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A new measure of purpose in adults: Capturing the multidimensional nature of purpose

Publication Authors: 
Matthew Bundick, Kathleen Remington, & Emily Morton
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.