Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Prosocial Behavior

Inside the Science of Purpose: Anuj Shah

By Alex Shaw

In our continuing series of monthly posts on the NPP blog called “Inside the Science of Purpose,” we get access to our NPP network members’ minds and discover how they bring purpose into both their research and their own lives.


This time we interviewed Professor Anuj Shah from The University of Chicago Booth School of Business.


Tell us in a few sentences about your NPP project.

Heather Schofield, Frank Schilbach, Sendhil Mullainathan, and I are taking a closer look at a rather mundane (but often overlooked) obstacle facing many of the world’s poor; namely, chronic pain. We suspect that physical pain has important (negative) consequences that span economics, psychology, and public health. When absorbed by pain, our productivity suffers and our mental capacities are diminished. Many of the world’s poor simply try to work through this pain, or they have to be extraordinarily strategic about how they treat the pain. In our project, we’ll test whether access to effective over-the-counter pain treatments can improve daily productivity and cognitive function. We’re working with flower stringers in Chennai who regularly experience high levels of pain and whose work suffers because of it. We’ll examine how productivity, goal pursuit, and various cognitive capacities might benefit from pain treatment. It may be the case that basic access to effective pain treatment can alleviate one of the main barriers to a life of purpose for the world’s poor.

Professor Anuj Shah

How do you think this research can contribute to the understanding of purpose?

Finding and pursuing purpose requires considerable freedom of mind. It demands that we look inward to consider what matters in our lives and that we look forward to find paths to fulfillment. But when a day is filled with pangs of an aching tooth or a sore back, there is little equanimity. Pain makes it hard to focus on the task at hand or remain present, which undermines happiness and well-being in the moment.  And because it creates so many distractions, pain makes it difficult to think about which activities will imbue life with purpose. Still worse, even when these activities are identified, they are unlikely to be completed because pain throws up so many obstacles. And all of this is significantly more likely to be true for the poorest and most vulnerable individuals in society, as they are engaged in more manual labor, have less access to basic medical care, and are already juggling many other sources of stress and distraction. If interventions that mitigate the experience of pain also have a positive impact on goal pursuit and the discovery of purpose, then pain might be one obstacle with a clear, practical remedy.

Purpose is not something that has traditionally been studied in behavioral science. Do you think your work will help to make the subject more attractive and tractable for future researchers? Why?

I hope that it can. One reason behavioral science might overlook the study of purpose could be that it simply feels too big, too difficult to get a handle on in the space of one study, one paper, or even one career. It’s not clear where to start. But hopefully if we start by thinking about some of the most basic, everyday barriers to pursuing purposeful lives, behavioral scientists can do what we do best—find ways to remove these obstacles—in a domain with some pretty high stakes.

Please consider the times when you personally feel the strongest and most satisfying sense of purpose in your life.  What do you find most helpful in promoting those experiences?

This probably happens when an idea comes to mind that feels new, practical, and relevant to others. It doesn’t happen often! But being able to tinker with that idea—before I have to figure out whether that idea is actually right or wrong—is a satisfying process. Having other people around who like to tinker is usually the best way to make those moments happen.

Thinking broadly about all of your research interests, if money were no object, what is the study you would most want to run?

A bit far afield from this project, but the money-is-no-object study would be closely related to work I’m doing with Jens Ludwig and others at the University of Chicago Crime Lab, where we’re trying to reverse engineer a couple programs that have been remarkably effective at reducing youth violence and improving schooling outcomes. If we could distill the active ingredients in these programs and take them to scale, then I would have a new answer to the question above.


Alex Shaw is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Prosocial Behavior

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