The purpose of this exercise is to find out what purpose is - Leeds academics hunt for ‘existential drivers’

Jean Paul SartreJean Paul Sartre
Jean Paul Sartre
Without it you can be nothing and with it you can have everything. Neil Hudson reports on the academic challenge to define the very essence of our being

It’s a question philosophers have grappled with for millennia - what is our purpose?

Renaissance philosopher Rene Descartes famously said ‘I think therefore I am.’ And other philosophers, such as Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre have taken existential concepts and run with them. But, it seems, there’s little point in ‘being’ without purpose. It is purpose, it seems, which defines us. But that also begs a question: what, precisely, is purpose?

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Now two Leeds-based academics aim to delve deeper into our collective psyche and break down the concept in a bid to better understand what it is that drives our behaviour.

Dr Steve Taylor and Dr Jim Morgan are investigating whether different types of purpose can be identified, and whether these different types of purpose have different effects on our lives. They have developed a short questionnaire to test this, which can be found here:

Dr Taylor explained: “We think it’s a little misleading that in previous research ‘purpose’ has been treated as a very general concept, without looking into its different varieties. In reality, there are many different kinds of purpose, which must have different effects, and different associations. So we’ve created a model of these different types of purpose - not too dissimilar from Abraham Maslow’s famous ‘hierarchy of needs’ - which includes six different elements.

“We’re also including the possibility of ‘no purpose’, when people lack a sense of direction or orientation in their life and don’t have any goals to head towards. This is quite a dangerous state to be in and is strongly associated with depression and addiction. Finding a new sense of purpose is an important aspect of recovering from addiction.”

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The researchers are keen to find out if there are relationships between different types of purpose and age and gender.

For example, do different types of purpose become more important as people get older? Are different types of purpose more important for men or for women? They will also be looking into the relationship between different types of purpose and wellbeing. For example, are people who get a strong sense of purpose through following their religion happier than others? Are people whose purpose is just to survive - just to get by from day to day, meeting their basic needs - more or less happy than average?

Dr Taylor continued: “The most basic kind of purpose - which is shared by all living beings, not just human beings - is survival. That means just getting by from day to day, satisfying your basic needs, without thinking too much about the future. Unfortunately, there are many people in the world who are forced to spend their lives mostly focused on that purpose, due to poverty. Many people in the world gain their main sense of purpose through following the traditions and conventions of their religion. Other people might be mainly focused on achievement, or altruism. An important point is people can be oriented around more than one purpose. Different types of purpose can combine and feed into one another.

“A good deal of research has found a sense of purpose is an important aspect of wellbeing, associated with better psychological and physical health. Research published by University College London last year found, for people over 65, ‘purpose’ was associated with longevity. People with high fulfilment and purpose were likely to live, on average, two years longer.”

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The researchers aim to present their findings at a conference in April, 2016. Two pilot studies have already been completed, including one with Leeds Beckett University students – allowing the team to develop a reliable questionnaire.