An illustration on a blue background depicting a man wearing a backpack looking ahead at a path

‘What’s Your Purpose in Life?’ Psychology Prof Explains Why that Question Makes All the Difference

Anthony Burrow heads a campus lab devoted to understanding purpose’s role—and how to leverage it for the greater good

By Beth Saulnier

Psychologist Anthony Burrow runs the Purpose and Identity Processes Lab, which studies the vital role that a sense of purpose plays in human wellbeing. Also director of Human Ecology’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, Burrow has stressed the importance of purpose in such national media as Psychology Today and NPR’s podcast The Hidden Brain.

First off: could you define ‘purpose’ in this context?

A portrait of Prof. Anthony Burrow
Professor Anthony Burrow is at the forefront of the nascent psychology field of ‘purpose science.’ (Photo by Lindsay France/Cornell University)

A purpose is a self-organizing life aim. It is a view ahead—something you’re looking forward to and working toward. We think of it as a gaze that remains in front of you even as you’re moving forward. It’s not an accomplishment that has a terminal outcome. It’s bigger than that; it helps you organize your goals and know what to pursue next.

Does a purpose have to be high-minded, like ending world hunger?

No, not in my reading of the literature. Purpose isn’t some grandiose, ethereal thing. It’s something you can carry around with you and articulate in clear, specific, simple ways. A lot of people might say, “I don’t have time for purpose; I don’t know what my big contribution to the world is.” But purpose comes in all forms.

Could you clarify the difference between purpose and goals?

A disclaimer: I think goals are important. Goals have finite outcomes—to graduate, buy a house, finish a book project. Purpose is better framed as, “I want to be a good father,” or “I want to contribute to my community.” It’s something you’re working at repeatedly, and how it manifests could evolve over time.

If a purpose is open-ended, how can it help guide us day to day?

We have finite resources—sleep, energy, money, time, whatever. The clarity of one’s purpose is thought to help guide how we allocate these resources in a world that presents us with complex choices. A sense of purpose will help you narrow down who you want to be and the contributions that you can make.

What other tangible benefits does purpose give us?

Purposeful people tend to be happier, to have greater life satisfaction and self-esteem, and fewer depressive symptoms. They think of themselves as having something to offer those around them. They tend to make more money and save more, and to be less impulsive. They’re thinking about the long term; it’s not about what they can collect today, it’s about what they can accrue over time. I think the most compelling thing that purpose is associated with is longevity: purposeful people tend to live longer, and lead healthier lives.

Do researchers know why purpose is so good for us?

That’s where the cutting-edge of purpose science is—trying to explain these benefits. There’s a couple of things we can point to. One is that purposeful people tend to invest in their own health and wellbeing. They’re more likely to go to routine checkups and take care of themselves when they’re not feeling well.

Purposeful people tend to be happier, to have greater life satisfaction and self-esteem, and fewer depressive symptoms.

Why would that be?

The thought is that they’re paying attention to physical challenges that may preclude getting where they’re going—like, “If I’m thinking of myself in a future world that I want to contribute to, I have to do what is needed to show up there.” They literally invest more in hygiene like flossing and brushing their teeth; they take better care of themselves physically.

How might purpose aid mental health?

Purpose moderates reactivity to our daily experiences. It helps you remain on an even keel, so you don’t go through the floor when bad things happen nor through the roof when good things happen; you don’t want your emotions to be so contingent on your experiences that you’re bouncing around a lot over the course of the day. When you have a sense of purpose, you have a resource you can expend in stressful moments, to not be thrown off course.

Since purpose is so important, how can people cultivate it if they don’t already have it?

I like the word “cultivate,” because I think of it like a garden, something we grow. And from that perspective, we might realize that purpose requires work; there’s effort involved. It’s often not a realization stumbled upon serendipitously. Instead, we might grow purpose by more fully exploring our sense of self and identity. What do you care about? What do you value, that you’d put ahead of other things?

Can you give an example of an academic study you’ve done related to these issues?

In Chicago, we engaged college students on the El train by asking them to report their emotions at each stop; they didn’t know that we had experimenters on board, keeping track of the ethnic composition of the other passengers. We were able to determine that people feel worse when they’re around others who are ethnically dissimilar to themselves. This may not be easy to talk about; we’re a society that seemingly values ethnic diversity. But our data showed that when we’re in diverse contexts, we don’t feel as good—which I think is instructive to issues we’re seeing in society today.

How does purpose figure into this?

Before these students got on board, we had them fill out a measure of sense of purpose. This effect of feeling worse around others of different ethnicities was not there for those who scored high on their measure of purpose compared to those who scored low. And it wasn’t that they were unaware of who else was on board; they were just as accurate in their recall of the racial composition of the train.

What conclusions do you draw from that?

In an increasingly diverse society, we’re going to need resources like purpose to help us navigate these experiences. Simple prompts or nudges to consider our purpose can make us less reactive to the world around us.

Top image: Illustration by Cornell University

Published February 8, 2022


Comments

  1. Melissa Domen

    This article resonated one of my core beliefs: Some people’s purpose is not to accomplish a particular prestigious goal or to be an inspirational roadmap to others, their purpose may be an example for what not to do. With that in mind, people should be mindful of teaching others about personal mistakes made and lessons learned; that alone can inspire others to have a particular purpose. For example, my grandfather worked for a large corporation for over 19 years. After being a loyal employee for all those years, he was laid off. He and my grandmother took this experience and encouraged my mom and my aunt to do things they wish they did – go to college, pick a good marketable career, and be financially independent. This inspired my mother to start her own business, diversify her income, and not rely on any one employer, resource of funds, or even a spouse to financially support her life. Seeing my mom run a successful home-based business is the inspiration of my entrepreneurial spirit and motivation to make a difference in the world. So, one painful experience of my grandfather influenced his own purpose of teaching his children about his mistakes, the purpose of his daughter, and the purpose of his granddaughter. Taking the time to teach their children about lessons learned made my grandparents an inspiration and role models to future generations.

    Melissa Domen
    Allentown High School (NJ) Class of 2022/Cornell Class of 2026 Applicant

    • Alex Martin, Class of 1989

      Melissa,
      Given the fact that you took the time to read (and respond) to this piece tells me that you are intellectually curious and thoughtfully self-reflective. Cornell would be lucky to have someone like you!
      Alex Martin
      ‘89

  2. David Moriah, Class of 1972

    I’m fascinated by the research on students’ unease with being around people of different ethnicities correlating lack of purpose with greater unease. I’m eager to hear more about that, and if there is any kind of explanation as I don’t see an obvious connection here. It leads me to speculate and conjecture but I would love to hear the professor’s thoughts on the subject.

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