Why Purpose is Personal

Why Purpose is Personal is a TEDx talk I gave at the TEDxYouth @ Sunset Beach event in Vancouver on September 9th 2022. The core question I wanted to answer was: why is the advice of gurus and experts often so unsatisfying when it comes to finding true purpose in life? This quest took me to the emerging science of meaning and purpose, which invites us to take a radical leap forward to a truly “n of one” approach to our lives. In other words, meaning isn’t general, or theoretical: it’s personal. You download the PDF with the sources and references I refer to in this talk by signing up for my substack here.

Mentioned in this talk:

Frankl’s classic Man’s Search for Meaning is obviously worth a read, but so is his lesser-known The Will to Meaning. It offers less narrative storytelling than Man’s Search, but it lays down the theoretical underpinnings of Frankl’s system of meaning construction and logotherapy.

The “Purpose In Life” scale is a 20-item psychometric test developed in 1964 by Crumbaugh and Maholick, inspired by Frankl’s work, and especially his understanding of “noogenic neurosis”, a term loosely understood to mean “existential frustration.” Researchers have since developed a shorter form, 4-item version, whose results have shown to statistically correlate with those of the longer PIL test.

The relationship between PIL scores and health outcomes is very well-documented and quite fascinating. High PIL scores are associated to reduced risks of stroke, disability, cardiovascular events, Alzheimer’s, and all-cause mortality. They’re also reported to moderate the impact of biological risk factors. See this paper, at page 2, for a good summary of these findings.

Other research shows that purpose in life reduces activity in the amygdala, and predicts better emotional recovery from negative stimuli. There’s also research showing that it affects activity in the brain in ways that promote overall well-being.

Regarding the “n of one” argument (namely, that the combination of our personal characteristics makes us profoundly unique as individuals – not just qualitatively, but from a statistical perspective) the general calculation method Dr. Jonathan Afilalo and I used with respect to the possible combinations with respect to the answers in two widely used psychometric tests (Big 5 and VIA) is: {(# of options per question) ∧ (# of questions)}. This line of reasoning aligns with the movement toward personalized or precision medicine, where “n of one” trials are increasingly favoured to larger-scale randomized studies.

Ed O’Brien’s paper People are Slow to Adapt to the Warm Glow of Giving suggests that the issue of “hedonic adaptation” – or returning to a relatively stable baseline level of happiness after a positive event (think lottery winners) – is much less of an issue when it comes to the “pleasures of giving”. Hence my analogy that giving is a more “sustainable source of energy” than the energy we get from taking or consuming, for example.

A summary of Morten Hansen’s cool study (by the man himself!) on the power of purpose when it comes to explaining work-related performance can be found here. The results strongly suggest that purpose is more effective than passion as a work performance tool. Naturally, however, the best results come from combining purpose and passion (what Hansen calls the “P-squared” approach).


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