What is the difference between purpose and meaning? Do you think of them as the same thing, or do you see them as different?
The two terms – “purpose in life” and “meaning in life” – are often used interchangeably, but in our research we draw a clear line between them. To study purpose, we need to define and differentiate it from similar concepts, such as meaning. The definition of purpose we use is “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is both meaningful to the self and of consequence in the world beyond the self.” This definition distinguishes purpose from meaning in a few ways, which I’ll explore here.
Meaning is about coherence and significance. We find meaning in life by making connections: between our past, present, and future; between events in our lives; and with people. We can also create meaning by developing or discovering a narrative arc of our life: what is the story of my life? What are the thematic threads that run through my life? We also find meaning by understanding what our lives signify, or what is most significant in our lives.
Purpose is meaningful activity, but as the definition above suggests, it’s more specific than that. Purpose, unlike meaning, is an intention or goal, and specifically it’s a higher order goal that is a sustained source of motivation. It’s the drive to be the kind of person who solves environmental problems, helps other people, or raises thoughtful children. Meaning isn’t a goal, though we can act on what we find meaningful to bring more meaning to our lives. If red dahlias remind you of your wedding day, planting red dahlias in your garden will be a meaningful act, but not a purposeful one. And, meaning doesn’t require any action at all, though purpose does. You cannot live a life of purpose if you think about your goals but don’t act on them.
The other key difference between purpose and meaning is that purpose is a desire to be of consequence beyond the self. When we ask, “what is my purpose in life?” We’re asking, “what is the purpose of my life in the world here and now? What can I contribute, with my unique strengths and interests, that the world needs?” A meaningful life might include contributing to the world beyond the self, but not necessarily. We often find meaning by connecting with others outside of ourselves, but that doesn’t necessarily require doing things that make a positive contribution to others.
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Whenever we talk with educators about our research on youth purpose, the question always arises about whether we expect all students to have equal opportunity for developing purpose in life. Is it fair to expect that students experiencing poverty, trauma, or other forms of adversity would be able to pursue something as impractical and inaccessible as purpose? Some argue that opportunities for purpose are constrained by life circumstances, leaving many students with a bleak outlook for a purposeful life. Others suggest purpose is an unrealistic luxury not all students can afford to prioritize.
What does the research tell us about the relationship between purpose and adversity? One noteworthy finding, consistent across different age groups, is that everyone can reach the same level of purpose in life regardless of income. Among 8th and 9th graders, we used free/reduced lunch eligibility as an indicator of family income and found no difference in purpose between those who were eligible for free/reduced lunch and those who weren’t. In a study of older adults, purpose was equally present across all different income levels.
A look at research interviews with teens suggests it’s true that purpose is defined by our circumstances. However, that doesn’t mean a student’s potential for purpose should be limited by their circumstances. On the contrary, young people can find purpose in response to adversity, and in doing so create new circumstances for their life that open the door to more far-reaching purpose. For example, some interviewees developed purpose by protesting anti-immigration policies that were hurting their family. A few years later, we found them still pursuing purpose: two in law school and another running for city council. Their flourishing purpose was defined by their early adversity but not constrained by it.
These teens demonstrated how purpose can be a positive outcome in response to adversity. Another study showed that people with a higher sense of purpose experience a more positive response to trauma. We see in our interviews that some people respond to adverse experiences by seeking to do something that will have a positive impact in the world to counter the negative experience. For example, a student who lost a family member to cancer might pursue a career in cancer research, or a teen who experienced bullying at school might respond by starting an anti-bullying support group for other students who are suffering.
Together, these findings suggest that it is not only possible for students from all different circumstances to create a life of purpose, but that we should not think of purpose as a luxury. Purpose can be a source of personal growth and resilience, especially for students who are dealing with adversity. Life events and experiences of all types are not limitations on purpose, but potential inspirations for purpose. We should set high expectations of all students in terms of how they pursue and create purpose for their lives, regardless of their circumstances. They need the adults in their lives to be role models and mentors that believe in them to be capable of whatever purpose they want for their lives.
Feder, A., Ahmad, S., Lee, E. J., Morgan, J. E., Singh, R., Smith, B. W., Southwick, S. M., & Charney, D. S. (2013). Coping and PTSD symptoms in Pakistani earthquake survivors: Purpose in life, religious coping and social support. Journal of Affective Disorders, 147(1-3), 156-63.
Malin, H., Liauw, I., & Remington, K. (2018). Early adolescent purpose development and perceived supports for purpose at school. Manuscript under review.