Last updated on 6th August 2012
"When I get to heaven, God will not ask ‘Why were you not Moses?'. He will ask ‘Why were you not Susya?
Why did you not become what only you could become?'" Susya, a Hasidic rabbi
(This post on purpose in life questionnaires and the previous one on the importance of purpose in life for health & wellbeing have been combined into a handout that is downloadable both as a Word doc and as a PDF file)
I wrote a blog post recently entitled "Purpose in life: reduces dementia risk, increases life expectancy, treats depression and builds wellbeing" highlighting a whole series of research studies that show how important it is to have goals and a sense of purpose in order to thrive both physically & psychologically. It seems probable that we do best when we're balanced about this, so the authors of this year's paper - "Comparing three methods to measure a balanced time perspective: The relationship between a balanced time perspective and subjective well-being" - write "The results demonstrated that having a BTP (balanced time perspective) is related to increased satisfaction with life, happiness, positive affect, psychological need satisfaction, self-determination, vitality, and gratitude as well as decreased negative affect." And a commentary on the paper noted "Do you look fondly at the past, enjoy yourself in the present, and strive for future goals? If you hold these time perspectives simultaneously - and don't go overboard on any one of them - you're likely to be a happy person."
So what goals might we strive for and are some goals & kinds of purpose more likely to lead to fulfilment than others? Recognizing and assessing the importance of life meaning & purpose goes back many years. Crumbaugh & Maholick published the "Purpose in life scale (PIL)" (inspired by Viktor Frankl's work) back in 1964. Just last year a short 4-item form of the original longer 20-item PIL found that negative answers to questions about "clarity of goals in life", "sense of meaning & purpose in life", "progress toward life goals" and "purpose & meaning in life found so far" are "useful in predicting psychological distress". I find it helpful to remember that Frankl - with his searing experience of living in a concentration camp - highlighted that meaning is not just about the future but is also very much about the present - "meaning in life is found in every moment of living; life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death." This broader understanding of meaning - standing squarely both in the future goals we strive for and in the values we live by moment to moment - is well emphasised in the widely used "Bus driver metaphor".
There have been a number of further initiatives to develop purpose in life assessment measures. Examples include Morgan & Farsides's "Meaningful life measure" and Waterman & colleagues' "Questionnaire for eudaimonic well-being". Steger et al's "Meaning in life questionnaire (MLQ)" is particularly accessible and his website gives more details. Here is the MLQ, complete with advice on score interpretation, downloadable both as a Word doc and as a PDF file. It's interesting to answer the MLQ on Martin Seligman's "Authentic Happiness" website as it allows you to compare your score with others. Also worth completing on the Seligman site is the "Approaches to happiness questionnaire" with its assessment of the Pleasurable, the Engaged & the Meaningful life.
The MLQ is a ten item scale measuring "presence" of meaning in life and "search" for meaning in life. It is your agreement or disagreement with the five statements about "presence" of meaning in life that are most associated with stress, health & wellbeing costs or benefits. Each question is answered on a 1 to 7 scale that runs from "absolutely untrue" (1), through "mostly untrue" (2), "somewhat untrue" (3) and "can't say true or false" (4), to "somewhat true" (5), "mostly true" (6) and "absolutely true" (7). The five statements are "I understand my life's meaning", "My life has a clear sense of purpose", "I have a good sense of what makes my life meaningful", "I have discovered a satisfying life purpose" and "My life has no clear purpose". The answer to the last of these five statements is reverse scored (subtract the score from 8). In a survey of 8,756 internet users - "Meaning in life across the life span: Levels and correlates of meaning in life from emerging adulthood to older adulthood" - mean (average) scores (with standard deviations) for the different age groups were 23.9 (7.6) for 18-24 year olds; 22.4 (8.2) for 25-44 year olds; 24.7 (8.1) for 45 to 64 year olds; and 26.9 (7.6) for those who were 65 or older. It's likely that approximately 70% of people will score within the range of a standard deviation less to a standard deviation more than the average score for their age group. This means that, for example, only about 15% of 25-44 year olds will score less than 14.2 and about 15% will score more than 30.6. It's likely that scoring high rather than low will have significant implications for health & wellbeing. In the recent paper - "Purpose in life Is associated with mortality among community-dwelling older persons" - which used a different, but similar, assessment questionnaire the chances of someone, who scored in the top 10% on their purpose in life measure, dying over the five years of follow-up were only 57% of someone who scored in the bottom 10%.
It's very likely that this association of purpose in life with health & wellbeing involves at least a three way set of connections - higher purpose in life leads to greater health & wellbeing, and also greater health & wellbeing leads to higher purpose, and also third factors (possibly good relationships or a positive personality or educational background, etc) may lead to both greater health & wellbeing and also higher purpose scores. However there are good reasons to think that deliberately nourishing one's sense of purpose in life is likely to lead to improvements in our levels of stress, health & wellbeing - see, for example, the findings on psychotherapy effects in the linked post "Purpose in life: reduces dementia risk, increases life expectancy, treats depression and builds wellbeing" or the sequence on "Goal renewal boosts wellbeing". In the next post in this four-part sequence, I'll look at how one might develop and connect with a sense of purpose and values.