a man holding a compass in a serene setting on the search for purpose in life

New Research Reveals How Purposeful Living Can Shield You From Stress

Researcher Anthony Burrow explains how purposeful moments can enhance resilience, health and well-being.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | January 29, 2024

A recent study published in the Journal of Research in Personality explored why having a sense of purpose in life serves as a safeguard against stress and improves the health and well-being of individuals.

I recently spoke to Anthony Burrow of the Department of Psychology at Cornell University, lead author of the paper, to discuss the ways in which purpose is instrumental in maintaining psychological homeostasis by limiting an individual's reaction to stressful experiences. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to explore the role of purpose in the stress process?

In the past two decades, studies linking purpose with greater health and well-being have proliferated. As promising as this evidence is, explanations as to why purpose confers greater health have been far less abundant. Thus, we thought it was important to ask, how does a sense of purpose promote or enable greater health across so many different indicators of well-being and in many different samples?.

An answer we derived, by reviewing studies that could shine light on this question, was that purpose helps reduce reactivity to everyday stressors and challenging experiences. That is, a sense of purpose appears to help people remain "even keel" in the face of experiences that might otherwise be disruptive to how we feel and act.

How would you describe homeostasis in relation to stress response? How is a sense of purpose instrumental in regulating an individual's reaction to different events they experience in life?

We use the notion "homeostasis" to essentially mean stability, or retaining some internal consistency despite external change or disruption. In the context of stress, we often expect some level of reactivity or disruption in emotion, thoughts, or behavior when people experience a stressor. But what a sense of purpose appears to be doing is affording greater homeostasis or stability–even in the face of stressors or challenges.

It is worth noting that in the studies we have reviewed, which includes the empirical study we conducted, this homeostatic function of purpose appears to be evident even in the face of positive or uplifting experiences. That is, it's not just instances of stress wherein purpose appears to play a role, but also in the context of emotionally positive experiences as well. When good things happen (uplifting events or experiences) we would expect to see emotional disruption or increased positive mood or happiness. But there, too, we see that having a greater sense of purpose appears to suppress how reactive people are to those experiences.

So, over the unfolding context of everyday life, purposeful people may demonstrate lower levels of emotional reactions to experiences. And, we know that high levels of emotional reactivity, over time, can be problematic and lead to other forms of dysregulated function.

Thus, purpose might be related to greater health because it is helping people remain more even keel (homeostatic) in the context of daily experiences that may otherwise dysregulate and undermine well-being over time.

Are there any personality traits that influence the relationship between purpose and well-being?

It's fascinating to wonder if one part of our personality can moderate the strength of the association between purpose and well-being. Though research on traits or characteristics capable of moderating the link between purpose and well-being are still emerging, the traits of neuroticism and conscientiousness may be strong candidates for such capacity. Whereas neuroticism refers to how emotionally stable a person may feel over time, conscientiousness may be indicated by high levels of self-control or responsibility.

Both have been implicated in health with lower levels of neuroticism and greater conscientiousness tending to be health promotive. But detecting confident signals of when and how strongly these traits impact a sense of purpose really await further testing.

How do you think purpose can be included in interventions that aim to reduce stress?

One emerging way to think about the role of purpose in interventions is to perhaps avoid thinking of purpose as some grandiose, existential conquest. For many people, the notion of purpose conjures a rather large and sometimes overwhelming life project.

But on the contrary, there is emerging evidence that people feel a profound sense of purpose in even the simplest moments–even if they are brief or fleeting. This is what other researchers refer to as "state purpose"–a purpose that is merely momentary or acute. So interventions might do well to help people reflect upon or try to experience a sense of purpose, even if briefly, in the rich context of our everyday lives. In doing so, it is possible that those purposeful moments may confer a kind of protection against acute forms of stress that also pave our everyday lives.

This is not to say that we should stop thinking about how larger scale and more enduring forms of purpose are also important to cultivate–perhaps to better contend with stressors that may be chronic or ongoing. But if we can also leverage momentary or daily forms of purpose to help us persist through daily challenges, then it seems worth trying.

Do you have any words of wisdom for individuals trying to develop a strong sense of purpose?

Having words of "wisdom" is probably too high of a bar for me to claim. But I would encourage people to avoid thinking of purpose in only the most grandiose ways and nudge them to consider all the moments of their everyday lives when they feel even a bit more purposeful than other moments. And, ask them to really consider and reflect on what it is about those moments that make them feel most purposeful. Not only might they gain insight to detect patterns that could become purposeful habits, they may also lower how reactive they are to challenges and stressors that arise as their days unfold.

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