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Review article, life crafting as a way to find purpose and meaning in life.

research paper for personal life

  • Department of Technology and Operations Management, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Having a purpose in life is one of the most fundamental human needs. However, for most people, finding their purpose in life is not obvious. Modern life has a way of distracting people from their true goals and many people find it hard to define their purpose in life. Especially at younger ages, people are searching for meaning in life, but this has been found to be unrelated to actually finding meaning. Oftentimes, people experience pressure to have a “perfect” life and show the world how well they are doing, instead of following up on their deep-felt values and passions. Consequently, people may need a more structured way of finding meaning, e.g., via an intervention. In this paper, we discuss evidence-based ways of finding purpose, via a process that we call “life crafting.” This process fits within positive psychology and the salutogenesis framework – an approach focusing on factors that support human health and well-being, instead of factors that cause disease. This process ideally starts with an intervention that entails a combination of reflecting on one’s values, passions and goals, best possible self, goal attainment plans, and other positive psychology intervention techniques. Important elements of such an intervention are: (1) discovering values and passion, (2) reflecting on current and desired competencies and habits, (3) reflecting on present and future social life, (4) reflecting on a possible future career, (5) writing about the ideal future, (6) writing down specific goal attainment and “if-then” plans, and (7) making public commitments to the goals set. Prior research has shown that personal goal setting and goal attainment plans help people gain a direction or a sense of purpose in life. Research findings from the field of positive psychology, such as salutogenesis, implementation intentions, value congruence, broaden-and-build, and goal-setting literature, can help in building a comprehensive evidence-based life-crafting intervention. This intervention can aid individuals to find a purpose in life, while at the same time ensuring that they make concrete plans to work toward this purpose. The idea is that life crafting enables individuals to take control of their life in order to optimize performance and happiness.

The best day of your life is the one on which you decide your life is your own. No apologies or excuses. No one to lean on, rely on, or blame. The gift is yours – it is an amazing journey – and you alone are responsible for the quality of it. This is the day your life really begins . —Bob Moawad


Whether you love him or hate him, Arnold Schwarzenegger is an example of a person who has been planning his life and setting goals throughout. Given that he came from a small town in Austria, the chances of him becoming the person he is today were very slim. Although even his parents thought that his ideas of becoming a great body builder were outrageous and his fellow cadets made fun of him when he put in extra hours of training while he was in the military, holding on to his vision and dreams paid off in the end (see Schwarzenegger and Hall, 2012 ). So even though it was not obvious that he would achieve the goals he had set for himself, he made a plan and stuck to his plan to achieve his goals.

Now consider this story: Brian is CEO of a large bank, and seems by all standards to be living a fulfilling live. Although he is overseeing 1,200 employees, earns a good salary, has a nice house at the beach, and a wife and kids, he feels very unhappy with his current life. One day he decides that he does not want to live this life anymore and quits his job. He becomes a consultant (and his wife divorces him) but still struggles to find his passion. As he knows that the job he is doing is not his passion, he starts exploring what he would like to do. Unfortunately, having done things for so long that have not brought him satisfaction, only status and money, he seems to have trouble connecting to his “inner self.” In his search for why he has ended up this way, he realizes that he has been living the life his father had in mind for him. This leads him to think that, if it had not been for his father, he would probably have studied psychology instead of management.

These two, seemingly unrelated anecdotes, tell something very important: no matter how successful a person is in life, self-endorsed goals will enhance well-being while the pursuit of heteronomous goals will not (for a review see Ryan and Deci, 2001 ). This is an important statement and key to self-determination theory (SDT, Ryan and Deci, 2000 ), a macro-theory of human motivation, stressing the importance of self-motivated and self-determined goals to guide behavior for well-being and happiness. Goal attainment from self-concordant goals, or goals that fulfill basic needs and are aligned with one’s values and passions, has been related to greater subjective well-being ( Sheldon, 2002 ), higher vitality ( Nix et al., 1999 ), higher levels of meaningfulness ( McGregor and Little, 1998 ), and lower symptoms of depression ( Sheldon and Kasser, 1998 ). Self-concordant goals satisfy basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, key attributes of SDT ( Ryan and Deci, 2001 ), and have been found to be important across cultures (see Sheldon et al., 2004 ). With an increasing number of young people experiencing mental health problems, increasing health care costs and an aging society, the interest in cost-effective behavioral interventions that can improve mental and physical health is burgeoning (e.g., Oettingen, 2012 ; Fulmer et al., 2018 ; Chan et al., 2019 ; Wilson et al., 2019 ; for reviews see Wilson, 2011 ; Walton, 2014 ). Especially promising is the research on the topic of meaning and purpose in life ( Steger, 2012 ). People with a purpose in life are less likely to experience conflict when making health-related decisions and are more likely to self-regulate when making these decisions and consequently experience better (mental) health outcomes ( Kang et al., 2019 ). Furthermore, having a purpose in life can aid in overcoming stress, depression, anxiety, and other psychological problems (see Kim et al., 2014 ; Freedland, 2019 ). Finally, purpose in life has been related to a decrease in mortality across all ages ( Hill and Turiano, 2014 ). It thus appears that many benefits may be gained by enhancing meaning and purpose in life. However, even if people realize they are in need of a purpose, the search for meaning does not automatically lead to its presence, and people searching for meaning are no more or less likely to plan for and anticipate their future ( Steger et al., 2008b ). This somewhat counterintuitive finding, showing that among undergraduate students the search for meaning is even inversely related to presence of meaning, points to the fact that the strategies people use to find meaning may not be very effective ( Steger et al., 2008b ). Early in life, the search for meaning is not negatively related to well-being, but the relationship between search for meaning and well-being becomes increasingly negative in later life stages ( Steger et al., 2009 ). This means that even if people search for meaning, they may not find it, unless they are prompted to do so in an evidence-based manner, e.g., via a positive psychology intervention. Especially adolescents and young adults should be stimulated to search for meaning in an organized manner in order to experience higher levels of well-being early in life so that they can be more likely to have an upward cycle of positive experiences. An intervention to bring about purpose in life may be a promising way to achieve this. Recent research suggests that interventions aimed at enhancing purpose in life can be particularly effective if they are done early on, during adolescence and/or as part of the curriculum in schools ( Morisano et al., 2010 ; Bundick, 2011 ; Schippers et al., 2015 ).

These interventions address an important contemporary problem, as illustrated by the two anecdotes above, namely that, many people drift aimlessly through life or keep changing their goals, running around chasing “happiness” ( Donaldson et al., 2015 ). Others, as in the example of Brian above, live the life that their parents or significant others have in mind for them ( Kahl, 1953 ). Several authors have indeed noted that the role of parents in students’ study and career choices has been under-researched ( Jodl et al., 2001 ; Taylor et al., 2004 ), but choosing one’s study and career path according to one’s own preferences is likely to be more satisfying than living the life that others have in mind for one. Recently, it has been noted that especially “socially prescribed” perfectionism where people try to live up to the standards of other and also seek their approval is related to burn-out, depression and a lack of experienced meaning ( Suh et al., 2017 ; Garratt-Reed et al., 2018 ; Curran and Hill, 2019 ). In our society, education is highly valued, but less emphasis is placed on structured reflection about values, goals, and plans for what people want in life. Oftentimes, education fosters maladaptive forms of perfectionism, instead of adaptive forms ( Suh et al., 2017 ). Even if parents and educators do ask children what they want to become when they grow up, this most important question is not addressed in a consistent way that helps them to make an informed choice ( Rojewski, 2005 ). Parents and educators tend to look at the children’s competences, rather than what they want to become and what competences they would need to develop in order to become that person ( Nurra and Oyserman, 2018 ). Consequently, many people only occupy themselves with the daily events in their lives, while others try to keep every aspect of their lives under control and live the life that others have in mind for them. Some have an idea of what they want but have not thought about it carefully. Others may have too many goals, or conflicting goals, which is also detrimental to health and well-being ( Kelly et al., 2015 ). Finally, parents and others with the best of intentions sometimes have goals in mind for children to pursue ( Williams et al., 2000 ; Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2008 ).

