Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose in Goal Pursuit Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose Across the Lifespan

No mountain too high: How a sense of purpose fuels people’s energy

By Janina Steinmetz


Imagine having just received your college degree. You’re proud, excited, and exhausted. You think back to how much effort it took, how many late nights of studying, how many doubts, how many worries. Considering all these efforts, would you approach the next difficult task, or shy away? And what advice would you give others who ask you about your experience? The answer might depend on the sense of purpose you feel in life. Experiencing purpose doesn’t mean that difficult things are necessarily easier. But maybe the effort that difficult things take will inspire those with a sense of purpose, instead of weigh them down.

Recent research from Anthony Burrow and colleagues from Cornell University addressed the question how purpose relates to perceptions of effort. The researchers asked participants to stand in front of a steep hill slope of about 75 ft in length, covered with grass and a few concrete pathways. To get a sense of participants’ general feeling of purpose in life, the researchers asked participants to fill out a scale of several statements to capture one’s sense of directedness and intentionality in life (e.g., “I am an active person in carrying out the plans I have set for myself”). The more likely participants were to agree with these statements, the higher their reported purpose in life. Then, participants actually walked up the hill slope, where another researcher met them and asked them a few more questions about their ascent. Specifically, participants reported how steep they thought the hill slope had been, and how effortful the ascent had been in their opinion.

Image ©: Leonardo Pallotta 2006

Typically, people overestimate how steep the slope is. And importantly, many people overestimate the steepness even more when the ascent took them lots of effort. In other words, if people feel that something is difficult and effortful, often they assume that is was generally a difficult task (like walking up a very steep hill). However, this was not true for people with a greater sense of purpose in life. When people feel a great sense of purpose in life, even if the ascent was very effortful for them, they don’t automatically attribute this to a greater steepness of the hill. Thus, purpose in life allows people to perceive challenges for what they are, and let themselves not be deterred by difficult tasks to come. For all readers who now worry sometimes losing track of one’s sense of purpose might undermine their motivation even more, there’s good news: The researchers found similar effects when asking people to think about what gives them purpose, instead of measuring it. Simply reflecting for a few minutes on what gives one’s life purpose had the same consequences for perceptions of effort as had a greater sense of purpose in life in general. Taken together, it seems that a sense of purpose in life doesn’t only boost our energy because we feel like we have goals to strive for. A sense of purpose in life can even affect our concrete perceptions of our daily efforts, and ultimately of how we see our environments.  


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

Associated Project Theme: Purpose in Goal Pursuit Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose Across the Lifespan

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