George & Park 2013 surveyed cancer patients (twice, one year apart) with questions about meaning and purpose, and tried to tease out any potential differences. Meaning seems to be related to making sense of the why’s and what-for’s of life (e.g. religion/spirituality, etc.), whereas purpose seems to be related to accomplishing goals (e.g. direction in life, optimism, social support, etc.).

In the past few decades, the constructs of meaning and purpose have received increased scholarly attention and have come to be viewed as fundamental to wellness and fulfillment […] Empirical research has substantiated theoretical claims that a sense of meaning and purpose in life are important to well-being.

[T]he current study conceptualizes meaning and purpose as distinct constructs. Meaning is conceptualized as the subjective experience of perceiving life as fitting into a larger context and finding significance in it (Yalom, 1980). Individuals experiencing meaning are able to feel a sense of comprehension and significance in their lives and feel that life as a whole “makes sense” (Baumeister, 1991). In contrast, purpose is the subjective experience of possessing a system of overarching goals that provide a sense of direction in life (McKnight & Kashdan, 2009). Purposeful individuals have an attitude towards the future characterized by a sense of enthusiasm and excitement. They see the future as promising and their current actions as leading to such a positive future state. […]

There is evidence to suggest that the term meaning represents more than merely a sense of goals, aims, and direction for individuals. For example, Wong (1998) asked lay people to describe their conceptions of an ‘ideally meaningful life.’ Participants’ descriptions consisted of a whole host of topics that are distinct from what we refer to here as purpose – participants wrote about having religious beliefs, intimate relationships, a sense of transcendence, being treated fairly, and living life in fulfilling ways. Therefore, when the term meaning is being used, people seem to think beyond mere goals and a sense of direction. […]

However, although they are closely related, the presence of one may not guarantee the other. For example, an individual who is concerned with climbing the career ladder may generate a system of goals and hence possess a strong sense of purpose, but these goals may or may not in turn contribute to a sense of comprehension and  understanding regarding life (i.e. meaning). […]

We examine these questions in a sample of cancer survivors, as questions of meaning and purpose are particularly salient for individuals dealing with crises. […]

Meaning and purpose were strongly correlated (r = 0.61, p < 0.01). […]

Given that meaning and purpose were substantially correlated with one another, partial correlations were conducted to tease out the psychosocial predictors of each, controlling for the other. […]

[P]artial correlations showed that Time 2 meaning was positively related to Time 1 religiousness and spirituality (whereas Time 2 purpose was not). Religion and spirituality offer comprehensive frameworks to understand and comprehend one’s existence and thus provide meaning (Park, 2005; Silberman, 2005). As this is a more salient function of religiousness and spirituality than the provision of a sense of goals and enthusiasm and excitement regarding the future, it is to be expected that religion and spirituality would be more closely associated with meaning than with purpose (Park, 2013; Park et al., 2013). Also consistent with the idea that comprehension and significance are more defining of meaning than purpose were the partial correlations that showed a positive relationship between Time 2 posttraumatic growth and Time 2 meaning and a negative relationship between Time 2 posttraumatic depreciation and Time 2 meaning. […] After an experience of crisis, individuals struggle to make sense of their experience, and to incorporate their experience into their worldview (Janoff-Bulman, 1992; Park, 2010). This process may be accompanied by growth in various aspects of their lives (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996) as it allows individuals to make sense of their experience and gain a sense of significance regarding the event and their lives (Janoff-Bulman & Yopyk, 2004). Posttraumatic growth helps individuals answer fundamental questions regarding the experience such as ‘why did it happen?’ and ‘what for?’ (Davis et al., 1998). Similarly, posttraumatic depreciation may hinder participants’ ability to make sense of their experience and thus lower meaning. In our sample, individuals who perceived more growth following their cancer diagnosis had a greater sense of meaning and those who perceived more depreciation had a lower sense of meaning, supporting the idea that part of meaning is the ability to make sense of one’s life and life events.