A study by Nurra and Oyserman (2018) showed that children that were guided to experience connection between their current and adult future self, worked more and attained better school grades than children guided to experience low connection. Importantly, this was moderated to the extent that children saw school as the path to one’s adult future self. It seems important that people formulate and think about their (ideal) future self and that the present and future self are connected, e.g., by means of a goal-setting intervention. Studies among students also showed the importance of goal congruence. For instance, Sheldon and Kasser (1998) found that although students with stronger social and self-regulatory skills made more progress in their goals, and goal progress predicted subjective well-being (SWB), while the increase in well-being depended on the level of goal-congruence. Similarly, Sheldon and Houser-Marko (2001) found that entering freshman students with self-concordant motivation had an upward spiral of goal-attainment, increased adjustment, self-concordance, higher ego development, and academic performance after the first year. This points to the importance of making sure people reflect on and develop self-concordant goals ( Locke and Schippers, 2018 ). If people have not formulated their own goals, there is a chance that they will lose contact with their core values and passions,” ( Seto and Schlegel, 2018 ) as was the case in the anecdote of Brian. It may even feel as if they are living someone else’s life. For several reasons, it is important that people take matters into their own hands and reflect on and formulate their own goals in important areas of life ( Williams et al., 2000 ). Indeed, people may have more influence on their own life than they think. Studies have already shown the beneficial effects of both job crafting—where employees actively reframe their work physically, cognitively, and socially (e.g., Wrzesniewski and Dutton, 2001 ; Demerouti, 2014 ; Vogt et al., 2016 ; Wessels et al., 2019 )—and leisure crafting ( Petrou and Bakker, 2016 ; Vogel et al., 2016 ; Petrou et al., 2017 ). A recent study by Demerouti et al. (2019) suggested that the beneficial implications of job crafting transcend life boundaries, which the authors state have also consequences in terms of experiencing meaning in life.

Building on the above, we suggest that the conscious process of “life crafting” could be similarly beneficial in helping people to find fulfillment and happiness (see Berg et al., 2010 ; Schippers, 2017 ). Importantly, life crafting is related to the most important areas of life, and thus allows for a more holistic approach in terms of shaping one’s life. We formally define life crafting as: a process in which people actively reflect on their present and future life, set goals for important areas of life—social, career, and leisure time—and, if required, make concrete plans and undertake actions to change these areas in a way that is more congruent with their values and wishes.

The process of life crafting fits with positive psychology and specifically the salutogenesis framework, which states that the extent to which people view their life as having positive influence on their health, explains why people in stressful situations stay well and may even be able to improve adaptive coping ( Antonovsky, 1996 ). Salutogenesis focuses on factors that can support health, well-being, and happiness, as opposed to factors that cause disease (pathogenesis). The salutogenetic model with its’ central element “sense of coherence” is concerned with relationships around health, stress, and coping ( Johnson, 2004 ). In his approach, Antonovsky views health and illness as a continuum, rather than a dichotomy ( Langeland et al., 2007 ). Importantly, the framework assumes that people have resources available (biological, material, and psychosocial) that enable them to construct coherent life experiences ( Mittelmark et al., 2017 ). The idea of salutogenesis is also closely tied to the literature on human flourishing that states that health defined as the absence of illness or disease does not do justice to what it means to be well and thriving ( Ryff and Singer, 2000 ). Broaden-and-build theory can be used to make sense of how this may work out in practice: if people imagine a better future, they will be on the lookout for resources, because they have developed a more positive and optimistic mindset ( Fredrickson, 2001 ; Meevissen et al., 2011 ). Over time, this broader mindset helps them to acquire more skills and resources and this may in turn lead to better health, happiness, and performance ( Garland et al., 2010 ). When people have a purpose in life and are more balanced, this may have positive ripple effects on the people around them ( Barsade, 2002 ; Quinn, 2005 ; Quinn and Quinn, 2009 ). Recent research suggests that health benefits of having stronger purpose in life are attributable to focused attention to and engagement in healthier behaviors ( Kang et al., 2019 ). Indeed, stronger purpose in life is associated with greater likelihood of using preventative health services and better health outcomes ( Kim et al., 2014 ). Importantly, the process through which purpose leads to health outcomes seems to be that people with a purpose in life are better able to respond positively to health messages. They showed reduced conflict-related neural activity during health decision-making relevant to longer-term lifestyle changes. Thus, having a purpose in life makes it easier for people to self-regulate ( Kang et al., 2019 ). These results are very promising, as it seems that having a purpose in life can have both mental and physical health benefits, and behavioral interventions to increase purpose in life have been shown to be very cost-effective (e.g., Wilson et al., 2019 ). Importantly, purpose in life by writing about personal goals has been associated with improved academic performance ( Morisano et al., 2010 ; Schippers et al., 2015 , 2019 ; Travers et al., 2015 ; Schippers, 2017 ; Locke and Schippers, 2018 ).

Even so, thinking about how to attain a purpose in life via a process of life crafting can raise many questions. These include: what is the best way to set personal, self-congruent goals and start the process of life crafting? How does it work? Does the type of goal matter? Does the act of writing the goals down make a difference? Does it increase resourcefulness, self-efficacy, and self-regulation?

Research suggests that reflecting on and writing down personal goals is especially important in helping people to find purpose and live a fulfilling life ( King and Pennebaker, 1996 ; King, 2001 ), and that in general writing sessions longer than 15 min have larger effects ( Frattaroli, 2006 ). Indeed, the research on writing about life goals has been noted by Edwin Locke as a very important future development of goal-setting theory ( Locke, 2019 ). Recent research shows that goals need not be specific, as long as plans are, and that writing about life goals and plans in a structured way is especially effective ( Locke and Schippers, 2018 ; for a review see Morisano et al., 2010 ; Morisano, 2013 ; Schippers et al., 2015 ; Travers et al., 2015 ). As goal-relevant actions may be encouraged by embodied cognition, and embodied cognition has been related to (dynamic) self-regulation, this may be the process through which written goals lead to action (see Balcetis and Cole, 2009 ). Specifically, through the link between cognition and behavior, it can be seen as beneficial to write down intended actions as this will lay the path to act out the intended actions. The processing of the language facilitates the actions, as it consolidates the imagined actions ( Addis et al., 2007 ; Balcetis and Cole, 2009 ; Peters et al., 2010 ; Meevissen et al., 2011 ). It has been suggested that goal-relevant actions may be encouraged by embodied cognition, through the process of self-regulation ( Balcetis and Cole, 2009 ). Writing about actions one wants to take and very detailed experience in how it would feel to reach those goals, may make it much more likely for people to subtly change their behavior and actions into goal-relevant ones (e.g., looking for opportunities to reach ones goal, thinking more clearly if one wants to spend time on certain activities or not, etc.). Also, the writing can make sure that people realize the gap between actual and desired states regarding goals, and act as a starting point for self-regulatory actions (see King and Pennebaker, 1996 ). According to Karoly (1993 , p. 25), “The processes of self-regulation are initiated when routinized activity is impeded or when goal-directedness is otherwise made salient (e.g., the appearance of a challenge, the failure of habitual action patterns, etc.). Self-regulation may be said to encompass up to five interrelated and iterative component phases of (1) goal selection, (2) goal cognition, (3) directional maintenance, (4) directional change or reprioritization, and (5) goal termination.” We believe that the process of writing about self-concordant goals makes (1) the necessity of goal-directed action salient, (2) starts a process of embodied cognition and dynamic self-regulation, and (3) starts an upward spiral of goal-congruence, goal attainment, and (academic) performance. Dynamic self-regulation is needed in the context of multiple goal pursuits where people manage competing demands on time and resources ( Iran-Nejad and Chissom, 1992 ; Neal et al., 2017 ). In short, although goals are an important part of any intervention involving life crafting, the intervention and its effects are much broader. Such an intervention may be especially beneficial for college students, as it has been shown that students have lower goal-autonomy than their parents and parents reported higher levels of positive affect, lower levels of negative affect, as well as greater life-satisfaction ( Sheldon et al., 2006 ).

In the interventions to date, which have been mainly conducted with students, individuals write about their envisioned future life and describe how they think they can achieve this life, including their plans for how to overcome obstacles and monitor their goals (i.e., goal attainment plans or GAP; e.g., Schippers et al., 2015 ). Both goal setting and goal attainment plans have been shown to help people gain a direction or a sense of purpose in life. Research in the area of positive psychology explains that people with a purpose in life live longer, have a better immune system, and perform better, even when one controls for things such as lifestyle, personality, and other factors relating to longevity (for a review see Schippers, 2017 ). At the same time, it has been suggested that relatively small interventions can have a huge impact on people’s lives ( Walton, 2014 ). Writing about values, passion, and goals is an example of such an intervention, and we claim that having a purpose in life is fundamental and has ripple effects to all areas of life, including health, longevity, self-regulation, engagement, happiness, and performance ( Schippers, 2017 ).

