The science of Meaning & Purpose

People in a confused direction

This article explores meaning and purpose. We start with an exploration of what we mean by meaning and purpose before continuing to cover some of the benefits of discovering meaning and purpose.

For a higher-level overview of the importance of a sense of purpose and how to gain clarity on your purpose, please see this article.

Exploring the WHAT of Meaning and Purpose

The discovery of purpose is a pursuit that has been a significant focus for the human race that crosses backgrounds, culture, countries and time; linking people from all historical periods (Cotton Bronk, 2014).

Ryff and Singer (1998) consider that a sense of purpose in life is of fundamental importance to a life well lived and it is considered to impact all aspects of one’s life including thoughts, feelings and behaviour (Kashdan & McKnight, 2009).

Later in this article, we will explore the benefits of having a sense of purpose in what we do, both at an individual and an organisational level. But what do we actually mean by the terms Meaning and Purpose?

Frankl (1984) considered that purpose is equated with meaning and that it represents our ultimate reason and motivation for existing with all human beings having a purpose that they can discover.

Similarly, Ryff and Singer (1998) consider that a sense of purpose in life provides a sense of meaning in day-to-day life and the actualisation of a person’s potential.

For a person’s sense of purpose to be truly meaningful to them, it is considered that it should be strongly linked to their personal values and that this relationship influences how engaged and motivated they are in their life (Scheier et al., 2006; P. Wong, 2010).

Damon and colleagues (2003) consider that although meaning in life and purpose in life are related, they are different constructs with purpose being a component that makes up meaning in life.

Meaning in life is thought to be “the sense made of, and significance felt regarding, the nature of one’s being and existence” (Steger, Frazier, Oishi, & Kaler, 2006, p. 81).

Smith (2017) writes that meaning has four components: belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence and she clarifies purpose as “a forward-pointing arrow that motivates our behaviour”.

Purpose can be defined as “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self” (Damon, Menon, & Cotton Bronk, 2003, p. 121).

Cotton Bronk (2014) explains that there are four components required for a person to have a sense of purpose in their lives. These include the importance of the commitment to a self-identity that includes self-chosen values and beliefs, the pursuit of goals, a sense that the purpose is personally meaningful to them and self-transcendence.

So it could be argued that having a sense of purpose is related to:

“having the intention to accomplish something that is meaningful to you and makes a positive difference to others and potentially to the world around us.”

The Japanese have a nice and simple term for this called Ikigai which translates as ‘the reason to be’.

Although meaning in life and purpose in life have their differences, they are very closely linked with purpose being a factor of what provides us with a sense of meaning.

Also the meaning we find in our lives directly influences the essence and quality of our purpose (Cotton Bronk, 2014).

Purpose as the intersection of Personal leadership and Organisational Culture

An organisation’s purpose is based on why the organisation exists beyond making a profit and it directly impacts how its employees behave and think.

Putting the purpose of the organisation in writing helps to make the culture more tangible and aids decision making (Sinek, Docker & Mead, 2017).

The purpose or WHY of the organisation, “is a tool that can help to bring clarity to that which is fuzzy and make tangible that which is abstract. Used properly, it can be used to hire, to develop strategies and to communicate more clearly (internally and externally)” (Sinek, Docker & Mead, 2017, p.25).

Seeing and understanding a clear organisational purpose linked to serving others, also supports an individual in better understanding of how their contribution makes a meaningful difference to others. It helps the individual find their own meaningful purpose in what they do.

A shared sense of purpose at work also provides a common direction and a vision which can be clearly communicated. This vision directs the effort required and provides the strategy for how to move forward, guided by the purpose (Kotter, 1995).

As the purpose and vision become clearer, the required mindset and behaviours can be defined to enable an organisation to realise its vision whilst all employees maintain a line of sight between what they do and the purpose of the organisation (Kotter, 1995).

The benefits for you as an individual

Understanding your sense of purpose or “WHY” in the work that you do, helps you better understand what drives your behaviour when you are at your best. (Sinek, Docker & Mead, 2017).

