As a people, Americans are exceptionally unhappy. In a survey conducted at the start of October, we found that 30% of U.S. adults felt depressed. That’s double what we found in a similar survey last April and triple the rate reported in 2017 and 2018. In fact, over the almost 50 years since pollsters began measuring the national mood, never have so few people — only 14% — reported feeling very happy.
There are plenty of reasons for this collective despair: a once-in-a-century deadly pandemic abetted by the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression layered atop systemic racial inequities and violence and aggravated by social and political polarization, natural disasters, technological upheaval, the politicization of public health, social isolation, and blithe selfishness.
But while the pursuit of happiness is enshrined in our Constitution, there is something else that can be more fulfilling in life: pursuit of a purpose, a sense of doing something for the good of ourselves and our families, our communities, our country, or even our world.
Based on our research, we believe the transcendent purpose that President-elect Joe Biden expressed throughout the campaign influenced the outcome of the presidential election.
In his memoir “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Holocaust survivor and Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl examined the essential roles that suffering and purpose play in providing meaning to our lives. Through his study of other survivors of Nazi concentration camps, Frankl found that those who fared best could see that life has purpose no matter how they suffered — or perhaps even because they had suffered. More than happiness, he wrote, humans require meaningfulness in their lives.
“Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter,” Frankl wrote. “The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.”
Numerous studies since then have shown that people can find purpose in life after having gone through war, earthquakes, tsunamis, near-fatal illnesses, or loss of a loved one. Many of these survivors develop post-traumatic growth. They change their priorities about what is important. They establish new paths. They discover strengths they didn’t know they had.
There is evidence that purpose actually affects brain functions. In neuroscience experiments, when people asked to think about their purposeful values had were given a threatening message, they experienced less activation in the amygdala, an ancient part of the brain associated with fear and aggression, and more activation in a relatively modern part of the brain associated with high-level decision-making and governance of the amygdala.
Multiple studies also demonstrate that people with self-transcending purposes produce more antibodies, mount stronger antiviral responses, produce fewer pro-inflammatory cells, and are shielded from toxic biological effects of social isolation (all of which would come in handy right now) compared with people who have predominantly self-enhancing purposes.
A few weeks before Election Day 2020, we polled a political cross-section of Americans to learn about their personal coping priorities and how they were trying to find meaning in life amid the uncertainty, chaos, and fear. We crafted our questions to see if their approaches aligned with priorities that were self-focused — seeking security and comfort for themselves — or the more transcendent ones that Frankl identified, which center on caring and loving others and seeking ways to make the world a better place.
A surprising finding of our recent poll is that, compared to the political middle, both “strong” Democrats and “strong” Republicans reported having a more powerful sense of purpose and direction in their lives than did “moderate” Democrats and Republicans. These partisans — right and left— were also more likely to feel more productively engaged and purposeful in their work lives.
As might be expected, the survey showed fundamental differences in the types of purposes between the two parties. Republicans were more likely to strive for comfort and financial security for themselves and their loved ones. This is perhaps linked to a stronger identification with individualism. They also reported, however, that they were focused on loving and caring for other people. When it came to Democrats’ own self-interest, they were more interested in personal growth and less focused on achieving financial security. But they, too, had a selfless interest including loving and caring for others and a desire to help make the world a better place.
So why, with devoted partisans so much in alignment on purpose and the meaning of life, is our political environment so acrimoniously divided? It may have something to do with the messages coming from their leaders.
President-elect Biden has for years stressed the pursuit of transcendence. As he accepted the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, he recalled his own experience of coping with the deaths of his wife and infant daughter and, years later, his grown son. “I’ve found the best way through pain and loss and grief is to find purpose,” he said. “As God’s children, each of us have a purpose in our lives.”
President Trump finds his purpose in seeking comfort and financial security. In his book “Surviving at the Top,” Trump declares: “My main purpose in life is to keep winning.” In the almost 25,000 tweets he has made throughout his presidency, he has used the words “win,” “winning” and “winner” almost has often as his favorite phrase “fake news.” A search of his speeches reveals no reference to finding meaning following a personal loss.
In another time, Americans might have chosen a politician with a relentless focus on winning who refused to reflect on loss over a politician who asked us to learn from loss and be purposeful in our lives for the sake of others around us. We all know who won in 1980, when Jimmy Carter’s cardigan-sweater appeals for citizen sacrifice ran up against Ronald Reagan’s celebratory “Morning in America” campaign theme.
This is a distinctly different time, however. We’re all unhappy together. Given what we are up against today, it’s unrealistic to think an election will abruptly fix everything and lift our spirits. But the pursuit of transcendent purpose could.
Vic Strecher is a professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, author of “Life on Purpose” (HarperCollins, 2016), and founder and chief purpose office of Kumanu. Will Johnson is CEO of the Harris Poll, a leading public opinion research firm.