In order to provide a stronger theoretical foundation for this claim, we will describe the development of a comprehensive evidence-based life-crafting intervention that can help people find a purpose in life. The intervention shows very specific actions people can take to fulfill that meaning. We start by assessing existing interventions aimed at setting personal goals and will explore the theoretical and evidence-based foundation for those interventions. After that, we describe what a life-crafting intervention should ideally look like. We end with various recommendations for to how to ensure that many people can profit from this intervention (see also Schippers et al., 2015 ).

Ikigai, Meaning in Life, and Life Crafting

The meaning of life used to be an elusive concept for scientists, but in the last couple of years much progress has been made in this area. According to Buettner and Skemp (2016) , ikigai—a Japanese term for purpose in life—was one of the reasons why people in certain areas of the world, known as “longevity hotspots,” had such long lives (see also Buettner, 2017 ). As our medical knowledge of longevity is increasing (e.g., Oeppen and Vaupel, 2002 ; Menec, 2003 ; Kontis et al., 2017 ), so too is our understanding of the associated psychological factors. These days, we have more knowledge of how people can live a meaningful life. Research has shown that ikigai, or purpose in life is related to increases in health and longevity across cultures, sexes, and age groups ( Sone et al., 2008 ; Boyle et al., 2009 ). This relationship has been found even when things such as lifestyle, positive relationships with others, and general affect were controlled for in the analyses ( Hill and Turiano, 2014 ). Note that, although a purpose in life sounds rather unclear or undefinable, people can derive a purpose in life from many different activities. It has been found that these activities can range from volunteering to giving social support to the elderly or even taking care of pets, and all of these have been shown to be related to an increase in happiness, better health outcomes, and greater longevity (for a review see McKnight and Kashdan, 2009 ). Indeed, in a study of 43,391 Japanese adults, it was found that, over a seven-year follow-up period, mortality was lower among those subjects who indicated that they had found a sense of ikigai or purpose in life (see also Sone et al., 2008 ; Schippers, 2017 ). Research among Japanese students has shown that enjoyable and effortful leisure pursuits can enhance student’s perception of ikigai. Ikigai was defined by the authors as “the subjective perceptions that one’s daily life is worth living and that it is full of energy and motivation” ( Kono et al., 2019 ). They also found that leisure activity participation, general satisfaction with leisure activities, and the positive evaluation of leisure experiences were related to higher perception of ikigai ( Kono, 2018 ; Kono and Walker, 2019 ). ( Martela and Steger, 2016 ) suggested that meaning in life has three components: coherence, purpose, and significance. They state that “meaning in life necessarily involves (1) people feeling that their lives matter, (2) making sense of their lives, and (3) determining a broader purpose for their lives” ( Martela and Steger, 2016 ). Also, Heintzelman et al. (2013) note that there are numerous positive physical and mental outcomes associated with self-reported meaning in life, such as health, occupational adjustment, adaptive coping, lower incidence of psychological disorders, slower age-related cognitive decline, and decreased mortality. Both the theory of ikigai and salutogenesis stress the coherence and purpose part, and other researchers have also picked up on these important elements (e.g., Urry et al., 2004 ; Martela and Steger, 2016 ). A review by Martela and Steger (2016) distinguished coherence, purpose, and significance as defining elements of meaning in life. Relatedly, theorizing around ikigai has shown that a sense of coherence develops around three distinct mechanisms, (1) valued experiences, (2) authentic relationships, and (3) directionality ( Kono, 2018 ).

Practically, the importance of happiness to cultures and nations across the world has been indicated clearly by the value placed on it by the United Nations (UN). In 2012, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon commissioned the first World Happiness Report, ranking countries according to people’s level of happiness. The UN’s 2016 Sustainable Development Goals Report included the goal of ensuring sustainable social and economic progress worldwide. In the UN’s 2017 happiness report, “eudaimonia,” a sense of meaning or purpose in life similar to ikigai, is mentioned as an important factor. This is based on research showing the importance of eudaimonic well-being. Indeed a review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well-being concluded that autonomy and the integration of goals are important predictors of vitality and health ( Ryan and Deci, 2001 ; Huppert et al., 2004 ) see also ( Ryff, 2014 ). Self-determination theory, a macro theory of human motivation and personality, proposes that only self-endorsed goals will enhance well-being ( Ryan and Deci, 2000 ). This pattern of findings is congruent with the examples we started with (i.e., the self-endorsed goals of Schwarzenegger and the heteronomous goals of Brian) and has also been supported in cross-cultural research, showing that the autonomy of goal pursuit matters in collectivistic and individualistic cultures, and for males and females ( Hayamizu, 1997 ; Vallerand et al., 1997 ; Chirkov and Ryan, 2001 ; Ryan and Deci, 2001 ). As Ryan and Deci (2001 , p. 161) conclude: “It is clear that, as individuals pursue aims they find satisfying or pleasurable, they may create conditions that make more formidable the attainment of well-being by others. An important issue, therefore, concerns the extent to which factors that foster individual well-being can be aligned or made congruent with factors that facilitate wellness at collective or global levels.”

The above shows that finding a purpose in life can have far-reaching consequences for individual happiness and performance but also for the well-being and happiness of people around them ( Ryan and Deci, 2001 ). However, finding a purpose in life often requires a lengthy search, and some people never manage to find purpose in life ( Schippers, 2017 ). The developments in terms of ensuring people find their true passion and at the same time help make the world a better place coincide with exciting developments in the area of social psychology. Positive psychology, or the scientific study of human flourishing that aims to optimize human functioning within communities and organizations, has become very influential both within and outside the scientific community ( Gable and Haidt, 2005 ; Donaldson et al., 2015 ; Al Taher, 2019 ). It should be noted, however, that this area of study has also faced some criticism, as positive psychology behaviors such as forgiveness may not be functional in all contexts and circumstances ( McNulty and Fincham, 2012 ). Nevertheless, several studies have shown that human flourishing is related to mental and physical health (e.g., Park et al., 2016 ), and reviews and meta-analyses have shown that positive psychology interventions work in terms of improving well-being and (academic) performance ( Sin and Lyubomirsky, 2009 ; Durlak et al., 2011 ; Mongrain and Anselmo-Matthews, 2012 ; Waters, 2012 ). Thus, making sure that people receive positive psychology interventions, especially those relating to purpose in life, seems a viable and inexpensive way to help millions of people to have a better and healthier life ( Menec, 2003 ; Seligman et al., 2005 ). Personal goal setting and life crafting seem the best way forward in this respect.

Values, Passion, and Personal Goal Setting

Life choices can be seen as crucial turning points in someone’s existence. Yet, most people find it difficult to make such important decisions. In particular, young adults struggle with the important life decisions they are expected to make as they move into early adulthood ( Sloan, 2018 ). Recent research has shown that people with a purpose in life are less likely to experience regulatory issues during health decision-making and find it easier to make positive health-related lifestyle decisions ( Kang et al., 2019 ), and it may be especially important to find a purpose in life for young adults ( Schippers, 2017 ). Without such a purpose in life, a lot of time and energy is often “fretted away” on social media and on “busyness,” for instance ( Bruch and Ghoshal, 2002 , 2004 ; for a review see Schippers and Hogenes, 2011 ). At the same time, many people complain of having a lack of time, and it seems that it is more and more important to make conscious decisions on what to spend time on ( Menzies, 2005 ). Life crafting using a personal goal setting intervention seems an important prerequisite in making these decisions. While in the past goal-setting theory has always stressed the importance of specific measurable goals ( Locke and Latham, 2002 ), the act of writing about personal goals seems to be effective by defining very broad goals and linking these to specific goal-attainment plans. Research on the act of writing about personal goals started with Pennebaker’s research on traumatic writing ( Pennebaker, 1997 ; Pennebaker and Chung, 2011 ). It was shown that writing about traumatic events was related to a decrease in depression and an increase in mental health ( Gortner et al., 2006 ; Pennebaker and Chung, 2011 ). King (2001) suggested that future-oriented writing about one’s “best possible self” has a similar positive effect on an individual’s well-being, without the short-lived negative effect on mood that occurred after writing about traumatic events. Indeed, it has been shown that imagining one’s best possible self increases optimism and lowers depression (for a meta-analysis see Peters et al., 2010 ; Malouff and Schutte, 2017 ). Oyserman et al. (2006) found that a brief intervention that connected the positive “academic possible selves” of low-income minority high-school students with specific goal-attainment strategies improved their grades, standardized test scores, and moods.

Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who had survived the holocaust, used his experience to formulate a theory on the meaning of life. He concluded that life can have meaning even in the most impoverished circumstances ( Frankl, 1985 , 2014 ). This is interesting, since this also means that good conditions are not an absolute prerequisite for formulating a goal in life. In contrast, it seems that having a goal in life can make people more resilient in terms of surviving harsh conditions. Wong (2014) described the logotherapy developed by Frankl as consisting of five testable hypotheses, including the self-transcendence hypothesis, the ultimate meaning hypothesis, and the meaning mindset hypothesis. These predict among other things that belief in the intrinsic meaning and value of life, regardless of circumstances contributes to well-being, and that a “meaning mindset,” as compared to a “success mindset,” leads to greater eudaimonic happiness and resilience ( Wong, 2014 ). While this is important in terms of knowing what works for well-being and happiness, when people do not have a clear sense of purpose in life or know what they value in life and why, writing down their thoughts and formulating a strategy for their life is important. That does not have to be a lengthy process, but spending a few hours every couple of years might be enough (and is more than most people do).

People who keep searching for meaning without finding it, or who have conflicting goals, are often dissatisfied with themselves and their relationships ( Steger et al., 2009 ). It is quite natural that in earlier stages of their life, people are often still searching for a sense of purpose or meaning in life. However, as stated before, later in life the search for meaning is related to lower levels of well-being ( Steger et al., 2009 ). There is some evidence that having a sense of purpose is associated with organized goal structures and pursuit of goals and provides centrality in a person’s identity ( Emmons, 1999 ; McKnight and Kashdan, 2009 ). It is thus important that people start thinking about their purpose in life as early as possible and repeat this process at all stages of life when they feel they should readdress their goals, such as when going to college, starting a new job, etc.

Warding Off Anxiety and Having a Fulfilling Life—Two Side of the Same Coin?

Another line of research has focused on the role of purpose as a protective mechanism against various types of psychological threat, such as mortality salience, or the awareness of an individual that death is inevitable, causing existential anxiety (for a meta-analysis see Burke et al., 2010 ). These are anxiety-provoking experiences and are common for most people. Ways of coping include having a purpose in life and striving for and accomplishing goals as well as strengthening close relationships ( Pyszczynski et al., 2004 ; Hart, 2014 ). In line with this, research in the area of terror management has shown that self-esteem as well as a worldview that renders existence meaningful, coherent and permanent buffers against existential anxiety resulting from mortality salience ( Burke et al., 2010 ; Pyszczynski et al., 2015 ). Indeed, death reflection, a cognitive state in which people put their life in context and contemplate about meaning and purpose, as well as review how others will perceive them after they have passed ( Cozzolino et al., 2004 ), has been proposed as an important prerequisite for prosocial motivation sometimes influencing career decisions ( Grant and Wade-Benzoni, 2009 ). Reducing anxiety and living a fulfilling and meaningful life are two sides of the same coin, since having a purpose in life gives people the idea that their life will continue to have meaning, even after their death ( Ryan and Deci, 2004 ; McKnight and Kashdan, 2009 ).

The Science of Wise Interventions

Starting with the work of Kurt Lewin (e.g., Lewin, 1938 ), and after decades of research and testing, we now have a much better sense of what works and what does not in terms of psychological interventions. Most of these interventions aim to change behavior and improve people’s lives. In general, these work by changing people’s outlook on life: by giving them a sense of purpose. This is the basis of most interventions that also deal with coping with stressors and life transitions, for instance. Goal setting with the aim of formulating a purpose in life is one of the psychology’s most powerful interventions, and it has been shown that even a short and seemingly simple intervention can have profound effects ( Wilson, 2011 ; Walton, 2014 ). In his review, Walton (2014) describes the “new science of wise interventions”: precise interventions aimed at altering specific psychological processes that contribute to major social problems or prevent people from flourishing. These “wise” interventions are capable of producing significant benefits and do so over time ( Walton, 2014 ). These interventions are “psychologically precise, often brief, and often aim to alter self-reinforcing processes that unfold over time and, thus, to improve people’s outcomes in diverse circumstances and long into the future” ( Walton, 2014 , p. 74). Writing down personal goals in a guided writing exercise seems to constitute such an intervention.

How and Why Does It Work?

Narrative writing has been shown to help people in transition phases cope with life stressors ( Pennebaker et al., 1990 ). Students writing about their thoughts and feelings about entering college showed better health outcomes and improved their grades more significantly than students in a control condition. Also, the experimental group had less home-sickness and anxiety 2–3 months after the writing exercise.

Locke (2019) notes that “…writing about goals in an academic setting for two hours or more would connect with grade goals by implication even if the students did not mention them. The writing process would presumably have motivated them to generalize, to think about what they wanted to achieve in many aspects of their lives and encouraged commitment to purposeful action in more domains than were mentioned” (p. 3). On the same page, he also states that “The above issues could occupy interested researchers for many years.”

Broaden-and-build theory suggests that thinking about an idealized future will be associated with positive thoughts about this future, leading to increased levels of self-regulation, resilience, self-efficacy, and in turn engagement (e.g., Tugade et al., 2004 ; Tugade and Fredrickson, 2004 ; Ceja and Navarro, 2009 ; Fay and Sonnentag, 2012 ). Self-regulation is defined as “self-generated thoughts, feelings, and actions that are planned and cyclically related to the attainment of personal goals” ( Boekaerts et al., 2005 , p. 14). Many authors contend that goal setting enhances self-regulation and agree that this is the mechanism by which goals are related to action ( Latham and Locke, 1991 ; Oettingen et al., 2000 ; Hoyle and Sherrill, 2006 ).

Next to this, the intervention itself may be a form of embodied writing, an act of embodiment, entwining in words our senses with the senses of the world ( Anderson, 2001 ), stimulating what has been written down to act out in real life. However, theorizing around embodied writing and the act of writing as a form of embodied cognition is still in an embryonic stage. Especially research around the effect on writing on our daily actions is lacking in evidence. There is plenty of evidence that these small, written interventions have an effect and can even play a role in redirecting people (e.g., Wilson, 2011 ) and that these interventions can have a powerful effects in terms of behavioral change ( Yeager and Walton, 2011 ; Walton, 2014 ). At the same time, it should be noted that these psychological interventions are powerful but context-dependent tools that should not be seen as quick fixes ( Yeager and Walton, 2011 ). However, in the intervention described in the current paper, people are asked to think about their deepest feelings and motivations and write them down, and embodied cognition may very well play a role in the upward spiral resulting from such an intervention.

Goal Domain

An important discussion in the literature is whether having a self-serving purpose ( hedonistic , focused on attainment of pleasure and avoidance of pain) or one that is oriented toward helping others ( eudaimonic , focused on meaning and self-realization) is more beneficial for happiness ( Ryan and Deci, 2001 ; Keyes et al., 2002 ). Hedonistic and eudaimonic well-being seem to represent two different kinds of happiness ( Kashdan et al., 2008 ). Although recent research has confirmed that both are related to well-being ( Henderson et al., 2013 ), it is also conceivable that a purely hedonistic lifestyle may be unrelated to psychological well-being in the long run (see Huppert et al., 2004 ; Anić and Tončić, 2013 ; Baumeister et al., 2013 ). According to Schippers (2017 , p. 21), “prior research has shown that altruistic goals may be particularly helpful in terms of optimizing happiness. Studies on ‘random acts of kindness’—selfless acts to help or cheer up other people—have shown that these acts strengthen the well-being at least of the person performing that act ( Otake et al., 2006 ; Nelson et al., 2016 ).” Other research has shown that helping others is better for one’s well-being than giving oneself treats ( Nelson et al., 2016 ). A study by ( Steger et al., 2008a ) suggested that “doing good” may be an important avenue by which people create meaningful and satisfying lives. Also, it has been found that pursuing happiness through social engagement is related to higher well-being ( Ford et al., 2015 ).

