It’s hard to believe we have arrived at Holy Week and this series of readings from the book of nature looking at the science of virtues is coming to an end. As we march towards the resurrection hope of Easter morning, we wrap up our series with the science of purpose. In many ways this is a fitting way to end. In case you can’t tell, what we are doing here, helping the church engage science more frequently and in greater depth, is very much my purpose in life. I dream of a day when it is not at all unusual to have a sermon series or Sunday school classes or eNews articles engaging science. We are well on our way to that being the case here at West Raleigh, but I dream of it being normal in many churches across the country.
Ok, enough dreaming about where my purpose might lead and on to the science of purpose itself. The best, place to start, I think, is this recent summary of research on the psychology of purpose produced by the John Templeton Foundation. They offer a nice definition of the term - purpose is a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once personally meaningful and at the same time leads to productive engagement with some aspect of the world beyond the self. If you are really ambitious and want something more comprehensive, you can try this 45+ page summary commissioned by Templeton. In fact, it may be more interesting to stop here and just read that long pdf – it gets at the definition; the ways psychologists study purpose; then it summarizes its benefits; and considers purpose across the lifespan. It even looks at the various ways to encourage purpose, including in those from diverse backgrounds.
In case you choose to keep reading this post, let me tackle some of those same issues, beginning with the benefits of purpose (just highlights from the middle section of that 45 page pdf). Not surprisingly, having a sense of purpose correlates with many measures of psychological well-being – less depression, less anxiety, more life satisfaction and even more hope and optimism. Somewhat surprisingly, it does not always correlate with happiness – a good example here is parents. While parents typically score high on purpose – raising their kids – they often score lower on measures of happiness than their childless peers. To any parent, I think this makes sense – life would be easier, but so much less meaningful without three little Rick girls in my personal space day in and day out.
There are also some physical health benefits associated with purpose, mainly centered around the reduction of stress. Some studies show less Alzheimers and less physical disability in older adults with a clear purpose. What is not clear is whether purpose is the precise cause of these benefits. It could be other factors – like the social support that so often accompanies purposeful activities – that are causative rather than purpose.
Finally, there are academic benefits – kids with a purpose generally achieve better in the classroom and beyond. As a result, much of the purpose research is promoted in educational settings as a means of improving academic performance in our young people. This work is expanding beyond just educational settings and is led by Stanford’s William Damon and his former student, now at Claremont, Kendall Cotton Bronk. Their work focuses primarily on youth and it is motivated by the fact that only 1 in 5 youth and 1 in 3 college students report leading a life of purpose. They are trying to help target groups like parents and mentors or youth ministers foster purpose in young people.
The good news is that purpose is not just for our kids and youth, but is important in midlife and as we age. There are remarkable stories of individuals who find purpose later in life using their gifts to make the world a better place.
So the news is mostly good, with lots of benefits arising from purpose, but like we see in the scientific study of so many virtues, the focus has been flipped. The point of purpose, or grit, or gratitude, or forgiveness is not to benefit myself but the world I can improve or the person who deserves a thank you or those I need to forgive.
Holy Week brings this home. That grit and resilience and spiritual fortitude Katherine described on Palm Sunday was not about Jesus having less depression, or the women with the alabaster jar improving her academic record, or Peter improving his physical health by reducing stress. That purpose was about bigger things – the things we remember as we journey from Maundy Thursday into Good Friday and then await for the most purposeful event in history, when on the third day, the tomb is found to be empty. That is the real purpose behind our purpose and something the scientific research misses.