Having a purpose in life appears to have a number of positive health benefits based on some of the research discussed in previous posts (see below). One form of existential psychotherapy – logotherapy developed by Victor Frankl operates on the assumption that many of the difficulties can be overcome if a person is able to find their own meaning in life whilst at the same time avoiding the many barriers to finding this meaning. Meaning however is subtly different from purpose with the latter suggesting a meaning imbued with direction and action (although these concepts are open to interpretation). Having a purpose in life is very personal and might be expected to vary across a person’s life journey as well as across and within cultures. In some senses then it might be difficult to develop a sophisticated understanding of Purpose in Life in research studies which involve a large number of people not because the averaging of these characteristics in the population is unhelpful (as this is necessary to tease out the relationship with other variables) but rather because these are complex constructs not easily represented by multiple binary responses to questions. However these are the acknowledged limitations of such approaches and so bearing this in mind I will look briefly at some of the literature examining purpose in life in the early phase of the lifespan.
In a study in Hong-Kong (n=378) researchers examined parent-adolescent conflict in relation to well-being including purpose in life. The researchers assessed conflict and well-being values at two time points and were thus generated evidence about the possibility directionality of the relationship. They concluded that the well-being values and parent-adolescent conflict operated bi-directionally. In other words conflict was likely to impact on well-being and a deterioration in well-being was likely to lead to conflict. In another Hong Kong study (n=429) the researchers identified a relationship between family functioning and adolescent well-being which again included purpose in life. This was further explored in a study which found that Purpose in Life was influenced by recollection of both maternal and paternal parenting styles. A study comparing adolescents with younger adults (n=136) provided evidence that a sense of Purpose in Life becomes stronger on moving from adolescence into adulthood. This purpose was characterised in another study (n=318) in which the researchers identified four profiles for purpose in youth as achieved, foreclosed, diffused and uncommitted.
A study in 147 adolescents and young adults found an association between religiosity and identity formation in adolescence in an American population. An American study looking at adolescents (11 to 19 years old) living in housing estates provided evidence that 9.7% of the variation in Purpose in Life scale scores was contributed to by three factors including the employment status of the head of the household, which was also amongst the factors contributing to 11% of variance in the hopelessness scale scores. The same group also looked at self-reported violence and again found a significant relationship with Purpose in Life scale scores. In another paper the authors suggest the importance of factors such as Purpose in Life for resilience to developing antisocial behaviours and identify family strengthening approaches as the most effective method for achieving this.
Thus purpose in life is influenced by a number of primary factors including family and social structures and becomes more developed on progressing through from adolescence to adulthood. Conflict within the family is influenced to a small extent by Purpose in Life and vice versa. Building on this understanding and the relationship of purpose in life to negative health and social outcome measures researchers have focused on approaches which strengthen this.
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