Fostering Purpose in Life / Meaning in Life Across the Life Span


Brackman, Levi. (2017). Fostering Purpose in Life / Meaning in Life Across the Life Span [Thesis].
AuthorsBrackman, Levi
Qualification nameDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)

This thesis addresses the idea of purpose and meaning in life and how it can be intentionally fostered across the lifespan. Purpose and meaning in life, as it relates to well-being, is considered by some scholars to be the highest-level construct from which all other lower-level constructs of well-being flow (Kashdan & McKnight, 2009). As this thesis will demonstrate, purpose is highly correlated with many other desirable outcomes that are vital for living a life of flourishing, thriving and wellness. Given the importance of purpose in life as it relates to wellness, health and psychological wellbeing, this thesis is concerned with whether purpose in life can be intentionally fostered within the human condition, especially for those who have a deficit of it. To achieve this, my thesis contains three studies:

I. A psychometric study that seeks to validate well-known purpose in life instruments and then create a new purpose in life instrument that is a common core that covers areas of the construct of purpose/meaning in life that exist in disparate meaning and purpose scales.

II. Test a purpose in life fostering intervention in a youth/ school based sample using a quasi-experimental design.

III. Test a purpose in life fostering instrument in an adult sample of people fifty years old and above using a randomized control trial.

Considering this my thesis seeks to satisfy the following four aims: 1. To arrive at a well-founded theoretical definition of the construct of meaning and purpose in life. 2. To find a way that purpose in life and meaning in life can be adequately and empirically measured. 3. To test whether purpose in life can be fostered in youth using an evidence based purpose-fostering coaching curriculum within a high school setting. 4. To study whether, using an evidence based intervention, purpose in life can be intentionally fostered in an adult sample. The first two aims, a) establishing a definition for the construct of interest and b) establishing a valid instrument with which the construct of interest can be measured, were prerequisites for being able to test whether purpose in life could be intentionally fostered. Aims three and four used the first two aims as a predicate to test the main hypothesis of whether purpose in life can be intentionally fostered in the human condition across the lifespan.

To accomplish these goals, the literature, as it relates to the definition of purpose in life, was analyzed and a novel approach to defining purpose was suggested. This approach takes meaning and purpose into consideration and argues that meaning and purpose are two elements that are intrinsic to the domain space of meaning in life and purpose in life. As I argue in the thesis from both a theoretical and an empirical perspective, meaning and purpose are, in fact, two inseparable aspects of one construct. One cannot have meaning without purpose and one cannot have purpose without meaning.

To test the efficacy of any treatment on a dependent variable, it is vital to have valid instruments that can measure any potential change in the construct of interest. To accomplish this, data were collected to carry out a full scale psychometric evaluation of four well-known purpose in life survey instruments. I discovered that some of the instruments performed better than others. In addition, since youth were a primary population of interest in these studies, it was important to know whether instruments created for adults would work well on a youth sample. Thus, psychometric analysis was carried out on data that were collected from a youth sample. Out of the four instruments that were analyzed, I was able to extract a number of items that together had solid psychometric properties, and, as a group, represented a common core of construct of purpose in life found in the individual instruments analyzed. The resulting measure is apparently the first purpose in life instrument created for, and tested on, a youth population. In addition, this new instrument apparently is the first short-form purpose in life survey designed specifically to cover full conceptual space of the domain space that makes up the construct of purpose in life. To test whether purpose in life can be fostered across the lifespan, a specially created and internet-based purpose-fostering treatment was formulated and tested. One version of this purpose-fostering treatment was created for youth and another was created for adults. Both treatments were similar to each other in key ways. Studies to test the efficacy of this purpose-fostering intervention were then carried out with both youth populations in schools and with adults ages 50+. For the youth study, a three group quasi-experimental, pretest/posttest design was conducted in two high achieving secondary schools in Sydney, Australia. This study was able to test my hypothesis that a purpose in life intervention can intentionally foster purpose in youth within a high school educational environment. The results of the study supported this hypothesis.

For the adult study, a full randomized controlled trial with adults over 50 years of age was conducted to assess whether purpose in life can be intentionally fostered in an adult sample. The adult study had three data collection points: pretest, posttest, and long-term follow-up, which occurred twelve weeks following the conclusion of the treatment.

Key to my hypothesis was that there would be an Aptitude Treatment Interaction (ATI), where those who started lower on the construct of purpose in life would gain more from the treatment than those who already tested high on purpose in life at baseline. This hypothesis was supported in both studies. In the adult study, however, even those who started high on purpose in life benefitted from the treatment. In addition, I hypothesized that participants would gain in other areas of well-being as they gained in purpose in life. This hypothesis was supported amongst participants in the adult study but, surprisingly, was weakly supported in the youth study. Results of the adult study similarly supported the hypothesis that purpose in life can be intentionally fostered in adults using a purpose in life treatment. In addition, it demonstrated that those who started lower on the construct of purpose in life benefited more than those who started off higher. The longitudinal nature of the data collection also allowed me to demonstrate that the treatment effect lasted well beyond the end of the treatment and was still discernable three months post-treatment.

The implications of this research from both a theoretical and practical point of view are far-ranging and impactful. From a theoretical perspective, I have shown that meaning and purpose in life are actually one construct. This finding adds weight to the argument that for one to have purpose, one must also have a sense of coherence and meaning in life. From a practical perspective, this finding will inform the work of policy makers, practitioners and educators who want to create measures to test for purpose in life. It should also inform the work of those creating interventions, workshops and treatments to foster purpose in life within the human condition.

In addition, the finding that an intervention can be used to foster purpose in life, especially within those who are low on purpose, will have significant implications for educators, mental health workers and policy makers. The knowledge that an evidence based intervention can intentionally foster purpose in those who lack it should lead to the creation and implementation of purpose interventions in schools, senior centers and in mental healthcare workers’ offices and practices the world over. Given the huge deficits associated with not having purpose in life, this finding has the potential of making a practical difference in the field of mental health and positive psychology.

KeywordsPurpose; meaning; well-being; youth; retirement; purpose instruments
PublisherAustralian Catholic University
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Research GroupInstitute for Positive Psychology and Education
Final version
Publication dates15 Jul 2017
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