Consistent with the definition of purpose as a sense of goals, direction, and enthusiasm regarding the future, partial correlations showed that Time 2 purpose was positively associated with Time 1 optimism and negatively associated with Time 1 pessimism. […] It seems that in our sample, individuals who had more positive expectations of the future (optimists) also experienced more purpose in life. Furthermore, Time 1 goal violations pertaining to cancer were also inversely predictive of Time 2 purpose (but not of Time 2 meaning). Survivors who perceived their cancer experience as violating their goals perceived less purpose one year later, supporting the idea that goals are more central to the experience of purpose than of meaning. […]

For Time 2 meaning, Time 1 spirituality emerged as a unique predictor. The spirituality measure that we used captured subjects’ perception of the transcendent (God, the divine) in daily life and the degree to which s/he feels involved with the transcendent (Underwood & Teresi, 2002). The fact that experiencing the transcendent uniquely predicts meaning is consistent with the idea that meaning refers to a sense of understanding and significance regarding life. In contrast to meaning, regression results showed that Time 2 purpose was uniquely predicted by Time 1 interpersonal support and marginally (inversely) predicted by pessimism. The marginally significant inverse prediction of purpose by pessimism is consistent with the definition of purpose as a sense of goals, direction in life, and enthusiasm regarding the future. Pessimists have generalized expectations regarding outcomes that are negative (Scheier & Carver, 1985). Individuals with such negative expectations perceive more difficulties regarding their goals and more readily disengage from them (Carver & Scheier, 2002). Such a scenario is likely to result in a lower sense of purpose.

Some of the results were inconsistent with our expectations. The fact that regression analyses showed interpersonal support as a unique predictor of purpose but not of meaning was surprising considering that social relations are a primary source of meaning in individuals’ lives (Debats, 1999; Wong, 1998). Close relationships can add a sense of value and significance to one’s existence and make people feel that life is worth living (Yalom, 1980). […]

Another finding that was inconsistent with our expectations was the lack of a relationship between Time 2 meaning and Time 1 belief violations pertaining to the
cancer diagnosis. As core beliefs help individuals comprehend and understand their experiences (Janoff-Bulman, 1992; Koltko-Rivera, 2004; Park, 2010), we expected a negative relationship between belief violations and meaning. […]

An intriguing aspect of our results was the set of relationships between meaning and purpose and crises. On the one hand, Time 2 posttraumatic growth and posttraumatic depreciation following one’s cancer diagnosis was correlated with Time 2 meaning but not with Time 2 purpose. On the other hand, Time 2 intrusive thoughts pertaining to the cancer experience was correlated with Time 2 purpose but not with Time 2 meaning. Lifetime incidence of crises measured at Time 1 also negatively correlated with Time 2 purpose but not with Time 2 meaning. This begs the question, are crises and the consequences of crises related more to meaning or to purpose? […]

Our analyses also showed that meaning and purpose were not related to demographic variables such as socioeconomic status and level of education. Socioeconomic status and level of education have been associated with purpose in the past (Ryff & Singer, 2008). Higher economic opportunities and educational standing may allow individuals to pursue personally valued goals and paths and thus confer an increased sense of purpose (Ryff & Singer, 2008). One possibility as to why we did not find a similar relationship is that the diagnosis of cancer may have affected this relationship. Crises and other difficult experiences could cause changes in sources of meaning and purpose (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996). They could result in the discovery and commitment to meaningful and purposive aspects of one’s life regardless of one’s life circumstances (Frankl, 1963) – aspects which transcend the material realm and that are less dictated by socioeconomic and educational standing (e.g. spiritual beliefs and social connections). From an existential standpoint, the experience of cancer may put individuals on an ‘equal playing field,’ and this may explain why we did not find a relationship between meaning and purpose and socioeconomic status.

Are meaning and purpose distinct? An examination of correlates and predictors, Login S. George & Crystal L. Park, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2013,



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