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The Meaning and Importance of Family Purpose

Publication Authors: 
Anne Colby and William Damon
Publication Year: 

The history of the conceptualization and operationalization of purpose in life has been fraught with confusion, conflations, and complications. Purpose is herein defined as a sustained commitment to an identity-relevant life goal that is both meaningful to the self and intended to contribute to the world beyond the self.

Recognizing that this multidimensional conceptualization of purpose does not lend itself to the typical form of unidimensional Likert-type survey operationalization that has been common in the literature, we developed a new survey measure for the categorical determination of purpose.

All data utilized to develop the measure were collected as part of a larger, mixed-methods study investigating the development of purpose in later life. This larger study included a nationally representative sample of 1198 adults between the ages of 50 and 92 with a median age of 62. All participants completed a survey; a sub-sample of 102 adults additionally took part in one-hour telephone interviews.

To determine the presence of purpose, we began by giving participants a list of ten broad life goals that were constructed based on a review of the literature on life goals. Half of the goals were predesignated to be more beyond-the-self-oriented in nature and half were more self-oriented. Participants first rated the personal importance of each of the goals, then ranked their top three goals from this list.

To be categorized as purposeful, the participant must have selected a beyond-the-self goal among their top three, rated it as at least very important and met a set of cut-offs we established in response to the follow-up questions.

This presentation will discuss all steps of this process, describe the specifics of the final measurement procedure, present the challenges of assessing the full multi-dimensionality of purpose, and address the promise (and potential limitations) of utilizing this approach in future research.

This paper introduces a construct, family purpose, that has implications for moral development previously overlooked in the field. The study of individual purpose has flourished in recent years. Building on prior writings about purpose in adulthood by Victor Frankl and others, Bill Damon and his colleagues have explored the acquisition of purpose among adolescents and young adults. From this research has emerged a picture of how purpose is acquired and sustained, how it functions, how a capacity for purpose develops, and how it relates to moral behavior. We also have gained knowledge about why some people have difficulty finding purpose, and about the moral consequences of a lack of purpose.

We have defined individual purpose in the following manner: purpose is a long-term goal that combines two essential elements: meaningfulness to the self and an intention to accomplish something of consequence to the world beyond the self. Purpose is not a goal forced on a person without the person’s assent (as in “get your math homework done even if you don’t see why it’s important!”); and purpose is not a goal directed only at self-gratification (such as developing expertise in sport for its own sake). Purposeful goals are important to the person and, at the same time, intend to contribute to the external world.

Family purpose is a collective, rather than individual, form of purpose. As such, it requires its own definition. Although family purpose has not previously been explored in studies of moral development, other collective forms of purpose -- such as moral missions of professions, the long-range public interest goals of businesses, and the “national purposes” of some nations -- have received treatment in economics, sociology, and history.

The desire to establish and nurture a thriving family does not necessarily constitute a family purpose. Indeed, many individuals say that building a family is their primary source of purpose, but their families don’t necessarily share that purpose. Consequently, for them, this remains an individual rather than a family purpose. Moreover, shared family purposes, when they are present, may not focus on the family’s wellbeing per se. Family purpose, like individual purpose, must be intended to contribute beyond the self, that is, beyond the family, by including goals such as supporting a philanthropic cause. Our working definition of family purpose is: a long-term goal that families share across generations and that becomes meaningful to younger family members as they form their own plans to accomplish acts of consequence to the world beyond themselves.

A focus on family purpose provides access to intergenerational values that may shape the moral choices of present and future family members. But not every family has a shared purpose; and, unlike individuals, many families may not need or benefit from having a purpose. We believe that exploring these issues will significantly advance our understanding of purpose and its implications for moral development. This symposium is meant to initiate that endeavor.