Toward an Integrated Life-Crafting Intervention

The elements discussed above provide the context for developing a potentially effective life-crafting intervention. Although most agree that describing an ideal vision of the future would be a key element of such an intervention, below we identify other elements that should be included, whether the intervention is designed to improve well-being, happiness, performance, or all of these. According to McKnight and Kashdan (2009) , “the creation of goals consistent with one’s purpose may be critical to differentiating between real purpose and illusory purpose” (p. 249). Recent research also showed that it is better to have no calling than an unfulfilled calling (see Berg et al., 2010 ; Gazica and Spector, 2015 ), making it also a boundary condition that people follow through on this. The importance of following through was shown in a 15-week study aimed at finding out whether engaging in trait-typical behaviors predicted trait change ( Hudson et al., 2018 ). In this study, students provided self-report ratings of their personality and were required to complete weekly “challenges”—prewritten behavioral goals (e.g., “Before you go to bed, reflect on a positive social experience you had during the day and what you liked about it”). These challenges were aimed at aligning their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with their desired traits (in case of the example this was extraversion). Importantly, results indicated that the mere acceptance of challenges was unrelated to trait changes. Only actually completing the challenges and performing these behaviors predicted trait change ( Hudson et al., 2018 ). This may also hold true for the intervention described below and may be an important boundary condition. Although we have not found any negative effects of the intervention so far, theoretically it is possible that students formulate an “unanswered calling” which may impact happiness, well-being, and performance negatively. So far, only one study did not find the positive effects of a goal-setting intervention on academic outcomes ( Dobronyi et al., 2019 ). This might indicate that for some groups (in this case economy students) the (brief) intervention is not effective in bringing about behavioral change and increasing academic achievement. Other studies showed a positive effect among management students ( Schippers et al., 2015 ) and self-nominated struggling students ( Morisano et al., 2010 ).

Below we provide broad outlines of one such evidence-based intervention, having first set out in brief the case for this particular intervention. Aligning itself to the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs), which relate to economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection ( Stafford-Smith et al., 2017 ), Rotterdam School of Management (RSM) changed its mission to being a force for positive change in the world ( Rood, 2019 ). As RSM is educating future leaders, in 2011, it introduced a goal-setting intervention so that first-year students could reflect on their personal goals and values. This is a three-stage intervention. In the first part, students write about their values and wishes as well as their ideal life and the life they wish to avoid, and in the second, they describe their specific goals and goal plans. The third part involves a photoshoot with a professional photographer, where students formulate a statement starting with “I WILL…,” (e.g., I WILL pursue my goal, I WILL inspire and facilitate sustainable development, I WILL create healthier businesses for a healthier world, and I WILL lead by example and inspire others to reach their goals). 1 This statement and the photo are then put on social media and displayed throughout the school.

The evidence-based goal-setting intervention has had a positive effect on study success, as has been shown by higher academic achievement and decreased dropout rates ( Locke et al., 2014 ; Locke and Schippers, 2018 ). This was particularly true for ethnic minority and male students, who had underperformed in previous years ( Schippers et al., 2015 ; for an elaborate description of the intervention see the supplementary material). In the meantime, plans have been made to make sure that the intervention is an integral part of the curriculum, so that students will develop skills for self-management and management of others and will consider what impact they can have on the world.

Elements of the Life-Crafting Intervention

Although developed for students, this intervention could also be useful for people who wish to discover a meaning in life and write down their goals. In the first part of this intervention, people discover what is important to them in all areas of life and write about what they feel passionate about. While this part is aimed at making sure they discover their values and passions, the second part is designed to enable them to put those values and passions into a number of goals and to ensure they formulate plans and back-up plans for achieving those goals ( Schippers et al., 2015 ). In terms of the intervention in this paper, the practical questions that address these issues are shown in section 3 of Table 1 .


Table 1 . Elements and description of a life-crafting intervention.

Discovering Values and Passion

Discovering one’s passion has two sides: Doing what you “like” is often said to be important, but it seems that discovering what you find “important” is more helpful in igniting passion, as this is more values-based and will contribute to self-concordance ( Sheldon and Houser-Marko, 2001 ; Ryff and Singer, 2008 ). Recent research (e.g., Jachimowicz et al., 2017 ) has shown that it is important that people pursue a career that is in line with what they find to be “important,” rather than engaging in activities that they “like”; it found that those who engaged in activities that they liked (feelings-oriented mindset) exhibited less passion than those who engaged in activities that they thought were important (values-oriented mindset). Thus, while it is important that people discover what they feel passionate about, ideally this passion should also be aligned with values that they hold dear, such as collaboration, equality, and honesty ( Sheldon, 2002 ).

There is, however, also a difference between harmonious and obsessive passion (for a meta-analysis, see Vallerand et al., 2003 ; Curran et al., 2015 ). People with an obsessive work passion experience more conflict between work and other areas of life, and work is more related to their self-worth ( Vallerand et al., 2003 ). Harmonious passion was shown to be related to positive outcomes such as flow and enhanced performance, whereas obsessive passion was related more to negative outcomes, such as excessive rumination and decreased vitality ( Curran et al., 2015 ). Discovering a (harmonious) passion is not always easy.

In a life-crafting intervention, questions on this area could be similar to those listed in section 1 of Table 1 , involving also life style choices. In particular, choosing a lifestyle that involves physical activity seems to be a powerful way not only to increase self-regulation and self-control (for a review see Baumeister et al., 2006 ; Oaten and Cheng, 2006 ), but also to prevent mental illness, foster positive emotions, buffer individuals against the stresses of life, and help people thrive when they have experienced adversity ( Faulkner et al., 2015 , p. 207).

Gap Between Current Versus Future State: Current and Desired Competencies and Habits

In order to achieve a match between values and passion, it is important to become aware of one’s current habits and competencies as a first step in changing/adapting (cf., Schippers et al., 2014 ). Being aware of the habits you would like to change is important in promoting positive behavioral change ( Holland et al., 2006 ; Graybiel and Smith, 2014 ). Since most of our daily behavior is habitual, and this is usually functional in that it allows us to perform many tasks with minimum cognitive effort, but this same mechanism also makes habits hard to break ( Jager, 2003 ). Being aware of our habits and reflecting on them can be a first step in breaking them ( Schippers and Hogenes, 2011 ; Schippers et al., 2014 ); implementation intentions (i.e., if-then plans: “If situation Y is encountered, then I will initiate goal-directed behavior X!”) have also been shown to help in breaking old habits and forming new ones ( Holland et al., 2006 ). Many people have habits they would like to change (relating, for example, to eating behaviors, physical health, or substance use). However, it has been shown that the effect of good intentions such as New Year’s resolutions is very minimal ( Marlatt and Kaplan, 1972 ; Pope et al., 2014 ) and that it is the extent to which people have self-concordant goals, coupled with implementation intentions, that leads to successful changes in behavior ( Mischel, 1996 ; Koestner et al., 2002 ). Self-concordant goals are personal goals that are pursued out of intrinsic interest and are also congruent with people’s identity. Research has shown that if people pursue goals because they align with their own values and interests, rather than because others urge them to pursue them, they typically exhibit greater well-being ( Sheldon and Houser-Marko, 2001 ). This was shown to be true across many cultures ( Sheldon et al., 2004 ). In a life-crafting intervention, questions on this area could be similar to those listed in section 2 of Table 1 .

Present and Future Social Life

Research shows that people with a strong social network live longer and are healthier and happier ( Demir et al., 2015 ; Haslam et al., 2016 ). This network does not necessarily have to be very big, and it seems that, as one grows older, the quality of the relationships in this network becomes more important than the quantity ( Carmichael et al., 2015 ). Recent research places more emphasis on the quality of relationships, specifically showing that quality in terms of the social and emotional dimensions of relationships is related to mental well-being ( Hyland et al., 2019 ). The quality of the network has also been shown to be helpful during a transition to college ( Pittman and Richmond, 2008 ). Although at first sight it may seem odd to think about what kind of acquaintances and friends one would like to have, it may pay off to think about this carefully. Certain kinds of relationships, so called high-maintenance relationships, require a lot of time and energy ( Schippers and Hogenes, 2011 ; Fedigan, 2017 ) and often are characterized by negative interactions that can even influence self-regulation ( Finkel et al., 2006 ). It seems important that in general people seek out interaction with others who are supportive and from which they receive energy rather than those that cost energy. In a life-crafting intervention, questions on this area could be similar to those listed in section 3 of Table 1 . Practical questions in the intervention in this respect could be: think about your current friends and acquaintances. What kind of relationships energize you? What kind of relationships require energy? Why is that? What kind of friends and acquaintances do you need? What kind of friends and acquaintances would you like to have in the future? What does your ideal family life and broader social life look like?

