Thursday, December 27, 2007

Living the Purposeful Life: A Formula for Well-Being

A very interesting chapter in the book "Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology" begins with an intriguing title: Life Task Participation and Well-Being: The Importance of Taking Part in Daily Life". The authors, Nancy Cantor and Catherine A. Sanderson, advance the thesis that "sustained participation in personally and culturally valued tasks that change across the life course enhances well-being".

Not all life activities contribute to emotional well-being, the authors note. Rather, "well-being should be enhanced when individuals are able to pursue their distinct personal goals in ways that are intrinsically valued and autonomously chosen, approached at a feasible level, and facilitated in their daily life context".

The important contributor to well-being identified by this research appears to be purposeful activity. Note that purposeful activity can be work-related, but doesn't need to be. For example, writing a song, taking a vacation to a new area of the world, or working out in a gym all could be considered leisure activities, but they are goal-driven. Other activities might even be work-related, but not directly purposeful (many meetings scheduled within businesses!).

One's overall well-being appears to be related to the proportion of time and effort devoted to activity with a distinct purpose. Interestingly, research cited by the authors also suggests that physical well-being is also enhanced by goal-directed activity. This helps to explain why depression is so debilitating: the lack of energy and optimism make it difficult to initiate meaningful activity, which in turn fuels a loss of well-being. Similarly, retirement can be very challenging for individuals who find that old age brings a paucity of purpose-driven activities.

The authors emphasize that resources are essential to sustaining the task participation that underlies well-being. These include monetary resources as well as physical ones (health) and social ones. One formula for emotional success appears to be the ability to deploy an array of resources in one's life toward consistently meaningful activities.

I like the phrase in the article title: "the importance of taking part in daily life". The successful traders I've known definitely take part in daily life and indeed engage in goal-directed activities apart from their trading. This helps sustain a high level of well-being that provides energy and optimism across their career. Where trading is a sole obsession for a trader--an existential and emotional poverty often justified by the empty phrase "passion"--it is very common to find a lack of energy and optimism, especially during times of loss, drawdown, and flat performance.

There's much to be said for kicking back, relaxing, being a couch potato, and getting rest. If the authors are correct, however, this may be necessary to a balanced life, but not sufficient. It's the presence and pursuit of goals--personally chosen, challenging but doable, and changing across the lifespan--that recharges our emotional batteries. It is not enough to minimize stress and distress: high levels of well-being facilitate learning, memory, concentration, and ultimately performance.


The Importance of Well-Being

Goal Setting: What Works


JJ said...

fyi - on living life with a goal-oriented philosophy I suggest you read "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl

Gary said...

Would you know any useful books on intra day trading / scalping on index futures?

I am very interested but kinda lost as to finding of that information.

Thanks Brett

SAM said...

I was exactly thinking in what JJ said.

It reminded me Frankl's concepts. Perhaps more than finding a purpose in all our activities we should try to find what Frankl would call meaning. And meaningfull activities could be the found in work, leasure or service, or anything else: it'd depend on the meaning I provide to things more than the purpose things have per se.

Brett Steenbarger, Ph.D. said...

Hi Gary,

John Carter's book might be a good place to start--


Anatrader said...


Since you also mentioned Hedonic Psychology in your post, may I also add Hedonic Arbitrage which I wrote at:
I am happy to say I have learned something new about Hedonic Arbitrage, which is basically a set of defaults or options people take to be ‘happy.’ Unquote.

Repeating in this way helps me to internalize new meanings.

Adam said...

Brett ~

This is one more among your many wonderful posts. It speaks directly to aspects of life my wife and I have been exploring for years.

What we have learned over time is that while we both go to our personal work with a sense of purpose and derive pleasure (and, yes, profit) from it, engaging in focused activity not immediately beneficial to ourselves makes each day sweeter.

We actively seek out situations in the lives of others in which our combined skills and good fortune can have a direct, person-to-person, impact. This could be (and has been) offering clinical guidance and financial support to others coping with a child's cancer. It could be (and has been) teaching illiterate adults to read.

Yes, we donate to charity. Charity is distant and anonymous. Nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, comes close to embracing those with whom one has taken the journey to tragic loss or looking into the suddenly enlightened eyes of a man who exclaims, “I can read!” And then receiving a letter from him.

Purpose? Meaning? “Just connect.”


Brett Steenbarger, Ph.D. said...

Beautifully stated, Adam. There are few joys compared with touching the lives of others. It's a major reason Margie and I have adopted two children and three cats--