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Finding The Why To Find The How: Why Purpose Matters More Than We Think

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Most people don’t have a hard time remembering the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge that went viral on Facebook. It is also not hard to recall the often hilarious attempts to dump ice over one’s head (or someone else’s) at most inopportune times. Yet what might be harder to answer is: Just why did the ALS Ice Bucket challenge go viral?


Social psychologist Dr. Sander van der Linden of the University of Cambridge says the answer has to do with what he calls, “viral altruism”. Viral altruism, according to van der Linden, describes the power of social norms, especially the appeal of joining a social consensus and the desire to conform to prosocial behavior (such as appearing charitable), having a clear moral incentive to act, and the appetite for a ‘warm glow’ – the positive emotional benefit derived from feeling compassionate – to spread rather quickly across our Facebook feeds (van der Linden, 2017).


Pulling together data such as Google and Wikipedia searches as well as donations to indicate the longevity and engagement levels of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge campaign, van der Linden uncovered that the Challenge reached unprecedented ‘virality’ during August 2014. The formula of videoing ice-cold water being poured over your head and posting it to social media while publicly nominating others to do the same in support of a motor neuron disease charity reached approximately 440 million people worldwide, with over 28 million joining in.


Much of the reason the challenge went so viral, van der Linden notes, is that it meets the recipe for viral altruism – social influences of others already in people’s networks (people were often publicly challenged to participate); the moral imperative of helping people with a debilitating disease (with easily identifiable victims such as professor Stephen Hawking that allowed people to relate to the disease); affective reactions that created strong emotional content (especially because empathy often leads to emotional contagion) (van der Linden, 2017).


Where the challenge stumbled, however, was in translational impact. Van der Linden explains, “Extrinsic incentives, such as competitions or network pressure, can actually undermine people’s intrinsic motivation to do good by eroding moral sentiment. Motivation to participate can get sourced from a desire to ‘win’ a challenge or appear virtuous rather than caring about the cause itself” (van der Linden, 2017).


“Deeper engagement seems especially vital. Something as simple as a single phrase connecting a campaign to its cause can make a difference. For example, those who mentioned the ALS charity in their Ice Bucket Challenge video were five times more likely to donate money than those who did not” (van der Linden, 2017).


The point van der Linden makes is that why we do something – our deep-rooted purpose – regulates how long we will keep doing it. Unsurprisingly, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge only went viral once (when they tried again a year later the campaign raised only 1% of what it had originally), and people didn’t continue donating to ALS once they had poured ice over their heads. While the donations were nice, for most people, they were propelled by external, and not internal, incentives. Intrinsic incentives, on the other hand, become internalized to become a new personal normal, shifting motivation in the process. Moreover, deeper engagement often takes more time than rapidly vaporizing social campaigns allow for.


Interestingly, in a social media influenced world, it also seems that a sense of purpose fills another need – it buffers us when we don’t get the feedback we’d like.


In the first study on the effects of purpose in the online world, Cornell researchers found that having a sense of purpose limits how reactive people are to positive feedback on social media.


Conducting two separate experiments, the researchers first recruited nearly 250 active Facebook users from around the country, then measured their self-esteem, sense of purpose, and the amount of likes they typically got on photos they posted.


In the second study, the researchers asked about 100 Cornell students to take a selfie and post it to a mock social media site, “Faces of the Ivies.” The students were then told that their photo had received a high, low, or average number of likes.


While in the first study, Facebook users who reported getting more likes on average also reported greater self-esteem, it was those with a high level of purpose that showed no change in self-esteem, no matter how many likes they got (Burrow & Rainone, 2016). Anthony Burrow, co-author of the study and assistant professor of human development explains, “Receiving more likes only corresponded with greater self-esteem for those who had lower levels of purpose” (Burrow, 2016). When students posted selfies in the second study, again, likes boosted self-esteem, but only for students who had less purpose. For students with a higher sense of purpose no elevation in self-esteem was seen, even when they were told they received a high number of likes (Burrow & Rainone, 2016).


“We found that having a sense of purpose allowed people to navigate virtual feedback with more rigidity and persistence. With a sense of purpose, they’re not so malleable to the number of likes they receive. Purposeful people noticed the positive feedback, but did not rely on it to feel good about themselves” (Burrow, 2016).


Burrow and his team hypothesize that a sense of purpose as defined as ongoing motivation that is self-directed, oriented toward the future, and beneficial to others allows people the ability to see themselves in the future and act in ways that help them achieve their goals. Purposeful people are able to inhibit impulsive responses to perceived rewards, such that they prefer larger downstream incentives to smaller immediate ones. Moreover, they are more emotionally steady, act more in their own interest, and don’t base their self-esteem on online likes or compliments.


Extrapolated to the real world, a sense of purpose has some pretty profound influence on our motivation, and our health.


In a meta-analysis study, Drs. Randy Cohen and Alan Rozanski and colleagues at Mt. Sinai St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, New York pooled data from previous studies evaluating the relationship between purpose in life and the risk of death or cardiovascular disease. The analysis included data on more than 136,000 participants from ten studies – mainly from the United States or Japan. The US studies evaluated a sense of purpose or meaning in life, or “usefulness to others.” The Japanese studies assessed the concept of ikigai, translated as “a life worth living.”


The study participants, average age 67 years, were followed up for an average of seven years. During this time, more than 14,500 participants died from any cause while more than 4,000 suffered cardiovascular events (heart attack, stroke, etc).


However, for participants with a high sense of purpose, the outcome was quite different. Having a high sense of purpose in life led to a lower risk of death for participants (after adjusting for other factors, mortality was about one-fifth lower for participants reporting a strong sense of purpose, or ikigai). A high sense of purpose in life was also related to a lower risk of cardiovascular events. Both associations remained significant on analysis of various subgroups, including country, how purpose in life was measured, and whether the studies included participants with pre-existing cardiovascular disease (Cohen, et. al., 2015). Cohen explains, “Together, these findings indicate a robust relationship between purpose in life and mortality and/or adverse cardiovascular outcomes” (Cohen, 2015).


“Of note, having a strong sense of life purpose has long been postulated to be an important dimension of life, providing people with a sense of vitality motivation and resilience” (Rozanski, 2015).



As to why having a strong sense of purpose is so strongly associated with improved health outcomes, Cohen and his team suggest that there is a potent psychological – physiological link, such that greater fulfillment, vitality, and motivation act in a type of buffering role, improving physiological and behavioral responses to stress.


Why we do something matters not just because a greater sense of purpose leads to continued motivation, engagement, and participation, but also because purpose acts like a motivational anchor, keeping us focused on our larger goals, regardless of external circumstances. And while the result is often greater fulfillment in life, it seems, life often lasts longer when filled with a deep-rooted sense of purpose.


Photo by callmeSheBear

Finding The Why To Find The How: Why Purpose Matters More Than We Think

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

Claire Dorotik-Nana LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in post-traumatic growth, leveraging adversity, and other epic human achievements. Claire has written multiple continuing education courses for Professional Development Resources, Zur Institute, and International Sport Science Association. Claire has also authored multiple books, including:
Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards and On The Back Of A Horse: Harnessing The Healing Power Of The Human-Equine Bond. For more information about Leveraging Adversity or Claire, visit

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APA Reference
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2017). Finding The Why To Find The How: Why Purpose Matters More Than We Think. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 9, 2020, from


Last updated: 3 Sep 2017
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