Future Life: Career

Work is an important part of life. For many it is important to have a job that suits them, and a job which they feel passionate about and from which they can get energy (see Werner et al., 2016 ; Downes et al., 2017 ). However, research on mental illness prevails the literature in occupational health psychology, despite a call for a shift toward more research into positive psychology as antipode for work-related health problems such as job burnout. Especially in times where employees are required to be proactive and responsible for their own professional development, and to commit to high quality performance standards, it is important to think about activities that energize people and make them feel engaged with their work ( Bakker et al., 2008 ; Schippers and Hogenes, 2011 ). Relatedly, research on job crafting shows that people can actively enhance the personal meaning of their work and make it more enjoyable by changing cognitive, task, or relational aspects to shape interactions and relationships with others at work ( Wrzesniewski and Dutton, 2001 ). Consequently, it is not always the job itself but the meaning you give to it that is important ( Demerouti et al., 2015 ). It is also important to think about when and where you do each particular task, in order to manage your daily energy ( Wessels et al., 2019 ).

It should be noted, however, that it is also important to see work in relation to other areas of life. Christensen (2010) noted that many of his contemporaries ended up working 70-h working weeks and also were often divorced and estranged from their children over time. They could not imagine that this end result was a deliberate choice, so it seems important to choose the kind of person you want to become not only in your career but also in other areas of life ( Christensen, 2010 ). This also means making strategic decisions about how to allocate your time and energy, instead of letting daily hassles make these decisions for you ( Christensen, 2017 ). In a life-crafting intervention, participants could be asked to think about what they would ideally like to do in their job, and what kinds of people they might be working with, either directly or indirectly. They could be asked to reflect on their education and their career, and to consider what they feel to be important in a job and what their ideal colleagues would be like. The questions would thus be similar in nature to those shown in section 4 of Table 1 .

Of course, some people choose a job that they do not necessarily like a lot but then make sure their leisure time is filled with meaningful activities ( Berg et al., 2010 ), and leisure crafting has been shown to make up to a certain extent for having few opportunities for job crafting. So weighing up the balance between work life and leisure activities and making conscious decisions in this respect seems very important.

Key Element: Ideal Future Versus Future If You Do Not Take Action

As people are able to think about and fantasize a future ( Oettingen et al., 2018 ), it is key that the future they envisage is one that is attractive to them. Likewise it is vital they formulate plans of how to achieve their desired future (implementation intentions) and contrast this in their minds with an undesired future ( Oettingen and Gollwitzer, 2010 ; Oettingen et al., 2013 ). In a university context, and more generally in order to stay engaged, it is important that people choose goals that are self-concordant. It has been shown that if people formulate such goals implicitly by visualizing their best possible self, this can be very powerful and has a stronger effect on well-being than exercises such as gratitude letters ( Sheldon and Lyubomirsky, 2006 ). Other research has shown that writing about the best possible self in three domains—personal, relational, and professional—leads to increased optimism ( Meevissen et al., 2011 ). A meta-analysis showed that best possible self was a particularly powerful intervention in terms of enhancing optimism ( Malouff and Schutte, 2017 ). If this optimism is also turned into concrete plans for the future, there is an increased chance that this positive envisioned future will become a reality (cf., Schippers et al., 2015 ).

Based on the theorizing above, it should be stressed that in the intervention students formulate goals that they find important, not ones that others (parents, peers, or friends) find important or that are pursued solely for reasons of status. In the instructions in the intervention, the students are advised to choose goals that they think are important and want to pursue and not to choose goals that others (parents, peers, and friends) think are important. Otherwise, they will live someone else’s life. In order to make sure that they do not choose goals that will be detrimental to themselves or others, they are also advised to not describe an ideal life that includes harming themselves or others.

Additionally, it is also important that people imagine the future they are likely to face if they do not do anything . This represents a goal-framing effect, or the finding that people are more likely to take action when they are confronted with the possible consequences of not doing so ( Tversky and Kahneman, 1981 ). It might be useful to ask participants to visualize both a desirable and an undesirable future and to get them to contrast the two (see Oettingen, 2012 ; Brodersen and Oettingen, 2017 ). This would be a form of “metacognitive self-regulatory strategy of goal pursuit” ( Duckworth et al., 2013 , p. 745; cf. Schippers et al., 2013 ; see also Schippers et al., 2015 ). Other research has shown that positive “deliberate mental time travel” (or MTT) was related to a significant increase in happiness but not when the MTT was negative or neutral. However, neutral MTT was related to a reduction in stress ( Quoidbach et al., 2009 ). In the intervention (see also Table 1 , section 5), participants are asked what their future would look like if they did not change anything. What would their life look like 5–10 years down the road?

Goal Attainment Plans

After finishing the elements as described above, it is important for intervention participants to formulate concrete goals and plans. In the meta-analysis undertaken by Koestner et al. (2002) , it was concluded that it is important for personal goal setting to be combined with if-then plans. Self-concordance—the feeling that people pursue goals because they fit with their own values and interests—and goal attainment plans are important for goal progress ( Locke and Schippers, 2018 ). Since the rewards that come from achieving a significant life goal are often attained in the future, it is important to formulate concrete goals and also to identify the small steps toward them (see Trope and Liberman, 2003 ). While the first part of the student intervention is aimed at discovering their passions and ideas about their ideal life, the second part is much more concrete and follows the steps set out in research on goal setting, SMART goals, and if-then plans ( Oettingen et al., 2013 , 2018 ). The idea is that by making concrete plans and identifying obstacles (if-then plans), people are better able to visualize their desired future and will be less tempted to engage in activities that distract them from their goal ( Mischel, 1996 ; Mischel and Ayduk, 2004 ).

In this part of the intervention, ideally any obstacles to the plans will also be identified. In addition to the research on mental contrasting, which generally indicates that one should visualize both the goal and the obstacles to it (e.g., Sevincer et al., 2017 ), it is important that one should also visualize a way of overcoming those obstacles. This may be a vital element, as research has shown that mental contrasting works best for people who are very confident about succeeding ( Sevincer et al., 2017 ). The elements are outlined in Table 1 , section 6. The idea is that, based on what participants write when describing their ideal future, they then identify a number of goals (usually about six to eight), which could be personal, career, and/or social goals (e.g., Morisano et al., 2010 ; Schippers et al., 2015 ; Locke and Schippers, 2018 ). As detailed implementation plans have been shown to aid progress toward goals ( Gollwitzer, 1996 ), it is vital for participants to set down a detailed strategy for how they will achieve their goals. This part of the intervention asks participants about their motivations for their goals and gets them to consider the personal and social impact of those goals. They should also be asked to identify potential obstacles and how to overcome them and monitor progress toward the goals they have set. Participants should be instructed to be specific and concrete—for instance, to write down things that they will do weekly or daily to further their goals ( Morisano et al., 2010 ; Schippers et al., 2015 ). It may also be useful to get participants to make a concrete plan of action for the upcoming week and to make them specify for each day the hours they will spend working on the goal they have in mind.

Public Commitment

In this part of the intervention, participants can either write down a number of goals and make them public (read them out to others) or have a photo taken to accompany a public (“I WILL…”) statement, as was the case in the RSM intervention (see the examples mentioned earlier). Prior research has found that public commitment can enhance goal attainment ( Hollenbeck et al., 1989 ). This part seems to be related to enhanced commitment to goals as a result of self-presentation ( Schienker et al., 1994 ). Shaun Tomson, a former surfing champion and inspirational speaker, invites audiences to come up with goals and 12 lines, all starting with: “I will…” These lines are spoken aloud in a group as a form of public commitment ( Tomson and Moser, 2013 ). This makes it more likely that people will be more self-regulating toward goal-attainment and will put more effort into reaching their goals, especially if they are highly committed to reaching this goal ( McCaul et al., 1987 ).

Formulating clear goals has been shown to contribute to student well-being and academic success ( Morisano et al., 2010 ; Schippers et al., 2015 , 2019 ; Locke and Schippers, 2018 ). However, this has been often neglected in education and work settings resulting in a lack of evidence based tools. The effects of goal setting on the well-being of students have hardly been tested. Recently, calls have been made for positive psychology interventions to be made part of the educational curriculum in order to teach students life skills and to combat the rising number of mental health problems such as depression (e.g., Clonan et al., 2004 ; Seligman et al., 2009 ; Schippers, 2017 ).

