How can we live a meaningful and purposeful life? Answering this question can significantly contribute to our long-term well-being. Recent research in positive psychology among diverse populations unequivocally suggests that living a more meaningful and purposeful life predicts better physical and mental health. So, it seems worth it to carefully examine the features that form the basis of meaning and purpose in life and to develop evidenced-based strategies for how to best pursue such a life.

But answering this question may be more complicated than we think. First, not all meaningful and purposeful lives have the same basis or necessarily lead to flourishing. A person might feel a strong purpose in life by earning money, but we would not necessarily say that person is flourishing if they are merely interested in earning money (perhaps even through undesirable ways), but not interested in how to use the money wisely to contribute to society. And living a life that is made meaningful and purposeful by focusing on oneself does not seem to lead to flourishing in the long run. Interviews with youth exemplars who were living flourishing lives showed that motivation to contribute to beyond-the-self (BTS[1]) beings was a fundamental component constituting their purpose in life. For example, motivation to engage in volunteer activities in order to make a local community a better place would constitute BTS motivation; on the other hand, if such engagement in volunteer activities originates from the motivation to build a strong resumé, this would be self-oriented rather than BTS motivation. A quantitative longitudinal study also showed that the presence of BTS motivation significantly contributed to the maintenance of purpose during emerging adulthood. These qualitative and quantitative studies suggest that we need to carefully consider the objective aspects of a meaningful and purposeful life on top of its subjective aspects.

And even the seemingly-desirable BTS motivation may be more complicated than we might think at first glance. In some extreme cases, strong BTS motivation per se may produce disastrous outcome at a societal level. For example, think about religious extremists; although they have strong BTS motivation, as seen in the motivation to devote their lives to their religious beliefs, they may end up committing violent acts or even terrorism. Thus, when it comes to the question of how best to pursue meaning and purpose in life, we need to think not only about how sources of meaning and purpose in life contribute to one’s own flourishing, but also how they contribute to others’ welfare.

So, we may need to go beyond just inspiring BTS motivation to treating moral values and virtues, such as fairness and caring, as a necessary component for flourishing. In moral psychology, moral identity or centrality refers to the tendency to highly value morality. A recent psychological study demonstrated that the possession of strong moral identity predicted the maintenance of meaning in life. In addition, psychological experiments showed that moral people, such as those who dedicated time to helping disabled students or caring for sick children were perceived to be happier than immoral people, such as those who were stealing from students or harming sick children. This was true in general populations, as well as among professional positive psychologists. Given these examples, morality seems to significantly contribute to a meaningful and purposeful life, flourishing, and even happiness in general.

In conclusion, to ensure that meaning and purpose in life truly lead to flourishing in the end, we may need to simultaneously regard moral values and virtues as important parts of ourselves while pursuing contributions beyond the self. Of course, I do not want to argue that we should all be moral saints. However, I think – and the evidence suggests - that pursuing moral values instead of merely focusing on self-oriented values may be necessary to instill meaning and purpose that lead to a flourishing life.

Dr. Hyemin Han is Assistant Professor in Educational Psychology and Educational Neuroscience at the University of Alabama. As an interdisciplinary research interested in the improvement of education, Dr. Han conducts research projects at the Social, Emotional, and EDucational (SEED) Neuroscience Lab. His research interests include neuroscience of morality, socio-moral development, growth mindset, positive youth development, educational intervention, and computational simulation.

[1] Of course, in this context this abbreviation does not refer to a popular Korean boy band, 방탄소년단(Bangtan Sonyeondan).