The pursuit of some basic life goals — such as caring for one’s family members — could help to foster a sense of purpose in life, according to a new study published in the scientific journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“Research shows that purpose in life is positively associated with numerous facets of well-being. However, research also shows that concern with building life purpose has been dropping with each new generation since the Baby Boomers,” said study author Matthew Scott, a graduate student in social psychology at Arizona State University.

“Relatedly, young adults are engaging less with the traditional structures that once provided purpose in life, such as organized religion. Finding ways to build purpose in life seemed like a useful endeavor.”

The researchers were particularly interested in the pursuit of goals such as protecting oneself from danger, avoiding diseases, maintaining romantic relationships, being accepted by others, achieving social status, and caring for family members — which are all relevant to our evolutionary fitness. A sense of purpose in life may have evolved “because it signals that fitness-relevant motives are being satisfied,” they explained.

Five studies, with 1,993 participants in total, provided some evidence to support the hypothesis that seeking to achieve evolutionary-relevant goals is associated with feelings of purpose in life.

People who agreed with statements such as “Getting along with the people around me is a high priority”, “It’s important to me that other people look up to me”, and “Being close to my family members is extremely important to me” tended to report feeling more purpose in life. The researchers also found that writing about accomplishing family-related goals and writing about being successful in the mating realm led to increases in purpose in life.

“The takeaway is that we might well find purpose in life by pursuing at least some of our basic, hardwired social needs. In particular, finding and keeping a romantic partner, caring for our families, and gaining the respect of others seem to bring a feeling of purpose in life,” Scott told PsyPost.

“Previous research shows that goal pursuit, not contemplation, predicts purpose in life. If life is feeling purposeless, putting one foot in front of the other toward the pursuit of hardwired social needs might restore purpose. Though perhaps counterintuitive, the evidence suggests that goal pursuit leads to purpose in life, and not the other way around. Such actions require no particular worldview or allegiance to any institutions, which is important when considering current societal trends.”

But the study — like all research — includes some caveats.

“First, we had participants imagine success in a particular fundamental social realm, so we did not actually measure concrete goal pursuit. Future research might track the relationship of fundamental social pursuits and individuals’ purpose in life over time,” Scott said.

“Second, we were unable to test for causal effects of other fundamental social pursuits, such as affiliation with others. The effect of pursuing affiliation seems like a particularly promising future direction. Third, our samples were not large enough to investigate the nuances of life stage and development. It could be that fundamental social needs relate to purpose differently depending on one’s age or previous accomplishments.”

“We have no intention to downplay traditional sources of purpose in life, such as religion. We are also not trying to explain away the possible effects of religion on purpose in life. The current findings merely illuminate some very broad and accessible routes to finding more purpose in life,” Scott added.

The study, “Surviving and Thriving: Fundamental Social Motives Provide Purpose in Life“, was authored by Matthew J. Scott and Adam B. Cohen.