What Kind of Life Purpose Leads to Meaning in Life?

Steve Jobs once said that Apple’s mission was to ‘dent the universe’.  That is, he was driven to make a difference in the world above and beyond profit. Yet other people – can’t think who – seem to have far more of a ‘self-related’ purpose in that their primary objective seems to be to make as much money and to be as personally successful as possible.

In my research I decided to test the idea that there are two types of purpose – ‘self-related’ and ‘transcendent’.  I also wanted to test if either type of purpose would predict meaning in work more strongly.

Using a measure of purpose originally developed at Stanford, my factor analysis found that there are indeed two broad types of purpose.  Most people have self-related purpose (after all we all need to eat), but some people also seem to have a transcendent purpose as well.

Now, self-related purposes are not ‘bad’ nor are transcendent purposes ‘good’.  For example, it is perfectly possible to have a self-related purpose of making money to provide for one’s friends or family.  Conversely you could argue Hitler had a transcendent purpose.

The difference is simply in terms of how people interact with the world.  Those with a stronger self-related purpose will focus more on their immediate surroundings.  They may try to ignore extraneous information from beyond their immediate context.

Those with a transcendent purpose need to affect the world around them through their work.  So over time, they must learn more about the world around them and their place within it.  This is what slowly generates meaning in work.


My research found that those with a self related purpose do indeed experience less meaning in work than those who also have a strong transcendent purpose.  In fact,  high levels of self-related purpose negatively predict meaning in work – something I had not even dared to hypothesise.

Interestingly, not only did the item ‘My purpose at work is to make money’ negatively predict meaning in work (bang in line with theory), it was also associated with lower engagement at work. Money can’t buy you love, nor it seems employee engagement.

There was also no association of making money with psychological wellbeing, which confirms the findings of happiness researchers everywhere.  However, the transcendent purpose scale did significantly predict psychological wellbeing.

The implication is clear: if you want meaning in work, then you need to work out how you can ‘dent the universe’ in some way.  Then go out there and learn how to do it.  Meaning will follow.

3 thoughts on “What Kind of Life Purpose Leads to Meaning in Life?

  1. Hi Rob,
    Especially liked your illustration that there are no inherently good or bad transcendent purposes, i.e., reference to Hitler, in terms of personal satisfaction. Really helped me remove the judgement piece that can sometimes, for me, get in the way of learning.

    1. Thanks, Robyn. You make an interesting point – I also find that my own judgments get in the way of learning. I also get clients who think they ‘should’ be doing such and such a job, because they want to make a difference, even though their highest priority is to care for their family. Creates terrible tension and self criticism. Thanks again for your comments Robyn, much appreciated.

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