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A Sense of Purpose Yields Financial Rewards

People who are guided by an internal compass tend to accumulate more wealth.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: 401(K) 2012/Flickr)

A new year is a fine time to ask yourself tough questions, such as: What is my life’s purpose? If you’re reluctant to embark on the sort of self-exploration that could produce an answer, consider that a sense of purpose has been linked to a strengthened immune system, as well as a longer life.

Now, new research reports it may produce an even more tangible benefit: cold, hard cash.

Analysis of a sizable survey of American adults suggests “having a purpose in life may hold real economic consequences,” writes a research team led by Carleton University psychologist Patrick Hill.

“Even when it comes to finances, finding a purpose in life appears to be well worth it,” he and his colleagues report in the Journal of Research in Personality.

The researchers examined data from the Midlife in the United States study, which featured 7,108 American citizens who were interviewed in 1995 and 1996. Nearly 5,000 of them participated in a follow-up interview in 2004–06.

During the initial interview, participants responded to three statements designed to measure one’s sense of purpose, including “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.” These were evaluated on a scale of one (strongly disagree) to seven (strongly agree).

In addition, participants’ personality traits were measured, and they answered the question “How satisfied with life are you now?” on a scale of one to four.

At both that first interview and the follow-up eight to 10 years later, participants were asked a series of questions about their finances. Using their answers, the researchers computed their total household income and approximate net worth at both points in time.

“Purposeful people may be more likely to save money or make investments that support downstream goals, and not squander resources based on impulsive decisions.”

“Sense of purpose had a significant, unique positive association with both financial outcomes,” they report.

“Above and beyond known predictors of financial success” such as demographics and personality traits, “individuals who reported a higher sense of purpose in life tended both to have higher household income and net worth initially, as well as greater increase on these outcomes over the following decade.”

They found the association between purpose and household income was stronger over time for younger adults, “suggesting that a sense of purpose benefited them more over time.” These results imply that “purposefulness may be most beneficial during the transition between young and middle adulthood.”

Hill and his colleagues can only speculate as to why purpose-driven people make and accumulate more money. They noted that such people “tend to be physically and psychologically healthier,” and may be “more focused on their occupational objectives.” If you find your work meaningful, you will presumably pursue it more diligently, which often leads to financial rewards.

In addition, “purposeful people may be more likely to save money or make investments that support downstream goals, and not squander resources based on impulsive decisions,” they add. Knowing what gives you meaning lessens the appeal of all sorts of expensive temptations.

So if you’re too busy making money to think about meaning in life, you may be sabotaging yourself. The oft-quoted assertion “Do what you love, and the money will follow” may be a bit simplistic, but this study suggests it shouldn’t be summarily dismissed.