Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy




Meyer, John P.


The present research investigated the hypothesis that humans have an innate and fundamental need for purpose. This need is defined as a pervasive drive for a sense of meaningful direction and the experience of progress toward associated objectives. First, theoretical development of the need for purpose is presented, along with a review of the existing research literature covering evidence for the need for purpose’s fulfillment of well-established criteria for evaluating needs. This review is followed by three empirical studies developing a measure assessing satisfaction and frustration of purpose, examining an initial nomological network of the construct, and testing whether purpose accounted for variance in well-being and work-specific outcomes beyond three established needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. In Study 1 (N = 237), the best-performing 4-item combinations were used to create the Satisfaction and Frustration of Purpose Scales (SFPS). The SFPS were found to have excellent psychometric properties and factor structure analyses with data from Studies 1-3 supported the expected structure and their distinctiveness from scales assessing the established needs. In Study 2 (N = 399), analyses indicated that satisfaction and frustration of purpose in life accounted for variance in positive (e.g., positive affect, life satisfaction) and negative (e.g., depression, physical complaints) indices of well-being beyond the corresponding scales for the established needs. In a work context, results from Study 3 (N = 484) replicated relations with well-being outcomes and revealed similar relations with work-specific outcomes (e.g., job satisfaction, work motivation, turnover intentions) such that satisfaction and frustration of purpose accounted for variance in all outcomes beyond the existing needs. Contrary to expectations, no differences were found between the contribution of various work characteristics (e.g., task significance, social support) to the experience of purpose at work. The implications of the need for purpose for research and practice on well-being and at work are discussed.

Summary for Lay Audience

A common concern of human endeavors is the pursuit and attainment of a sense of purpose. Questions as to whether our work matters, whether we’re headed in a direction that is meaningful, or whether we’ve contributed anything of worth to the world can be traced back to a desire for purpose. This research sought to examine whether this apparently widespread desire might be an innate and fundamental need for humans. Using existing scientific research, evidence is presented that humans are deeply concerned with purpose and that it has a significant impact on happiness (e.g., life satisfaction), mental health (e.g., depression), and physical well-being (e.g., onset and severity of Alzheimer’s disease). Further, purpose appears to play a significant role in thought processes and other fundamental aspects of human functioning. There are also plausible arguments for its evolutionary adaptiveness suggesting that it indeed might have a biological basis. The implications of researching and targeting purpose in practice are wide-ranging, from motivating employees to improving mental health via therapy that targets individuals’ sense of purpose in life.

This research also included the development of a measure of the need for purpose and investigated whether greater purpose is associated with greater positive outcomes in life (e.g., positive emotions, physical health) and at work (e.g., engagement, greater motivation). Across three studies, the results support the quality of the measure and the expected pattern of relationships with outcomes. Importantly, purpose was found to predict outcomes beyond other needs, suggesting it can expand our understanding of human flourishing. Overall, this research concludes that purpose has great potential when viewed as a need and suggests avenues for future research and application.