Surprise! Researchers discover having purpose creates positive emotions

Caption: You should not need a mood ring to tell you whether or not your life has purpose. It is instilled in you and drives you to carry it out.

I wouldn’t think anyone would question how having a sense of purpose about what you like to do and are created to do would make you feel good just by doing it. But, apparently, three universities needed to study the question.

According to Psychology Today, Gabrielle N. Pfund, a researcher at Northwestern University, teamed up with Anthony Burrow, a developmental psychologist at Cornell University, and Patrick Hill, a researcher focused on aging at Washington University in St. Louis.

They conducted a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Research in Personality. The study examined key questions about the value of purpose in the subjects’ daily lives and looked for an evidence-based way to cultivate purpose.

For the study, more than 350 participants filled out surveys on their phones every evening for 10 days. So, the pool of participants was rather shallow and the duration of research was not very long either.

Researchers asked questions related to the amount of drive or purpose someone felt that day.

For example, they asked, “Were you engaged in worthwhile activities?” and “Did you make progress toward your goals?”

Personally, I think those are silly questions to ask. What, exactly, is a “worthwhile activity?” Eating lunch is a worthwhile activity, but I would not suggest it contributes to someone’s sense of purpose. Someone’s goal for the day could be to wake up before noon. But, that also probably doesn’t give people a sense of purpose since it doesn’t involve serving others.

The publication explained researchers also asked participants to describe to what extent they felt specific emotions on a given day, including irritability, peacefulness, sadness and calm. Their goal was to determine how much an individual’s sense of purpose and mood varied from day to day.

I’m truly surprised this study rose to the level of serious academic research, let alone was published in an academic journal. It sounds like something a high-school student would submit for a research paper after asking her friends the same questions for 10 days and drawing some conclusions.

Someone’s sense of purpose does not vary from day to day, let alone morning to evening on the same day. A sense of purpose is instilled in someone. It bubbles up from within and drives them to carry it out.

There are more than 60 profiles on Forward From 50 showcasing people who have a specific purpose for their lives. I assure you, the level of commitment each of them have toward their purpose will indeed vary from day-to-day, but their overall sense of purpose will remain the same.

A 10-day research window is certainly not long enough to evaluate the quality or effectiveness of someone’s sense of purpose. After all, there are biological reasons for irritability and mood swings that span a week or longer, especially for women. To suggest those factors influence a sense of purpose is rather silly, in my opinion.

Gabrielle said the research was important because it illustrates how fluctuations in mood contributes to fluctuation in purpose.

“Just because someone doesn’t feel purposeful today, tomorrow, or the day after that, does not mean they are bound to a life without purpose,” she explained. “Purposefulness waxes and wanes. Empirically, we are not bound to always feeling purposeful or never feeling purposeful. There will be good days and bad days, so too will there be purposeful ones versus not.”

Rather than checking your mood for a sense of purpose in your life, try this instead:

  • Determine what it is you like to do that involves serving others in some way.
  • Evaluate what activity or act of services consistently gets you excited to the point time flies by when you’re doing it.
  • Identify things you are really good at that others find difficult to do. This speaks to natural talent.
  • Engage in those activities. Then rinse and repeat.