Your Voice of Financial Reason

The Power of Purpose

Saturday, July 10, 2010

In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, best selling author Daniel Pink presents (in a very engaging and understandable way) the latest research in human motivation.  One section, “The Good Life,” is particularly enlightening in regard to how we as individuals establish and pursue our life goals.  Pink makes the point, and science confirms, that “satisfaction depends not merely on having goals, but on having the right goals.”   

One of the studies that Pink cites asked a sample of soon-to-graduate college students about their life goals and then followed them early in their careers to assess their progress and well-being.  The students’ goals were categorized as either “extrinsic aspirations” or “intrinsic aspirations.”   Becoming wealthy or achieving fame are examples of extrinsic motivators and labeled “profit goals.”  In contrast, learning, growing, and helping others are examples of intrinsic motivators and labeled “purpose goals.”  

Within two years of graduating, the researchers found that the individuals with purpose goals felt they were achieving them, and also experienced higher levels of satisfaction and well-being than when they were in college.  In addition, they reported having low levels of anxiety and depression.  

In contrast, those who had profit goals (wealth and acclaim), and were achieving those goals, reported the same levels of satisfaction, self-esteem, and positive affect as when they were students.  In other words, they were achieving their goals, but that didn’t make them happier.  And, even more striking, those achieving their profit goals reported higher levels of anxiety and depression.

Pink summarized the conclusions of the researchers in this way; “Even when we do get what we want, it’s not always what we need.”  What this study and many others have revealed is that what we really need is a sense of purpose.  

And, this need is not isolated to the idealism of young adults.  Pink writes, “Baby boomers around the world—because of the stage of their lives and the size of their numbers—are nudging purpose closer to the cultural center.”  

For example, the non-profit organization Civic Ventures claims, “The tarnished dream of the Golden Years as endless leisure is giving way to a new form of practical idealism; real jobs tackling real problems and making real impact.”  Their research, conducted in collaboration with the MetLife Foundation, revealed that millions of people in the second half of life are choosing purpose driven “encore careers” that provide both income and meaning while addressing some of society’s biggest challenges.

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