We already know from past research that having a greater “sense of purpose” is good for us psychologically: it’s linked with experiencing more positive emotions and generally feeling better about life. Now a study in the Journal of Research in Personality suggests there are material benefits too. Researchers followed the same sample of people over a period of about nine years, and they found that during that time, those individuals who reported a greater sense of purpose at the study start had accumulated greater wealth.
What does it mean to have a sense of purpose?
Patrick Hill and his colleagues measured it by asking 7108 US residents to rate their agreement with three statements:
“Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them”;
“I live life one day at a time and don’t really think about the future”;
and “I sometimes feel as if I’ve done all there is to do in life.”
Participants were considered to have more sense of purpose if they agreed strongly with the first statement while disagreeing strongly with the last two.
The participants also completed a basic personality questionnaire, rated their life-satisfaction, and then answered questions about their income and accumulated wealth. At the study start, participants with more sense of purpose earned more and had accumulated more wealth, even after factoring out the influence of personality and life-satisfaction, and other personal details like education.
Between seven and ten years later, the researchers managed to re-interview nearly 5000 of the same participants. They found that those individuals who’d reported more sense of purpose at the study start had accumulated more wealth over this time period, and they experienced greater increases to their income. Again, this was true even after controlling for the influence of other factors like personality, life-satisfaction, education and marital status. Statistically speaking, a one standard deviation increase in purpose at the study start was associated with accumulating an extra $20,857 over the ensuing nine years or so of the study.
Breaking the results down by age group, the financial benefits of purpose were stronger among older participants at the study start, but the purpose-related gains over time were greater for younger participants aged 20-35. In fact, for participants older than 35, there were no long-term benefits of purpose through the study, perhaps because they had already been accrued by the study start. These age-related findings suggest that a sense of purpose might have particularly strong financial consequences as people are starting out in their careers.
It’s a shame the researchers didn’t ask the participants about the content of their sense of purpose. For example, is it only job-related or money-related long-term objectives that are likely to aid wealth acquisition, or might similar benefits accrue from any kind of sense of purpose that engenders the pursuit of more constructive daily activities and a focus on the future? Hill and his team speculated a little vaguely that more purpose in life leads to greater wealth because it goes together with a greater capability and propensity to pursue long-term goals. They acknowledged some limitations of their findings, including the fact they relied on self-reports on wealth and income. “These caveats aside,” they concluded, “the current findings provide evidence that even when it comes to finances, finding a purpose in life appears to be well worth it.”
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