Positive Psychology (PP) is seen to be a major driver behind the current increase in empirical studies on the benefits of purpose in life (Cotton Bronk, 2014).

Ryff and Singer (1998) consider a sense of purpose as a critical component to wellbeing and Cotton Bronk (2014) echo’s this with her conclusion that purpose in life is a key part of achieving optimal functioning.

PP’s research has shown us that eudaimonic well-being is an essential aspect of human flourishing (Ryff & Singer, 1998). Eudaimonic well-being entails the extent to which a person’s life is characterised by the quest for growth and engaging in meaningful activities, or an authentic expression of themselves (Ryff & Singer, 1998; Waterman, 1993).

So eudaimonia is strongly linked to meaning in life (King & Hicks, 2012) and purpose is seen as a key component of meaning (R. F. Baumeister, 1991; Damon et al., 2003), or even possibly the most important component of meaning (P. T. P. Wong, 2012a). 

Therefore, purpose is considered to play a central role in human flourishing (Ryff & Singer, 1998). Seligman (2012) includes meaning as one of five elements of human flourishing: positive emotions, engagement, relations, meaning and achievement (PERMA).

Ryff and Singer, (2002) also include purpose in their model of human flourishing: autonomy, personal growth, self-acceptance, life purpose, mastery and positive relatedness.

Positive emotions or what is often called happiness, is an important part of flourishing but feelings are fleeting; whereas fulfilment is longer lasting and comes from having a sense of purpose in what we do.

Happiness comes from what we do. Fulfilment comes from why we do it” (Sinek, Docker & Mead, 2017, p. 6).

Sinek et al. (2017) write that happiness comes from doing things for ourselves whereas fulfilment comes from doing things for others. 

People thrive on a sense of belonging and an understanding that what they do matters (Ryff & Singer, 1998). 

So having a clear purpose helps lead to a sense of fulfilment.

Additionally, a self-transcending sense of purpose will continue to be fulfilling for the person, even if they do not receive recognition from others (P. T. P. Wong, 2012b) and it will also lead to benefits for organisation and society (Dik & Duffy, 2009). 

A sense of purpose also enables people to get through harder times and to conquer negative states (Crumbaugh & Henrion, 2001).

Finally, it is also important to note that a person can have more than one purpose in life (Crumbaugh & Maholick, 1964) for example here we are focusing on the purpose people find in the work that they do, although we could also be talking about the purpose sensed in raising a family. Purpose in life can also change as the person ages, develops and is confronted with different demands (Crumbaugh & Maholick, 1964; P. T. P. Wong, 2014).

The organisational benefits

“A culture of purpose guides behaviour, influences strategy, transcends leaders–and endures.” – Punit Renjen, Deloitte Global CEO.

Stating a clear organisational WHY that is linked to serving others, provides people with a common understanding that the work they are doing is meaningful and worthwhile (Sinek, 2011). A common purpose also unites people and provides momentum, no matter how challenging the situation (Crumbaugh & Henrion, 2001).

An individual’s beliefs about their work are thought to directly impact their job performance and satisfaction (Pratt & Ashforth, 2003).

Imperative, a company that researches Purpose, found that having a sense of purpose was the most significant factor in job satisfaction and that it quadruples the likelihood of being engaged at work.

Porras and Collins (1994) discovered that organisations with a purpose had on average a six-to-one higher performance than their competitors and grew an average of three times faster.

Linked to the quote above from Punit Renjen, Deloitte Global CEO; Deloitte’s Core Beliefs & Culture Survey has found that organisations that focus beyond profits and instil a culture of purpose, drive more business confidence, investment and ultimately are more likely to find long-term success.

More specifically in 2014, Deloitte’s survey found that 82% of respondents who work for an organisation with a strong sense of purpose, expressed confidence that their organisation will grow in the same year, compared to 48% of respondents who consider that their organisation does not have a strong sense of purpose. Further to this, in the same survey respondents who consider that their organisations have a strong sense of purpose, are nearly double as optimistic about their organisation’s ability to stay ahead of industry disruptions (83% vs. 42%) and to outperform their competition (79% vs. 47%).


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