Elizabeth Nelson; Jason Koski (UPhoto)
Elizabeth Nelson; Jason Koski (UPhoto)

The Benefits of Having a Sense of Purpose

by Jackie Swift

Stop and think for a moment: What gives your life purpose? You may find this difficult to answer. You may even think at first that you have no purpose, but as you reflect on the question, your answer and the sense of balance it brings may surprise you.

A sense of purpose is integral to the human experience, says Anthony L. Burrow, Human Development. “Purpose is a forward-looking directionality, an intention to do something in the world,” he says. “It’s different than a goal, which can be accomplished. Wanting to be a father is a goal because it is achievable. But to be a great father is more of an intention than an achievement. On some days, one might come closer to the ideal than others, but it is never a completed task.”

Having a sense of purpose brings lifelong benefits, Burrow explains. He points to research by others that has shown that purposeful people actually tend to live longer and are less sick. “The findings are mind-blowing,” he says. “The question I am asking is, why? What is purpose actually doing for people?”

Staying Even-Keel in Negative Situations

One of Burrow’s earliest research studies looked at the role a sense of purpose plays in how we relate to the world around us. He and his collaborators asked college students in Chicago to ride the north-south train corridor from one end to the other. The researchers already knew from others’ studies that people feel increasingly uncomfortable the more people around them diverge from their own racial and ethnic background. Now they wanted to see whether a sense of purpose had any impact on that phenomenon.

Burrow and his colleagues asked the students beforehand to write for five minutes about what gave their life purpose or about the last movie they had seen, the latter serving as a control question. Then the students boarded the train and recorded their mood at each stop along the way. Unknown to them, the researchers were also keeping track of the ethnic composition of the passengers in the train car.

“We are confronted with the ups and downs of life, but purpose is an active ingredient that helps us stay stable.”

As expected, the students who had written about the control question recorded feeling increasingly uneasy as the ethnic makeup of their fellow passengers diverged from their own ethnicity. However, those who had written about their sense of purpose had a different outcome. “They were emotionally even-keel,” Burrow says. “Their mood was not contingent on the population of the passengers around them. This is one of the things we believe a sense of purpose affords us; it gives a sense of psychological homeostasis. We are confronted with the ups and downs of life, but purpose is an active ingredient that helps us stay stable.”

Everyone Can Access the Benefits of Purpose

In the train study, some of the participants may not have initially been cognizant of their own sense of purpose, but when asked to reflect on it, they reaped the benefits as much as those who were already aware. “It’s not a story of the haves and have nots,” Burrow says. “The rest of us, too, can access the benefits of purpose. Even with a fleeting opportunity to reflect on it, purpose mitigates reactivity.”

This finding was born out in another study in which Burrow had participants first take a survey to ascertain their level of purpose in life and then keep a diary for 14 to 21 days. Those who scored higher on a sense of purpose recorded just as many everyday hassles as other people, but they weren’t as emotionally affected by them. “It’s not the absence of stress, it’s how we react to it,” Burrow says. “That’s potentially the explanatory mechanism that affects health. Purposeful people can mitigate stress that would otherwise derail them.”

Resisting the Influence of Positive Feedback

Burrow was intrigued by his findings. If a sense of purpose truly offers a homeostatic set point for people, he reasoned, then it should work not only for negative situations but for positive ones, too. So the Burrow lab devised a new study, bringing student volunteers into the laboratory ostensibly to test a new social networking site. In reality, there was no site, and the computers were not hooked up to the internet.

The participants were given a survey to measure their sense of purpose, then asked to start building a profile by first posting a selfie. After 15 minutes, the researchers told them that their selfies had gotten a below average, average, or above average number of likes. “We actually manufactured greater self-esteem in the people who were told that their selfie got more than the average number of likes,” Burrow says.

However, those who had scored higher on the measure of purpose beforehand didn’t experience greater self-esteem. In fact, they didn’t react to being told they had more likes. “This indicates that whatever purpose is doing, it isn’t just disrupting negative experiences; it’s also having a measurable effect on positive experiences,” Burrow continues. “It helps people stave off reactivity to something like getting a lot of likes on social media, which is a good thing because you don’t want your self-esteem to be dependent on other people’s opinions.”

A Sense of Purpose in Adolescents

Until about 15 years ago, purpose was thought to be primarily an adult phenomenon, but Burrow and others have questioned that belief. “Purpose is not just the domain of older adults,” he says. “When we ask young people what are you going to major in, what are your interests, purpose is a part of that conversation. As adolescents, when we think about who we are, aren’t we also thinking about who we want to become? Purpose is a developmental asset, and the earlier we start to cultivate it, the better off we are.”

To explore the effects of purpose on youth, the Burrow lab worked with the New York State 4‑H organization. The researchers had adolescents write about their sense of purpose or about a control question before attending the first day of a new 4‑H program. The youth who did not write about purpose reported that they found the program less interesting, while those who did, reported more engagement with the program content. Based on those results, the Burrow lab, in collaboration with 4‑H, built an app called Pioneer that educators can use to encourage adolescents to think about purpose in their lives.

“The kids can access this app, and it guides them through the exact questions we used in this study—questions like, ‘What is your purpose?’ and ‘Where does it come from?’” Burrow says. “That gets the kids thinking about their purpose. Then, when you give them new information, they’re thinking, ‘How can I use this where I’m going?’ They’re not checking out; they’re thinking about the future.”