A Sense of Purpose Increases Comfort With Ethnic Diversity - Pacific Standard

A Sense of Purpose Increases Comfort With Ethnic Diversity

White Americans who feel a sense of purpose in their lives are better able to accept coming demographic changes.
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(Photo: fady habib/Flickr)

(Photo: fady habib/Flickr)

Having a sense of purpose in life yields surprisingly concrete benefits. As we’ve noted, previous research has found it can strengthen one’s immune system, and may even lengthen one’s life.

Now, a new study has found yet another advantage—one that could impact not only individuals, but society as a whole. It finds a sense of purpose in life increases white Americans’ comfort with ethnic diversity.

“One generation from now, white non-Hispanic individuals will no longer constitute the majority of the U.S. population,” notes a research team led by Anthony Burrow of Cornell University. While reactions to that reality vary widely, there’s no question that many find it unsettling.

However, a sense of purpose appears to be “a unique resource for navigating an increasingly diverse society,” the researchers write in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. They describe three experiments that provide evidence backing up their thesis.

In the final experiment, 130 white adults who wrote a short essay about "what it means to have a sense of purpose" were far more likely to be open to consider living in an ethnically diverse city than those who had written about their "typical day."

The first featured 205 white American adults recruited online. After giving basic demographic information, and answering questions about their personality and current mood, they responded to a series of statements designed to measure both their comfort with ethnic diversity and their sense of purpose.

For example, they reported the degree to which they agreed with such assertions as “I am an active person in carrying out the plans I have set for myself,” and “I am only at ease with people of my race.” Finally, they described “how close they felt to people of different ethnic backgrounds than their own.”

Purpose, the researchers report, "emerged as a robust indicator of greater diversity comfort,” above and beyond the effect of other variables.

The second experiment directly measured the threat of demographic change. The participants—184 white American adults—were all shown a pie chart labeled 2015, which showed the population to be 62 percent white and 38 percent minority.

Half then saw a second chart labeled 2050, in which the white population decreased to 57 percent. The other half saw an alternate second chart, also labeled 2050, in which the white population was down to 47 percent, with minorities making up 53 percent.

Not surprisingly, those who saw the second version of the 2050 chart “reported greater feelings of threat than those in the majority white condition.” However, for those who were told a minority-majority society is imminent, “greater purpose was associated with significantly less threat.”

In the final experiment, 130 white adults who wrote a short essay about “what it means to have a sense of purpose” were far more likely to be open to consider living in an ethnically diverse city than those who had written about their “typical day.” Putting purpose in the front of their minds apparently made them more open to interacting with different types of people.

So what’s the connection here? While the researchers can’t say for sure, they point out that “purposeful individuals are oriented toward connecting with the broader world around them.” A commitment to persevere until their goals are achieved “may help individuals conceptualize what it takes to thrive in the context of a more inclusive and diverse future,” they write.

Or, on an even more fundamental level, a sense of purpose tends to go hand in hand with positive emotions. The researchers note that this “may allow individuals to perceive more positive interactions with people of different backgrounds than their own,” lowering any feeling of threat.

So Joseph Campbell’s famous invitation to “follow your bliss” may lead to more than individual fulfillment. If we take him up on his advice, we could help America make it through a potentially tough transition.

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