Informed by the theoretical frameworks of salutogenesis, embodied cognition, dynamic self-regulation, and goal-setting theory, in this paper, we outlined a life-crafting intervention in which participants complete a series of online writing exercises using expressive writing to shape their ideal future. Important elements of such an intervention that were covered are: (1) discovering values and passion, (2) reflecting on current and desired competencies and habits, (3) reflecting on present and future social life and (4) future career, (5) writing about the ideal future, (6) goal attainment plans, and finally (7) public commitment to goals.

The idea is to use the fantasized ideal future to deduce goals and formulate a strategy to reach these goals. Finally, participants commit to their intentions by having a photo taken to accompany their goal statement, which is then made public. We described the key elements of this intervention and outlined the theoretical rationale for each of these elements. As previous research has shown that developing life skills, such as being able to set goals and make plans to achieve them (i.e., goal setting), increases the resilience, well-being, and study success of students ( Schippers et al., 2015 , 2019 ; Locke and Schippers, 2018 ), it may be important to make this intervention available to a wider population.

Future Research and Developments

As research shows that students in higher education are increasingly experiencing psychological problems, such as depression, anxiety, and burn-out ( Gilchrist, 2003 ; Snyder et al., 2016 ), an add-on to the goal-setting program as described above is recommended. Rapid developments in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), especially areas such as emotion recognition, natural language processing, and machine learning have great potential to aid students experiencing study-related mental health problems ( Kavakli et al., 2012 ; Oh et al., 2017 ). For example, a goal-setting exercise could be enhanced by incorporating a digital coach in the form of a goal-setting chatbot. With this type of intervention, students are given immediate, personalized feedback after their writing assignments. After two longer writing assignments, which are part of the curriculum, the chatbot can help students to by asking questions on specific topics ( Fulmer et al., 2018 ). For instance, through personalized questions and feedback the chatbot could stimulate students to regularly reflect on their progress toward reaching a certain goal (“Did I invest enough time into my goals? What could I do to improve this? Which smaller sub-goals could help me to achieve my objective? What obstacles do I face? What ways do I see to overcome them?”). Depending on the answers the chatbot could also provide the students with different strategies. In addition, the chatbot can remind students of their goals and objectives during the year.

The expectation is that this addition to the intervention will allow students to reflect better on their own goals, so that a positive effect on student well-being can be expected and more serious problems can be prevented. What is also innovative is that the chatbot can ask additional questions about the students’ well-being. This gives the chatbot an important role in identifying possible problems. For students who have no problems or whose problems are minor, setting goals and receiving online feedback and coaching will be sufficient. In cases of more severe problems, the chatbot can offer more intensive coaching, or can refer them to the university’s psychological support or other professional services if necessary. In summary, the chatbot could provide a better connection between goal setting and the needs of the individual student and could help to integrate the life-crafting intervention into early stages of students’ academic career and can also deliver mental health care for students. Moreover, it could help integrate the life-crafting intervention with interactional forms of mental health care provided by the chatbot, thereby possibly increasing its effectiveness. In addition, goal diaries might form a way to provide insights into whether students are able to achieve important goals. Such diaries could also be used to assess their level of happiness and well-being and might be easily integrated into the interaction with the chatbot.

Next to examining how promising the intervention is in terms of its effects on students, future research could look at the effects of the life-crafting intervention in organizations. Prior research has shown that the effects from positive psychology interventions in organizations are promising ( Meyers et al., 2012 ). The relationship between different areas of life and decision making with regard to how to spend one’s time seems to be key ( Menzies, 2005 ; Schippers and Hogenes, 2011 ). Researchers could also examine what role life crafting might play at the team level.

Despite the obvious upside of experiencing meaning in life and having life goals as described in this paper, many people have difficulty choosing between the seemingly endless number of possibilities. The good news is that it is in principle never too late to find a purpose in life, although recent research suggests that it may be most beneficial to find a direction in life earlier rather than later (see Steger et al., 2009 ; Bundick, 2011 ; Hill and Turiano, 2014 ). It seems that interventions of the kind we have described above may be particularly helpful when one is entering into a new phase of life, such as when starting one’s study or just before entering the job market (see Kashdan and Steger, 2007 ).

The problem so far has been that most interventions are not easily taken to scale (for an exception see Schippers et al., 2015 ). Given the relatively low amount of costs and administrative work that the implementation of the outlined life crafting intervention entails, especially when compared to the potential benefits, we recommend its inclusion in student’s curriculums. Getting many (young) people to take part in an online life crafting intervention may be an important step in achieving not only higher academic performance, but also better well-being, happiness, health, and greater longevity (see Schippers et al., 2015 ). Using technology to assist with life crafting via a goal-setting intervention seems to be a particularly promising avenue as this is an approach that can be easily scaled up. Ideally then, these scalable and affordable interventions should not be regarded as an extra-curricular activity; it would be advisable to make them a formal part of the curriculum for all students. In a work context, employees could also benefit as this type of activity might be something that companies could easily offer. In short, life-crafting is about (1) finding out what you stand for (i.e., values and passions), (2) finding out how to make it happen (i.e., goal-attainment plans), and (3) telling someone about your plans (i.e., public commitment). Concluding, it seems that life crafting is about taking control of one’s life and finding purpose. Based on recent findings, it would be well-advised for many of us to carve out time to do an evidence-based life-crafting intervention.

Author Contributions

MS has written the draft of the manuscript. NZ provided important intellectual input at all stages and helped to develop, review, and revise the manuscript.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


The authors would like to thank the members of the Erasmus Centre for Study and Career Success ( https://www.erim.eur.nl/erasmus-centre-for-study-and-career-success/ ) and Christina Wessels for their useful comments on an earlier version of this paper.

1. see https://www.rsm.nl/iwilleveryone/ .

A student, participating in the intervention, described its effect on him as follows (see also Singeling, 2017 ).

“I studied, or at least I attempted to study, a lot of different things before I came here. But usually I stopped halfway through. And then I ended up here and I liked the courses well enough, but once again it was completely unplanned. I came here because, well, it was expected of me to finish some kind of university course.

When I got here, and all the “I WILL” stuff [life crafting/goal setting] happened, I thought it was a complete and utter joke. I thought: who needs this kind of stuff? Between the second and the third [trimester], so towards the end of the second really, I started to realize that: you know those silly goals I put down? I’m actually close to completing some of those. That got me inspired to apply for the position of mentor for the BA business skills course. And in the third year, for my minor, I took a teaching class. A few of my students who started off basically slacking through everything, they are taking their assignments more seriously. Instead of doing everything the evening beforehand, they are dedicating a week beforehand. It’s tiny steps, but they are tiny steps that would not have happened without the goal setting.

Quite simply, I’m proud of the things that I have been doing, such as teaching, and I’m proud that it came through goal setting. It’s why in the end I have changed my I WILL statement: “I will help the next generation to be better.”

From this extract, it can be seen that the intervention seemed to inspire the student to be clearer about his goals, to dedicate time to them, and also to use them to help other students. Furthermore, it serves to illustrate the concept of an upward spiral ( Sheldon and Houser-Marko, 2001 ; Sekerka et al., 2012 ), where trough tiny steps (starting to study for an exam earlier) goals are attained.

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Keywords: life crafting, meaning in life, scalable life-crafting intervention, Ikigai, goal setting, positive psychology, well-being and happiness, self-concordance

Citation: Schippers MC and Ziegler N (2019) Life Crafting as a Way to Find Purpose and Meaning in Life. Front. Psychol . 10:2778. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02778

Received: 26 March 2019; Accepted: 25 November 2019; Published: 13 December 2019.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2019 Schippers and Ziegler. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Michaéla C. Schippers, [email protected]

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  • Published: 21 August 2017

Personal values in human life

  • Lilach Sagiv 1 ,
  • Sonia Roccas 2 ,
  • Jan Cieciuch 3 , 4 &
  • Shalom H. Schwartz 1 , 5  

Nature Human Behaviour volume  1 ,  pages 630–639 ( 2017 ) Cite this article

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  • Human behaviour

The construct of values is central to many fields in the social sciences and humanities. The last two decades have seen a growing body of psychological research that investigates the content, structure and consequences of personal values in many cultures. Taking a cross-cultural perspective we review, organize and integrate research on personal values, and point to some of the main findings that this research has yielded. Personal values are subjective in nature, and reflect what people think and state about themselves. Consequently, both researchers and laymen sometimes question the usefulness of personal values in influencing action. Yet, self-reported values predict a large variety of attitudes, preferences and overt behaviours. Individuals act in ways that allow them to express their important values and attain the goals underlying them. Thus, understanding personal values means understanding human behaviour.

