The benefits of developing a sense of purpose

Productive team

In my last post, I wrote about the increasing attention being paid to purpose by academic psychologists, among others. Why all the interest? 

Let me start with a confession. For many years, I assumed that purpose was a woolly and unscientific concept. I knew how good it felt to have a sense of purpose in my life, but I hesitated to talk about this, especially around my rational, scientifically minded friends. I thought that any discussion of purpose was best left to self-help guides and daytime TV. I was wrong. 

academic findings

Research has now revealed some remarkable things about what flows from developing a sense of purpose in your life and work. For example, after reviewing the relevant literature, Kendall Bronk and others (2009) concluded that purpose is a significant aspect of human flourishing, is related to greater levels of resilience, happiness, and life satisfaction, and correlates with psychological health. Similarly, Amy Wrzesniewski and others (1997) found that having a ‘calling’ (a related concept to purpose) is associated with greater health and with increased life and job satisfaction. Summarizing the research, William Damon (2008) reported that, “study after study has found a person’s sense of life purpose to be closely connected to virtually all dimensions of well-being”. 

The benefits of finding purpose extend beyond the individual alone. Damon concluded that when an individual discovers purpose, he or she is more likely to make a positive contribution to society. In the same vein, a substantial body of literature on the topic of ‘Good Work’ – defined as work that is excellent, ethical and in which the worker is fully engaged – has proposed that purpose is central to the promulgation and exercise of Good Work in society (Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi, & Damon, 2011).

real-world benefits

These academic findings are now being confirmed in real-world environments. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Nick Craig and Scott Snook describe their work helping thousands of executives develop a sense of their leadership purpose. Many of these executives, they report, are now seeing dramatic results in terms of business performance, the ability to thrive in challenging times, and promotions. For Craig and Snook, articulating your purpose - then courageously following this - is "the single most important developmental task you can undertake as a leader". 

Developing a sense of purpose can also be a huge help to students, at High School and College, who are struggling to cope with the pressures of high-stakes testing and the demands of integrating into the modern workforce. I conducted research into this topic as part of the Good Work Project, and found that students with a sense of purpose tended to feel strikingly less pressurized than students without a sense of purpose. (See here for the published research paper.)

The more I learn about the benefits of developing purpose, both from newly published academic research, and from the findings of practitioners in the field, the more impressed I am. In my next post, I describe a simple method for beginning the process of inquiring into your purpose. I encourage you to give it a go. You have little to lose - and so much to gain.