What Kind of 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 affect or make a difference in the world above and beyond profit.

Yet many people 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 need to eat), but some people also seem to have a transcendent purpose as well, which is broader and more outward looking.

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 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 and have less need to understand the world more broadly. 

They may also try to ignore extraneous information from beyond their immediate context, especially if it is uncomfortable or unhelpful to their purpose.

However those with a transcendent purpose need to affect the world around them through their work. 

Therefore over time they must learn more about the world and their place within it.  As they learn more they comprehend more, and this is what eventually generates meaning in work.

I hypothesised that those with a self-related purpose would experience less meaning in work than those with a transcendent purpose.

Findings

In a sample of over 500 working participants, I 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 predicted 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, 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.  However, the transcendent purpose scale did significantly predict psychological wellbeing.

Practical Implications

If you want to find greater meaning in your work:

  1. Work on understanding yourself first; explore your strengths, values and personality preferences.  This is the kind of thing coaching can help with.
  2. Then think about the kinds of contexts or organisations that you thrive in – something psychologists call this ‘organisational fit’.  What kind of culture, colleagues or organisation do you work best in?  Do you value autonomy or structure?  A formal or informal culture?  Be as specific as possible.
  3. Finally, think about causes you believe in.  What is it that you want from a job, or want to achieve through work?  If it is money and not much else – fine – but what is the money for?  Again, be specific.

In my study my additional conclusion was:

“Those seeking meaning in work should try to identify and nurture a transcendent purpose.  By identifying a life goal that extends beyond one’s own immediate experience, people could be encouraged to think in terms of how their skills uniquely meet the most pressing and important needs of the world.”

If you want meaning in work, then you need to work out how you can ‘dent the universe’ in some way that seems important and relevant to you.

Then go out there and learn how to do it.  Meaning will follow.

One thought on “What Kind of Purpose Leads to Meaning in Life?

  1. Brilliant post so clear in explaining the differences that I witness in my employee assessments with regards to what meaning do they get from work (these are occupational health assessments when the employee is exhibiting behavioural, performance or attendance issues) also matches well with the meaning component of Prof Martin Seligmans PERMA model of wellbeing. Ross McIntosh guided me here to your website and am really pleased he did. I am due to start prosocial facilitator training in May this year which uses ACT to implement core design principles.

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