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Purpose in Life Impedes Impulsivity

Another good reason to make 2016 the year you follow your bliss.
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(Photo: Sergey Shenderovsky/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Sergey Shenderovsky/Shutterstock)

Is "act less impulsively" one of your New Year's resolutions? If so, you might want to add another to the list: Take a deep look inside of yourself, and emerge with a sense of your purpose in life.

If you can do that, the impulsivity issue may just take care of itself.

That's the implication of newly published research, which finds people possessing a sense of purpose are more likely to make choices that pay off in the long run, and less likely to get sidetracked by the need for short-term gratification.

If you can't resist grabbing at each new potential source of pleasure that comes your way—I'm talking about you, the Pfefferman children from Transparent—it may reflect the fact you have no idea where you're headed, or why.

As a new year approaches, why not ask yourself where true fulfillment lies for you?

In the journal Personality and Individual Differences, Cornell University researchers Anthony Burrow and R. Nathan Spreng describe a study featuring 503 adults. Data was taken from the Human Connectome Project, an initiative designed to help understand brain function and behavior.

Participants filled out a personality test, as well as an 18-item questionnaire regarding their sense of purpose. They responded, on a one-to-five scale ("strongly disagree" to "strongly agree") to such statements as "My life has a clear sense of purpose" and "My daily life is full of things that are interesting to me."

They then took part in a "delay discounting" game, in which they made a series of choices centered on whether to take a smaller amount of money right now, or a larger amount at some later date. The length of time participants would have to wait, and the difference in dollar amounts, differed with each new round.

"Individuals who reported a greater sense of purpose preferred larger future gains to smaller immediate ones," the researchers report. "Importantly, these results persisted after accounting for dispositions in personality traits and positive (emotions), suggesting a robust and unique association between having purpose and future-oriented behavior."

The reasons behind this link seem clear: A sense of purpose focuses one's mind more on a far-off goal, and this forward-looking orientation makes here-and-now temptations less, well, tempting. The implications of this are many; as the researchers write, "purpose may limit engagement in known risk behaviors linked to impulsivity, such as cigarette smoking, drug use and gambling."

Other recent studies have found a sense of purpose lengthens lives, strengthens the immune system, and increases our comfort level with ethnic diversity. Together, they suggest purpose is a positive force both for individuals and society.

So as a new year approaches, why not ask yourself where true fulfillment lies for you? There's a good chance you know the answer, but the idea of pursuing it scares you. If so, take comfort in the fact that the benefits of a purposeful life can be long-lasting and profound.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.