What's Your Purpose?

11/11/2015 10:35 GMT | Updated 10/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Based on his own experiences in concentration camps during the Second World War, the Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl was convinced that a sense of purpose could increase human beings' resilience, and lead to better physical health and even increased longevity. Frankl gave himself the purpose of reconstructing the manuscript of a book which he had lost when he was taken to Auschwitz, and was certain that this sense of purpose helped him endure the terrible conditions in the camps. Amongst the other inmates of the camps, he observed that they were more likely to survive if they were able to hold on to goals and hopes. 

A good deal of research has found that, as Frankl believed, a sense of purpose is an important aspect of well-being, associated with better psychological and physical health. For example, research published by University College London last year found that, for people over the age of 65, a sense of purpose was associated with longevity. People who reported the highest level of fulfilment and purpose were likely to live, on average, two years longer. Another long term study (at the University of Carleton in Canada) found that, over a 14 year period, people with a strong sense of purpose were 15% less likely to die.

However, it's a little misleading that in this previous research, 'purpose' has been treated as a very general concept, without looking into its different varieties. In reality, there are many different kinds of purpose, which must have different effects, and different associations. 

At my university, we have created a model of these different types of purpose - not too dissimilar from Abraham Maslow's famous 'hierarchy of needs.' Our model includes six different elements. The most basic kind of purpose - which is shared by all living beings, not just human beings - is survival. That means just getting by from day to day, satisfying your basic needs, without thinking too much about the future. Unfortunately, there are many people in the world who are forced to spend their lives mostly focused on that purpose, due to poverty. Many people in the world gain their main sense of purpose through following the traditions and conventions of their religion. Other people might be mainly focused on achievement or success (I call this a 'personal-accumulative' purpose). Others may be oriented around altruism or idealism, with the purpose of helping others, improving their societies or alleviating suffering. Others may be oriented around self-development or spiritual development (which I call a 'self-expansive' purpose) while others may have a 'transpersonal purpose', which is when they feel that they are the instruments of a 'higher' purpose which is flowing through them.

An important point is that people can be oriented around more than one purpose at the same time. Different types of purpose can combine, and feed into one another. (We also include the possibility of 'no purpose', when people lack a sense of direction or orientation in their life, and don't have any goals to head towards. This is quite a dangerous state to be in, and is strongly associated with depression, and addiction. Finding a new sense of purpose is an important aspect of recovering from addiction.)

At my university, we have developed a questionnaire to try to test for these different types of purpose. We would like to find out if there are relationships between different types of purpose and age and gender. For example, do different types of purpose become more important as people get older? Are different types of purpose more important for men or for women? They will also be looking into the relationship between different types of purpose and well-being. For example, are people who get a strong sense of purpose through following their religion happier than others? Are people whose purpose is just to survive - just to get by from day to day, meeting their basic needs - more or less happy than average?

It would be great if you could help us in this research by filling out the questionnaire: