4 Answers to the Purpose of Life

People sometimes ask what is the purpose of life? Why should we exist or chose to continue existing? To them I typically pose a counter question, what purpose would *you* like to have for life and can you live your life ‘as if’ that is the purpose of life?  See an example answer I provide here about the meaning/ purpose of life.

 

However, this post is not about such philosophical questions.  Instead it builds on my previous posts about 4 major goals in life worth striving for. To recap the four major goals are 1) Happiness 2) Success 3) Morality 4) Meaning.

Sometimes you come across a blog toward which you feel a natural affinity and know where the blogger is coming from. I recently came across the blog Qualia Computing and was fascinated by some advanced common understanding about psychological issues that the blog author shows. For example, in this post the author asserts that purpose of life is

  1. To Understand the Universe

  2. To be Happy, and Make Others Happy

Also, later, the author asserts that any experience is valuable to the extent that it answers in affirmative to one or more of these questions:

  1. Does it feel good? (happy, loving, pleasant)

  2. Does it make you productive (in a good way)?

  3. Does it make you ethical?

Taken together with the earlier formulation about the purpose of life, one can add a fourth question 4) does it lead to better understanding (of the world) ?

Thus, imho, all actions should be guided by answers to the questions ‘would it make me happy, make me productive , would make me a good person or would make me understand things a bit more clearly? ‘

So how does all this relate to psychological concepts? For starters, there is a big debate in psychology about the difference between happiness and meaningfulness and also as to which one is a legitimate aim to strive for? While some would like us to believe that happiness is the ultimate currency, new research suggests that Meaningfulness in life has its own importance and that both are valuable outcomes in themselves and predict other valued outcomes.

Moving beyond a narrow focus on oneself- whether to be happy or lead a meaningful life; one is also hounded by the desire to make a positive difference or contribution to the world around us.  Some of us want to put a ding in the universe and leave our marks, while others are much more OK living a mediocre life , that is, content creating and leaving some small ripples around them.

The desire to create an impact leads us to the interpersonal sphere- where traits of competence and warmth are important. If someone needs our help we can either provide them practical help (similar to problem focused coping) based on our competence, or just be there for them (similar to emotion focused coping) based on our warmth and again create small ripples of kindness around us. Or we can also create a big impact by being outstanding in our field using our competence or becoming a  paragon of a character strength by using our warmth.

In either case, one purpose of life may be to increase productivity to become more and more successful (in helping others) and the other may be to become more and more ‘good’ or moral and doing the small, everyday right things that make a difference.  This is the contrast between being great and being good. This is also the contrast between being characterized mostly by doings or by beings.

In the happiness literature itself, there is a contrast between feeling happy (measured by presence of positive affect and absence of negative affect) and knowing that you are happy (life satisfaction etc), so the point being that there is also a contrast between feeling and knowing just like there is a contrast between doing and being.

In sum, the following four are the purposes of life:

  1. to be happy by feeling preponderance of positive emotions
  2. to be successful by doing a lot with a lot less (being productive)
  3. to be moral by being good and caring about others
  4. to be purposeful by knowing that what you do has value/ meaning

If we keep these four goals top of our minds, it is much more likely that our lives will turn out to be beautiful lives and we will feel less the need to ask the purpose of our lives!!

Research Summaries: Self-Control Protects Against Overweight Status in the Transition from Childhood to Adolescence

Grit and self-control are the two character strengths on which Angela Duckworth focuses a lot, and this research summary is about a paper co-authored by Angela that shows how a lack of self-control can lead to obesity and weight gain in adolescence; while being more self-controlled helps one stay leaner.

Body mass index. Graphics is made language ind...

Body mass index. Graphics is made language independent. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. The authors define self-control as ” the ability to override impulses in order to achieve goals and maintain standards”.  It is also the ability to resist short term temptations and distractions in service of long term benefits.
  2. Self-Control has many positive associations like increased life expectancy, higher report card grades and achievement test scores and career success. However not many have looked at whether and how self-control may be related to the right amount of body weight.
  3. Weight gain from childhood to adolescence is natural, but excessive weight gain that leads to high BMI (body mass Index) is problematic and associated with negative outcomes like coronary diseases, diabetes etc. some risk/ protective factors like Socio economic status (SES) and pubertal development are well established; however not much work has been done linking personality variables like self-control with excessive weight gain.
  4. As children enter adolescence they start exercising more and more autonomy regarding their lifestyle choices like when to eat , sleep etc. Self-control, or the ability to delay short term gratification in view of long term well-being, thus becomes a salient feature for them with regards to how they manage their weight.
  5. This study was a prospective longitudinal study that looked at nearly 850 children in a birth cohort, and measured their self control at age 9 and correlated it with their BMI at age 15.
  6. Self-control at age 9 was operationalised using informant ratings by mother, father and teacher on the items related to self-control on the  Social Skills Rating System (SSRS)questionnaire.  Overweight status was established by classifying those with BMI z-scores falling above 85th percentile as overweight.
  7. Other potential confounds like intelligence, pubertal status etc were also measured and used in the analysis.
  8. The results showed that the overweight children (at age 15) were half a standard deviation lower on self-control (at age 9) that the normal weight children. Similarly, those children who showed higher self control than average at age 9, were less likely to become overweight at age 15.
  9. The study is important because it points to one mutable, and under one’s control, factor that leads to excessive weight gain – Self control. Thus, this factor , self-control, can and should be taught during the childhood to adolescence transition.  It will not only help the obesity epidemic but will lead to other gains too!

If you want to dig deeper, here is the original article.

Research Summaries: Development and Validation of the Short Grit Scale (Grit–S)

This research summary will be especially attractive to those who have interest in psychometric and would like to see how the concept and measure of grit has evolved. In this paper, Angela Duckworth refines her measurement of grit and establishes the test-retest stability of the concept apart form predictive and  consensual validity.

Animation of a vernier caliper measuring a bolt

Animation of a vernier caliper measuring a bolt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

  1. The authors wanted to come up with a briefer version of the grit scale, which would have better internal consistency and still retain the predictive power and the two factor structure of Consistency of Interests and Perseverance of effort.
  2. As such they dropped 2 items each from both the factor items and retained just 4 items each for each of the factors. The decision to drop the items was taken on the basis of analyzing data across four studies as delineated in their earlier paper, whose research summary is present here.  The newer 8 item Grit scale called Grrit -S retained predictive power and showed the same two factor structure.
  3. Similar to their earlier paper, they did an online study measuring grit-S/grit -O, big five traits as predictors and career changes and educational levels as outcome variables. Grit -S correlated with conscientiousness, but was still able to predict the outcomes over and beyond conscientiousness.
  4. Using the same online procedure, they asked subjects as well as informants (their friends  family members) to complete the Grit-S/Grit -O measures and established the consensual validity of the scale.
  5. In another study with students, they measured Grit-S/Grit -O  for two consecutive springs and established the test-retest stability of the scale as well as its predictive validity where GPA obtained was an outcome variable and so was the number of hours watching television.
  6. The next study was similar to the West point study they had done for earlier paper, but with grit-S predicting who makes it through the beast barracks.
  7. The last study was again a followup study of the national spelling bee competitors, this time with a new cohort, and using a new scale and led to similar results, whereby girt predicted who reached which round etc. based partly on who practiced how much and had prior experience participating.
  8. So, if you were looking for some more areas/ examples of the predictive power of grit, this doesn’t add much to what Anagela et al had presented in the earlier paper, but it does reconfirm finding with a shorter measure that also appears to be a better measure of grit.

so, if you are the one who is fascinated by how scales evolve, do check out this paper here.

Research Summaries: Positive predictors of teacher effectiveness

If you have ever wondered what goes on to make an effective teacher, this research paper by Angela Duckworth and colleagues, throws some light on the issue.

English: LaPlace, La., October 8, 2005 - Dan W...

English: LaPlace, La., October 8, 2005 – Dan Waldman (left), left without a job as a high school teacher at Signature Centers High School in New Orleans when it was flooded by Hurricane Katrina, has been hired by FEMA and is now at the LaPlace Disaster Recovery Center, 160 Belle Terre, and is in training to become a DRC manager. He is a member of the “Teach For America” program that places new teachers into inner city and low-income area schools around the nation. Win Henderson / FEMA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Teaching is a stressful job; in majority of cases, you are not able to see the impact of your work immediately or at all; hence the frequent teacher burnout or high attrition.
  2. Traditionally its thought that competence in subject matter or certifications would be a good predictor of teacher effectiveness. However , these measures typically fail to distinguish those performing well from those performing just bare minimal.
  3. When one looks at other factors like personality factors, extarverted or ‘attractive’ teachers get better ratings from students/ observers; however they don’t have any real impact on actual student performance when measured by gains in knowledge.
  4. This study looked at grit, life satisfaction and optimism of teachers as predictors of their effectiveness which will distinguish high performing teachers from the mediocre.
  5. They conducted a prospective longitudinal study wherein, grit, life satisfaction and optimistic explanatory style of novice Teach for America teachers was measured before they started school year. The gains in academic performance of the students they taught was used as an indicator of their effectiveness at the school year end.
  6. Grit, the ability to work hard under challenging circumstances, may be relevant to teacher effectiveness as they do face constant challenges, and so this was measured using the 8 item short Grit scale.
  7. Happy people do well in a number of different work settings as those who are in a positive mood are more likely to work towards their goals;  also they have  more resources to cope with stress and challenges, as per broaden and build theory of positive emotions. Also, the energy and enthusiasm of those teachers satisfied with life may be contagious and make students happy and thus more productive. Life satisfaction was measured by Satisfaction with Life Scale.
  8. Optimistic explanatory style may be relevant as when faced with repeated challenges those with pessimistic explanatory style may become helpless and give up, as compared to those with optimistic style who may remain resilient.  This was measured using Attributional Style Questionnaire.
  9. All three positive traits predicted teacher effectiveness.  When all were simultaneously used to predict the teacher effectiveness outcome, only grit and life satisfaction were significant predictors. It thus seems that optimism works via grit and life satisfaction.
  10. As this is a prospective longitudinal study the results do hint at causality, though reverse causality like effectiveness leading to life satisfaction cannot be ruled out.
  11. The authors conclude by suggesting that schools should perhaps hire for grit, happiness and optimism too. This is where I get a little uncomfortable; in an ideal world, I would welcome anyone who has a passion for teaching (the passion part of grit is taken care of 🙂 ) and equip them with tools like training to increase perseverance, hope and happiness to make them more effective. I am always ambivalent about measuring a trait and then hiring for it. To be fair the authors also suggest interventions in schools to increase grit , hope etc of teachers. I wish there was more of latter than former in the world that we live in.

So if you found this interesting and want to dig deep, check out the original paper here.

Research Summaries: Empirical identification of the major facets of Conscientiousness

This research summary looks at a paper co-authored by Angela Duckworth, that tries to carve conscientiousness at it joints.

English: perfectionist measuring and cutting grass

English: perfectionist measuring and cutting grass (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Conscientiousness is a personality trait that is present in most personality theories and measured by most personality inventories, the most famous of these being the Big Five or OCEAN model and as measured by Big Five Inventory (BFI)/ NEO-PI-R.
  2. Personality traits structure is supposed to be hierarchical with traits like Conscientiousness comprising of many finer aspects or facets. The NEO-PI-R is structured around 6 facets of conscientiousness, they being competence, order, dutifulness, achievement-striving, self-discipline and deliberation.
  3. Conscientiousness predicts a number of important life outcomes, however the relationship of different facets with different outcomes is not well established; nor are the number of facets of Conscientiousness agreed upon.
  4. Thus Angela and colleagues set forth to find out what was the underlying facet level structure of Conscientiousness and which facets predicted which outcomes. For this they used exploratory factor analysis and confirmatory factor analysis on data obtained from 291 adolescents. Conscientiousness was measured using items present in multiple scales from IPIP (international personality item pool).
  5. Exploratory factor analysis yielded an eight factor structure which was confirmed with confirmatory factor analysis.
  6. The eight factors were best described by the following construct labels: (a) Industriousness (“I make an effort”, “I am always prepared”); (b) Perfectionism (“I want to be the very best”, “I demand quality”); (c) Tidiness (“I like to tidy up”, “I leave a mess in my room” [reverse-keyed]); (d) Procrastination Refrainment (“I get to work at once”, “I am easily distracted” [reverse-keyed]); (e) Control (“I rush into things” [reverse-keyed], “I do unexpected things” [reverse-keyed]); (f) Cautiousness (“I think before I speak”, “I make careful choices”); (g) Task Planning (“I follow a schedule”, “I work according to a routine”); and (h) Perseverance (“I give up easily” [reverse-keyed], “I am easily discouraged” [reverse-keyed]).

  7.   Multiple outcomes of interest for the students were measured, these included absenteeism, CGPA, high stakes achievement results and teacher ratings of social behavior. All facets except tidiness predicted these outcomes. Perfectionism predicted scores in high stakes test even stronger than Conscientiousness as a whole. Industriousness predicted less absenteeism even strongly than Conscientiousness as a whole.
  8. Based on when the factors emerged and drawing a parallel with other lesser factor solutions, its apparent that following pairings can be done (my interpretation!) :
    1. Task planning (ordering tasks and time) and Tidiness (ordering possessions) make one group that can be called organization/orderliness. Task planning seems to be the dutifulness facet of NEO-PI-R.
    2. Cautiousness (prudence in VIA) and Control of impulses (self-regulation in VIA) make one group that is related to in-the-moment exercise of control, willpower and judgement. Cautiousness seems to be related to deliberation facet of NEO-PI-R.
    3. Industriousness (hard work {driven by harmonious passion?} where focus is on achieving quantity) and Perfectionism ( drive towards perfection {driven by obsessive passion?} where focus is on achieving quality) seem to make one group that is related to long term focus/ passion. Industriousness looks the same as Achievement-striving as per NEO-PI-R.
    4. Procrastination refrainment (decisiveness or starting things without waiting)  and perseverance (or finishing things that have been started, no matter what) seem to make the final group that is task-oriented. While procrastination refrainment seems like self-discipline of NEO-PI-R, Perseverance is more close to competence.
  9. To me the above eight factor structure of conscientiousness fits beautifully with my own ABCD model whereby I can see parallels with the Orderliness/organization related to Affect dimension and so forth.
  10. This research has real world implications. Given the limited time, if at all,  allotted by schools for positive education interventions, if one wants to increase odds of better outcomes, its wiser to focus on particular facets of Conscientiousness like industriousness, that are known to be associated with good outcomes, rather than poor predictor facets like tidiness, or even Conscientiousness as a whole.
  11. Bottom-line appears to be that teaching children tidy habits may be totally irrelevant,, in terms of valued life outcomes,  but making them appreciate the value of hard work and effort may really pay off!

if intrigued, here is the original paper.

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