MacArthur SES & Health Network
MacArthur SES & Health Network

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Purpose of Life

Summary prepared by Nancy Adler in collaboration with the Psychosocial Working group. Last revised November, 1997.

Chapter Contents

  1. Definition and Background
  2. Measurement
  3. Relation to SES
  4. Relationship to Health
  5. Limitations
  6. Selected Bibliography

Definition and Background

Psychological attention to the constructs of purpose in life and meaning in life has its roots in the philosophical writing of Victor Frankl, and in the work of many psychologists who have attempted to theorize about and define positive psychological functioning (e.g., Maslow, Rogers, Jung, Allport, Erikson, Buhler, Neugarten, and Jahoda; see Ryff, 1989; Zika & Chamberlain, 1992, for work that reviews the philosophical and psychological underpinnings of purpose in life).

From his experiences in a concentration camp during W.W. II, Frankl observed that life has meaning under all conditions, and that it is psychologically damaging when a person's search for meaning is blocked (Frankl, 1959, 1967; in Zika & Chamberlain, 1992). This work inspired research, especially by Crumbaugh and colleagues (Crumbaugh, 1968; Crumbaugh & Maholick, 1964), into the concept of purpose and meaning in life. In a review of work on the construct, Yalom (1980; in Zika & Chamberlain, 1992) found that a lack of meaning in life was associated with psychopathology, while positive life meaning was associated with strong religious beliefs, membership in groups, dedication to a cause, life values, and clear goals. Lazarus and DeLongis (1983; in Zika & Chamberlain) suggested that sources of personal meaning influence processes of stress and coping.

Antonovsky's (1979) concept of "sense of coherence" includes a "meaningfulness" dimension and was intended to describe a personality construct that "insulates people against the potential harm of stressors on health" (Zika & Chamberlain, 1992, p. 134). The meaningfulness dimension of sense of coherence is the one that is emphasized the most, and it is intended to capture the extent to which the demands of life are seen as challenges that are worthy of investment and engagement (Seeman, 1991).

Most recently, Ryff (1989; Ryff & Keyes, 1995) has proposed and tested a theoretical model of psychological well-being that includes 6 dimensions of wellness, one of which is purpose in life. She suggested that a critical component of mental health includes "beliefs that give one the feeling that there is purpose in and meaning to life" (Ryff, 1989, P. 1071). Theories of adult development and maturity include the concept of purpose in life as well:

The definition of maturity ... emphasizes a clear comprehension of life's purpose, a sense of directedness, and intentionality. The lifespan developmental theories refer to a variety of changing purposes or goals in life ... Thus, one functions positively has goals, intentions, and a sense of direction, all of which contribute to the feeling that life is meaningful (Ryff, 1989, p. 1071).

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A number of instruments have been developed to assess purpose in life. Crumbaugh and Maholick's (1964; Crumbaugh, 1968) Purpose in Life (PIL) test was designed to operationalize Frankl's ideas and to measure an individual's experience of meaning and purpose in life. It is a 20-item scale that has been shown to have good reliability (split-half and test-retest reliability is reported in Zika & Chamberlain [1992] and in Seeman [1991] from the work of others; the PIL had an alpha of .91 in their study; see also Chamberlain & Zika, 1988). Some support for the scale's convergent and discriminant validity is summarized in Seeman (1991). Each item is rated on a 7-point scale and total scores therefore range from 20 (low purpose) to 140 (high purpose) (Seeman, 1991). Examples of the 20 items include: "I am usually: completely bored (1) — exurberant, enthusiastic (7)"; "If I could choose, I would: prefer never to have been born (1) — like nine more lives just like this one (7)"; "As I view the world in relation to my life, the world: completely confuses me (1) — fits meaningfully with my life (7)," and "With regard to suicide, I have: thought of it seriously as a way out (1) — never given it a second thought (7)."

Antonovsky's (1987) Sense of Coherence scale has three components: comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness; the latter is emphasized the most (Seeman, 1991). The Sense of Coherence scale includes 29 items that refer to a wide variety of situations, and respondents indicate the extent to which they have the described feelings (never to always). Acceptable reliability and validity properties are summarized in Seeman (1991). Examples of items include "In the past ten years your life has been: full of changes without your knowing what will happen next (or completely consistent and clear)"; "What best describes how you see life: one can always find a solution to painful things in life (or there is no solution to painful things in life)"; and "How often do you have the feeling that there's little meaning in the things you do in your daily life (very seldom or never to always)."

The Purpose in Life scale on Ryff's measure of psychological well-being was derived from theories about positive psychological health and lifespan development. It has a 20-, 14-, 9- and 3-item version. Three examples of items are: "I live life one day at a time and don't really think about the future"; "Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them"; and "I sometimes feel as if I've done all there is to do in life." High scorers on the Purpose in Life scale have goals and a sense of directedness in life, they feel that there is meaning to their life both currently and in the past, they hold beliefs that give life purpose, and they have aims and objectives for living. Low scorers lack a sense of meaning in life, have few goals, lack a sense of direction, do not see purpose in their past, and do not have meaningful outlooks on life (Ryff & Keyes, 1995, P. 727). Extensive reliability and validity information is available in Ryff (1989; 1995), Ryff, Lee, Essex, and Schmutte (I994), and Ryff and Keyes (1995).

