Having a sense of purpose can combat daily stress and anxiety, according to research done by Anthony Burrow, Assistant Professor of Human Development in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell. Surveying passengers on Chicago trains, Burrows held two studies where participants reported their mood as they traveled. In one study, commuters assessed their life purpose through a short questionnaire before they boarded the train. The second study had half of the participants partake in a questionnaire about movies, while the other half completed a writing exercise about life purpose. Negative moods were reported more frequently when train cars grew increasingly crowded and diverse. Heightened feelings of anxiety and stress were not experienced, however, for those who reported a sense of life purpose. These results were found in both studies.

The Activism Cure

"There is evidence that focusing on personally meaningful and valued goals can buffer the negative effects of stress by allowing individuals to reinforce a sense of who they are," Burrows shared with the public. Findings from the Americans' Changing Lives Studies (ACL), an ongoing project that has been observing the lives of American adults since 1986, agree. Researchers of this long-term study found that in two groups separated by those who volunteer and those who do not, the group that gave back had higher levels of self-esteem and overall life satisfaction.

Giving to a larger purpose to attain a happier life makes sense for the average person, but what about those who combat an anxiety disorder or suffer from another mental illness? Mark Musick and John Wilson of the University of Texas asked the same questions when conducting research that built on the ACL study. They found that volunteering also lowered depression, adding to phenomenon that has been dubbed "the activism cure." "Volunteer work improves access to social and psychological resources, which are known to counter negative moods, " Musick reported.

The Emerging Era of Positive Psychology

The results of Burrow's study and others like it emphasize internal mindfulness and meaning as a way to combat depression, anxiety, and stress — ideologies that similarly echo those of positive psychology, a relatively recent and increasingly popular branch of psychology. Focusing on what makes for happier, more fulfilling lives is the interest of positive psychologists, who have isolated three areas of study for mental prosperity:

  • The Pleasant Life: Also known as "the life of enjoyment," the pleasant life includes relationships, hobbies, and interests, describing the means in which people attempt to optimize their daily experiences.
  • The Good Life: Also known as "the life of engagement," the good life depicts the ways in which people interact with their activities and daily tasks.
  • The Meaningful Life: Also known as "the life of affiliation," the meaningful life is interested in cultivating a sense of belonging, well-being, and sense of purpose.
Date of original publication:
Updated on: November 10, 2015