by Emilliana R. Simon Thomas: The results from our Purpose in Life quiz reveal how people of different ages, races, and political orientations pursue meaningful goals…
Do you feel like what you do and who you are in the world matters? Do you have a sense that your actions are meaningful, and contribute to or benefit something that you care about?
In short, a sense of purpose is very strongly associated with mental and physical well-being—and that’s why it is core to most scientific definitions of what it means to be happy in life.That’s your sense of purpose. According to research, having purpose staves off stress and can help you channel challenges toward learning and growth. Purpose fuels hope and optimism, and purposeful people tend to have better health and longevity. Older adults who report more purpose in life experience less functional decline (like weakened grip strength), less cognitive and memory impairment, and a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. People with greater purpose make healthier life choices, like exercise and more nutritious eating, and engage in more preventative behaviors, like cholesterol tests and cancer screenings.
To highlight the topic and give people a chance to explore their sense of purpose, the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) created an online Purpose in Life quiz, drawing on self-report questionnaires from published psychological science research. Since it was posted in late February 2021, just under 74,000 people have answered all 14 questions on this quiz. Here are some of the patterns of results.
A first observation to note is that 74,000 is a much larger number of quiz takers than typical for a GGSC quiz. Perhaps people were spending more time online in 2021–2022—thanks to the pandemic—and thus were more likely to see and willing to engage with an online quiz. It’s also possible that people have been particularly drawn to reflect upon and recalibrate their sense of purpose over the past year, given the unprecedented upsets and uncertainties of COVID-19.
The average score from everyone who completed the GGSC Purpose in Life quiz was 2.92/5, or 58%. This means most people were choosing responses between the middle (usually “somewhat” or “sometimes”) and the next higher endorsement (usually “very” or “frequently”) to questions like “How excited are you about carrying out the plans that you set for yourself?” and “How often do you learn something new so that you can help others?”
While folks may have been modest in their responses, this number also suggests that GGSC quiz takers might be questioning their purpose anew given the disruption to established pre-pandemic routines and life trajectories, and they could benefit from increasing their sense of purpose.
Thankfully, purpose scientists have offered some promising ways for attuning to and strengthening our sense of purpose in life, including practices like Affirming Important Values, Best Possible Self, and Life Crafting—all of which are featured on our website Greater Good in Action.
After the 14 questions for assessing Purpose in Life, the GGSC quiz has seven questions about the quiz takers themselves, like age and educational attainment. While not diagnostic or causal (in other words, being a woman does not cause you to have more purpose in life), the associations between people’s responses to these life questions and scores on the quiz raise interesting questions about different factors that can shape anyone’s sense of purpose in life.
Women report more purpose in life than men
As tends to be the pattern with nearly every GGSC quiz, women scored higher than men (2.96 vs 2.87). People who identified as gender non-binary reported lower purpose than people who identified either as women or men.
While it may be tempting to think that women-identifying quiz takers find more purpose in life, it’s possible that other differences are at play. For example, we also asked people about their jobs, and among our quiz takers, the proportion of women in occupations that are associated with higher purpose (such as education, health care, and mental health services) is greater than in the occupations that are associated with lower ratings of purpose (such as sales/retail, transportation services, and computer/information systems). Gender-based societal norms and other situational factors (e.g. martial status, parenthood, community engagement) could also play a role in the differences between women’s and men’s scores on this quiz.
Purpose in life grows with time
Confirming popular ideas about wisdom later in life—and in agreement with several studies that have reported increasing purpose with age—GGSC quiz results showed persistent increases in purpose with each decade of life.
The data also show a flattening of the decade-to-decade increase in purpose after 60, which may simply reflect a crisis of purpose after retirement. Studies suggest that maintaining flexibility about our role, identity, and experiences later in life can keep that sense of purpose growing strong.
While the GGSC does not usually analyze or report on responses from quiz takers under 18 years old, we include the mean scores from this group in this analysis because their average score is higher than the score from people in their 20s. This raises the interesting question of why: What happens that flattens purpose in our 20s? The GGSC led an initiative that directly focused on understanding and fostering purpose among teens, the Purpose Challenge, and this data helps us understand the importance of that work.
What about ethnic background?
Differences in GGSC purpose quiz scores related to ethnic background were smaller than differences associated with other factors that we analyzed, with all falling within one-tenth of a point on the scale.
Scores from people who identified as white, Latino, and multiethnic were higher than those from people who identified as Asian, followed by people who identified as African American and Middle Eastern. (There were too few people in the Native American ethnic group to make meaningful conclusions about their score relative to the other ethnic backgrounds.)
Ethnicity-based differences on the GGSC purpose quiz scores do not reflect innate potential or generalizable patterns of purpose in society. Rather, they suggest a need to further examine whether the manner of asking about or assessing purpose in life aligns with multiple cultural ideals.
For example, people from various cultures might not interpret this question the same way: “How excited are you about carrying out the plans that you set for yourself?” For starters, being “excited” about a self-focused ideal is a very Western, individualistic frame of mind, and less likely to be highly endorsed by people with more collectivist ideals. Further, any observed differences in purpose scores by ethnic background would need to account for how systemic social and policy factors shape access to resources, as well as opportunities to consider, learn about, and pursue what matters in life.
More schooling, more purpose
Consistent with many studies about the importance of education in purpose in life, we found that purpose rose with educational attainment. This reflects the formative role that learning, knowledge, professional identity, and work experience play in discovering what drives our sense of purpose in life. When it comes to acting in accordance with, and being recognized for, efforts that reflect and validate our sense of purpose in life, higher educational credentials allow us to “follow our passions.”
Neighborhood makes a small difference
While the difference is small (less than one-tenth of a point), people who live in big cities reported higher purpose than all other neighborhoods: small city, suburban, and rural.
Some argue that people in large, metropolitan areas harbor extra self-importance compared to people in smaller cities or rural areas. Perhaps this mindset could bump up responses to questions like: “I know how I can use my talents to make a meaningful contribution to the larger world,” which might be more difficult to endorse for people who do not feel as much contact with “the larger world.”
This data point highlights a couple potential boundary conditions for purpose. The first is illusory: that purpose must be about playing a hugely influential role in a world-changing issue. In fact, purpose can be local, proximal, and connected to tiny steps, like planting flowers or offering a kindness to someone in need. And while purpose is typically beneficial, we should be wary of pursuing purpose so single-mindedly that we end up making no room for spontaneity or unstructured experience, or getting drawn into purposeful but harmful pursuits.
There are probably ways living in a big city does provide the context for purpose that could explain the slightly higher scores, but, like other factors described, it is not a requirement for having purpose. For people with less direct contact with the “larger world,” practices that focus on core values and personal goals for the future can be helpful for strengthening purpose.
Strong political views are associated with stronger purpose
People with stronger political views report higher purpose in life than people with moderate political views. While these differences are numerically small (just over one-tenth of a point lower in the moderate group), they are easy to interpret. Since political views are typically intertwined with people’s values, identity, and even professional choices, it’s not surprising to see higher purpose in people with stronger political views. It is also notable that people’s political views typically grow more pronounced with age.
People in some professions are more purposeful than others
Perhaps not surprisingly, people who work to help others tend to score higher in purpose than those in other professions. Again, while it is tempting to attribute this difference to the jobs themselves—and there are indeed ways that some professions can make purpose-laden experiences easier to come by than others—the science of purpose suggests that anyone can introduce greater purpose into their life regardless of their occupation. Anyone—regardless of demographics, education, politics, and more—can connect what they do to a broader, worldly impact that transcends space and time.