Marsh et. al 2003).
Purpose is connected to being healthy! It may improve immunity and healing efficiency.
In a study focusing on the health of someone’s genes in relation to their well-being, researchers found a link between eudaimonic well-being and health. Defining eudaimonic well-being as well-being “that results from striving toward meaning and a noble purpose beyond simple self-gratification,” their results showed a correlation between eudaimonia and greater levels of antibody and antiviral response, as well as healthier genes and cell structures (Frederickson et. al 2013). Purposeful people may get sick less often and fight off sickness faster than others. Similarly, another study focusing on eudaimonic well-being in older women discovered they typically had lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) throughout the day, were less likely to be overweight, and had lower cholesterol (Ryff et. al 2004).
Research suggests that purposeful people are more likely to engage in preventive medicine, resulting in 32% fewer doctor visits and 61% fewer overnights in the hospital per year (Kim et. al 2014). They are also therefore less at risk for disability (Boyle et. al 2010).
Even if someone with a high sense of purpose ends up getting injured, there’s evidence that they may heal more quickly and with less emotional disturbance. A study on people having knee surgery found that people who scored high on a purpose in life test experienced less anxiety, less depression, less negative affect, less functional disability, and less stiffness (Smith et. al 2004).
Having a purpose in life is associated with greater longevity and healthier aging.
There is a plethora of research supporting a strong beneficial relationship between purpose and healthy aging (Windsor et. al 2015). Not only are you likely to live longer (one study over 7 years found elderly with purpose more likely to survive the length of the study (Sone et. al 2008), but it is associated with lowering your mortality risk by 17% (Boyle et. al 2010)(Cohen et. al 2016). Specific studies on purpose and having a stroke show that purposeful people are 22% less likely to exhibit risk factors for stroke and 52% less likely to have experienced a stroke (Hill & Turiano 2014)(Park et. al 2008).And beyond physical well-being into old age, it appears purpose keeps you sharp. A study focusing on Alzheimer’s disease showed that the elderly who scored 90th percentile (high) in their purpose in life test were 2.4 times more likely to not develop Alzheimer’s, compared to those who scored in the 10th percentile (low) (Boyle et. al 2010). On top of that, a high sense of purpose is associated with being 2.5 times more likely to be free of dementia entirely (Hill & Turiano 2014).
Better sleep and better sex seem to be related to living purposefully.
Older adults who experience sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome could find relief through cultivating purpose. A study examining the effects of purposefulness on sleep quality showed an improvement in overall sleep for those with a sense of purpose, and relief from apnea or restless leg syndrome for those you scored as having a high sense of purpose (Turner et. al 2017).
While there hasn’t been a ton of research on the impact of purpose on your sex-life, we can at least say women in mid-life (40-65 years)experience a positive effect. While the quantity of sex does not increase, more enjoyment of sexually intimate activities was associated with a higher sense of purpose (Prairie et. al 2011).
Life-Style and Character Associations
Purposefulness seems to be related to wealth and financial success. Not only were people who scored high on a Purpose In Life test more likely to have higher incomes and networth than those that scored lower, but a sense of purpose is correlated with a 47% increase in feelings of abundance (Hill et. al 2016) (Leider 2009). You could be wealthier AND feel wealthier!
Purpose in the workplace has been explored by various research institutions hoping to capitalize on the new purpose-driven economy. Interested in measuring how purpose impacts the performance of employees, studies have shown that purpose-driven employees are 125-225% more productive and 4x more likely to be engaged at work than those who are not purpose-driven (Garton & Mankins 2017) (Gallup 2014). Within these workplaces, feeling purposeful was correlated with a 50% increase in the likelihood of being in a leadership position (LinkedIn 2016).
As far as character goes, purpose is correlated with a slew of admirable traits. In a study examining eight young adults who were exemplars of purpose, each were shown to have high scores in wisdom, transcendence, curiosity, and temperance (Mariano et. al 2019). Another study based on surveys and interviews over the course of two years showed that having a sense of purpose is related to the traits of gratitude, compassion, and grit in young adults (Malin et. al 2017). An informative study that surveyed participants in their senior year of college and again thirteen years later discovered that those who stated a prosocial purpose in the first survey were predictive of greater generativity, personal growth, and integrity (Hill et. al 2010).
- Having a high sense of Purpose is correlated with oodles of wonderful, life-affirming traits, feelings, and circumstances. Whether or not Purpose is the cause of these things is not clear.
- Purpose is correlated with greater happiness, optimism, hope, and overall life satisfaction.
- Purpose predicts less boredom, less anxiety, less loneliness, less depression.
- Purposeful people are often more confident, behaviorally consistent, and stick with their goals
- People with Purpose often have better and more abundant relationships.
- Learning and mental acuity is enhanced by having Purpose.
- Purpose seems to have a big role in addiction recovery.
- Purpose is connected to being healthy! It may improve immunity and healing efficiency.
- Having a purpose in life is associated with greater longevity and healthier aging.
- Better sleep and better sex seem to be related to living purposefully.
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