Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Oct 01, 2019

Purposeful Citizens Make for Richer Societies

by Patrick L. Hill, Felix Cheung and Anthony L. Burrow
illustration of man looking at a city in the distance

Many of us are encouraged from a young age to search for things we like to do or find interesting. Pursuing these engaging activities can lead us down paths that reveal what we would like to do and who we would like to be. Studies show that people who are more engaged in interesting, rewarding activities tend to have a sense of direction and purpose in life. Moreover, having a sense of purpose often promotes happier, healthier, and longer lives. Living an engaging life even pays off financially in terms of earning more money and building greater wealth over time. However, what should we expect to find for groups of engaged people, or even societies with more engaged citizens?

This question sparked our investigation into how life engagement might promote greater financial well-being across societies. From 2013 to 2015, the Gallup World Poll asked nearly a half million people from 146 societies around the world questions related to their life engagement. In our study, we examined whether societies with a more engaged citizenry tended to have a greater gross domestic product (GDP), which reflects the total value of goods and services produced by a society in a particular year.

Our analyses revealed three main findings. First, societies vary significantly in their citizens’ levels of life engagement. Some societies have a very engaged citizenry, and others do not. Second, there was clear evidence that societies whose citizens showed higher life engagement have higher GDPs. Third, these findings held in our analyses even after we considered the demographics of the citizenship and citizens’ reported levels of religiosity, suggesting that the relationship between life engagement and GDP was not due to extraneous demographic factors.

The fact that the benefits of purpose and life engagement can be seen at both the individual and societal levels presents a case for the need to consider purpose and life engagement as targets for intervention. Our findings suggest that, in addition to the health and well-being benefits associated with purpose, efforts to promote life engagement in the population may pay for themselves in the form of greater economic development. Although this is certainly speculative, particularly in the absence of longitudinal data that tracks changes in life engagement and GDP over time, promoting purpose may pay off for societies.

In addition, these findings suggest that the way we talk about purpose matters. When previous research asked participants whether felt they had an “important” purpose or meaning, higher scores actually were related to lower rather than higher GDPs. In other words, the associations look very different if you ask questions about life engagement, or about whether citizens think their purpose is important.  Although this may seem like a minor point, the implications are important: we may end up with different outcomes depending on whether we promote citizens’ life engagement or whether they think their purpose is important.

Finally, these findings suggest that societies with greater resources may provide more opportunities for their citizens to be purposeful and engaged. This should not be interpreted as saying that people need wealth or financial resources in order to build purpose; indeed, research has clearly identified remarkably purposeful individuals from all economic backgrounds. However, we may need to do more to encourage the  development of purpose in societies with lower GDPs, including providing more opportunities for discussion about what people find engaging in their lives. Whatever the route taken, finding the source of life engagement seems to benefit both individuals and societies.


For Further Reading:

Hill, P. L., Cheung, F., Kube, A., & Burrow, A. L. (2019). Life engagement is associated with higher GDP among societies. Journal of Research in Personality78, 210-214.

Hill, P. L., Turiano, N. A., Mroczek, D. K., & Burrow, A. L. (2016). The value of a purposeful life: Sense of purpose predicts greater income and net worth. Journal of Research in Personality65, 38-42.

 

Patrick L. Hill is an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis who studies how people find and maintain a purpose across the lifespan, and the benefits of having one.

Felix Cheung is a research assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong who studies individual-level and society-level predictors of health and well-being.

Anthony L. Burrow is an associate professor at Cornell University who investigates the value of purpose for positive development.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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