Kass, et al. (1991) developed an Inventory of Positive Psychological Attitudes that factored into three subscales: life purpose, self-confidence, and commonality. The life purpose scale had an acceptably high alpha in three different samples, and was significantly correlated with a number of other measures (affect balance, self-esteem, loneliness, Profile of Mood States).

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Newcomb and Harlow (1986) used three items to assess the construct of meaninglessness: "I have a hard time finding a meaningful direction for my life," "I have difficulty making plans for the future (e.g., career, marriage)," and "I have a hard time knowing what to do when I have a problem." The Cronbach's alpha for the three items was .74, and convergent (with Crumbaugh's PIL test) and discriminant (from depression assessed by the CES-D); validity information is provided in Newcomb and Harlow (1986).

Relationship to SES

There appears to be very little research on the relationship between purpose of life and SES, though Ryff and Keyes (1995) hope to expand their study of the structure of well-being (composed in part of purpose in life) to analyze group differences including those related to social class, ethnicity, and culture. In DuRant, et al.'s (1995) study of exposure to violence among African American adolescents, purpose in life was significantly related to the SES of the head of household and to the adolescents' anticipated SES as an adult.

Relationship to Health

Meaningfulness or purpose in life has been related both to physical and psychological health, though the research is not extensive. Petrie and Azariah (1990, in Zika & Chamberlain), using Antonovsky's (I979) "sense of coherence" construct that is made up of three factors (comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness), found that the meaningfulness factor predicted self-reports of pain at a six-month follow-up of a pain-management program. Kass and colleagues (1991) demonstrated that the life purpose scale of their Inventory of Positive Psychological Attitudes scale was negatively correlated with reports of pain and with negative psychological symptoms.

Health behaviors. While they predicted a positive relationship, Spence and Holliman (1995) found no significant association between purpose in life (assessed with Crumbaugb's Purpose in Life test) and African American adolescents' use of prenatal care services. In a study of exposure to violence and victimization among African American adolescents who lived in public housing, DuRant and colleagues (1995) found that purpose in life (assessed with Crumbaugh's Purpose in Life test) was related to the adolescents' number of sexual partners in the last three months.

Psychological health. A number of different studies argue for the mediating effects of meaning in life on well-being. Chamberlain & Zika (1988) found that meaning in life mediated the relationship between religiosity and well-being; Newcomb and Harlow (1986) found that meaninglessness in life (assessed by their meaninglessness measure described above) mediated the relationship between uncontrollable stress and substance use; Harlow, Newcomb, and Bentler (1986) found that meaninglessness mediated between depression and self-derogation. In two different studies, Zika and Chamberlain (1987, 1992) found strong relationships between meaning in life and a number of different measures of psychological well-being (both positive and negative measures). In their 1987 study of the relation of hassles and personality to subjective well-being, Zika and Chamberlain found that meaning in life (measured by Crumbaugh's Purpose in Life test) had consistent and direct effects on reports of well-being.

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Ryff's Purpose in Life scale has been demonstrated to relate consistently to a wide variety of well-being and other psychological variables, including life satisfaction, affect balance, depression, morale, happiness, and self-esteem (Ryff, 1989; Ryff, Lee, Essex, & Schmutte, 1994; Ryff & Keyes, 1995).


According to Zika and Chamberlain (1992) Crumbaugh's PIL has been criticized on validity grounds by Dufton and Perlman (1986), Dyck (1987), and Yalom (1980). Dyck (1987) suggested that the PIL may be better thought of as an indirect measure of depression; Dufton and Perlman (1986) demonstrated that the PIL consists of two factors, and the stronger one actually reflects life satisfaction (while the weaker one reflects life purpose).

Selected Bibliography

Chamberlain, K., & Zika, S. (1988). Measuring meaning in life: An examination of three scales. Personality and Individual Differences, 9, 589-596.

Crumbaugh, J. C. (I 968). Cross-validation of Purpose in Life Test based on Frankl's concepts. Joumal of lndividual Psychologv, 24, 74-81.

Crumbaugh, J. C., & Maholick, L. T. (1964). An experimental study in existentialism: The psychometric approach to Frankl's concept of noogenic neurosis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 20, 589-596.

DuRant, R. H., Getts, A., Cadenhead, C., Emans, S. J., & Woods, E. R. (1995). Exposure to violence and victimization and depression, hopelessness, and purpose in life among adolescents living in and around public housing. Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 16, 233-237.

Kass, J. D., Friedman, R., Leserman, J., Caudill, M., Zuttermeister, P. C., & Benson, H. (1991). An inventory of positive psychological attitudes with potential relevance to health outcomes: Validation and preliminary testing. Behavioral Medicine, 17, 121-129.

Newcomb, M. D., & Harlow, L. L. (I 986). Life events and substance use among adolescents: Mediating effects of perceived loss of control and meaninglessness in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 564-577.

Ryff, C. D. (I989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Joumal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 1069-1081.

Ryff, C. D., & Keyes, C. L. M. (I 995). The structure of psychological well-being revisited. Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, 69, 719-727.

Seeman, M. (I 991). Alienation and anomie. In J. P. Robinson, P. R. Shaver, & L. S. Wrightsman (Eds.) Measures of personality and social psychological attitudes, Volume I (pp. 291-37 1). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Spence, S. A., & Holliman, D. (1995). Exploring the relationship between purpose in life and African American adolescents' use of prenatal care services. Social Work in Health Care, 22, 43-53.

Zika, S., & Chamberlain, K. (1992). On the relation between meaning in life and psychological well-being. British Journal of Psychology, 83, 133-145.

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