Why do some people tend to help others in need while others do not? Why are some people more religious than others? What accounts for individuals’ differences in preferences for occupations? The values people hold play a crucial role in such attitudes and behaviours. In this Review article, we discuss some of the accumulating research on personal values. Recent research sheds light on the development of values, showing that they are formed through a combination of genetic heritage and the impact of exposure to multiple social environments, such as family, the education system, community and society at large. Although subjective in nature, self-reported values predict a large array of attitudes and preferences. As such, they provide invaluable insight into human behaviour.

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This paper was partly funded by a grant from the Israel Science Foundation (847/14) to L.S. and S.R.; grants from the Recanati Fund of the School of Business Administration and the Mandel Scholion Interdisciplinary Research Center, both at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to L.S.; and a grant from The Open University Research Fund of the Open University of Israel to S.R. The work of J.C. was supported by the University Research Priority Program Social Networks of the University of Zurich.

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Sagiv, L., Roccas, S., Cieciuch, J. et al. Personal values in human life. Nat Hum Behav 1 , 630–639 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-017-0185-3

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The Power of Personality

Brent w. roberts.

University of Illinois

Nathan R. Kuncel

University of Minnesota

Rebecca Shiner

Colgate University

Avshalom Caspi

Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College, London, United Kingdom

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Lewis R. Goldberg

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The ability of personality traits to predict important life outcomes has traditionally been questioned because of the putative small effects of personality. In this article, we compare the predictive validity of personality traits with that of socioeconomic status (SES) and cognitive ability to test the relative contribution of personality traits to predictions of three critical outcomes: mortality, divorce, and occupational attainment. Only evidence from prospective longitudinal studies was considered. In addition, an attempt was made to limit the review to studies that controlled for important background factors. Results showed that the magnitude of the effects of personality traits on mortality, divorce, and occupational attainment was indistinguishable from the effects of SES and cognitive ability on these outcomes. These results demonstrate the influence of personality traits on important life outcomes, highlight the need to more routinely incorporate measures of personality into quality of life surveys, and encourage further research about the developmental origins of personality traits and the processes by which these traits influence diverse life outcomes.

Starting in the 1980s, personality psychology began a profound renaissance and has now become an extraordinarily diverse and intellectually stimulating field ( Pervin & John, 1999 ). However, just because a field of inquiry is vibrant does not mean it is practical or useful—one would need to show that personality traits predict important life outcomes, such as health and longevity, marital success, and educational and occupational attainment. In fact, two recent reviews have shown that different personality traits are associated with outcomes in each of these domains ( Caspi, Roberts, & Shiner, 2005 ; Ozer & Benet-Martinez, 2006 ). But simply showing that personality traits are related to health, love, and attainment is not a stringent test of the utility of personality traits. These associations could be the result of “third” variables, such as socioeconomic status (SES), that account for the patterns but have not been controlled for in the studies reviewed. In addition, many of the studies reviewed were cross-sectional and therefore lacked the methodological rigor to show the predictive validity of personality traits. A more stringent test of the importance of personality traits can be found in prospective longitudinal studies that show the incremental validity of personality traits over and above other factors.

The analyses reported in this article test whether personality traits are important, practical predictors of significant life outcomes. We focus on three domains: longevity/mortality, divorce, and occupational attainment in work. Within each domain, we evaluate empirical evidence using the gold standard of prospective longitudinal studies—that is, those studies that can provide data about whether personality traits predict life outcomes above and beyond well-known factors such as SES and cognitive abilities. To guide the interpretation drawn from the results of these prospective longitudinal studies, we provide benchmark relations of SES and cognitive ability with outcomes from these three domains. The review proceeds in three sections. First, we address some misperceptions about personality traits that are, in part, responsible for the idea that personality does not predict important life outcomes. Second, we present a review of the evidence for the predictive validity of personality traits. Third, we conclude with a discussion of the implications of our findings and recommendations for future work in this area.


Before we embark on our review, it is necessary to lay to rest a myth perpetrated by the 1960s manifestation of the person–situation debate; this myth is often at the root of the perspective that personality traits do not predict outcomes well, if at all. Specifically, in his highly influential book, Walter Mischel (1968) argued that personality traits had limited utility in predicting behavior because their correlational upper limit appeared to be about .30. Subsequently, this .30 value became derided as the “personality coefficient.” Two conclusions were inferred from this argument. First, personality traits have little predictive validity. Second, if personality traits do not predict much, then other factors, such as the situation, must be responsible for the vast amounts of variance that are left unaccounted for. The idea that personality traits are the validity weaklings of the predictive panoply has been reiterated in unmitigated form to this day (e.g., Bandura, 1999 ; Lewis, 2001 ; Paul, 2004 ; Ross & Nisbett, 1991 ). In fact, this position is so widely accepted that personality psychologists often apologize for correlations in the range of .20 to .30 (e.g., Bornstein, 1999 ).

Should personality psychologists be apologetic for their modest validity coefficients? Apparently not, according to Meyer and his colleagues ( Meyer et al., 2001 ), who did psychological science a service by tabling the effect sizes for a wide variety of psychological investigations and placing them side-by-side with comparable effect sizes from medicine and everyday life. These investigators made several important points. First, the modal effect size on a correlational scale for psychology as a whole is between .10 and .40, including that seen in experimental investigations (see also Hemphill, 2003 ). It appears that the .30 barrier applies to most phenomena in psychology and not just to those in the realm of personality psychology. Second, the very largest effects for any variables in psychology are in the .50 to .60 range, and these are quite rare (e.g., the effect of increasing age on declining speed of information processing in adults). Third, effect sizes for assessment measures and therapeutic interventions in psychology are similar to those found in medicine. It is sobering to see that the effect sizes for many medical interventions—like consuming aspirin to treat heart disease or using chemotherapy to treat breast cancer—translate into correlations of .02 or .03. Taken together, the data presented by Meyer and colleagues make clear that our standards for effect sizes need to be established in light of what is typical for psychology and for other fields concerned with human functioning.

In the decades since Mischel’s (1968) critique, researchers have also directly addressed the claim that situations have a stronger influence on behavior than they do on personality traits. Social psychological research on the effects of situations typically involves experimental manipulation of the situation, and the results are analyzed to establish whether the situational manipulation has yielded a statistically significant difference in the outcome. When the effects of situations are converted into the same metric as that used in personality research (typically the correlation coefficient, which conveys both the direction and the size of an effect), the effects of personality traits are generally as strong as the effects of situations ( Funder & Ozer, 1983 ; Sarason, Smith, & Diener, 1975 ). Overall, it is the moderate position that is correct: Both the person and the situation are necessary for explaining human behavior, given that both have comparable relations with important outcomes.

As research on the relative magnitude of effects has documented, personality psychologists should not apologize for correlations between .10 and .30, given that the effect sizes found in personality psychology are no different than those found in other fields of inquiry. In addition, the importance of a predictor lies not only in the magnitude of its association with the outcome, but also in the nature of the outcome being predicted. A large association between two self-report measures of extraversion and positive affect may be theoretically interesting but may not offer much solace to the researcher searching for proof that extraversion is an important predictor for outcomes that society values. In contrast, a modest correlation between a personality trait and mortality or some other medical outcome, such as Alzheimer’s disease, would be quite important. Moreover, when attempting to predict these critical life outcomes, even relatively small effects can be important because of their pragmatic effects and because of their cumulative effects across a person’s life ( Abelson, 1985 ; Funder, 2004 ; Rosenthal, 1990 ). In terms of practicality, the −.03 association between taking aspirin and reducing heart attacks provides an excellent example. In one study, this surprisingly small association resulted in 85 fewer heart attacks among the patients of 10,845 physicians ( Rosenthal, 2000 ). Because of its practical significance, this type of association should not be ignored because of the small effect size. In terms of cumulative effects, a seemingly small effect that moves a person away from pursuing his or her education early in life can have monumental consequences for that person’s health and well-being later in life ( Hardarson et al., 2001 ). In other words, psychological processes with a statistically small or moderate effect can have important effects on individuals’ lives depending on the outcomes with which they are associated and depending on whether those effects get cumulated across a person’s life.


Selection of predictors, outcomes, and studies for this review.

To provide the most stringent test of the predictive validity of personality traits, we chose to focus on three objective outcomes: mortality, divorce, and occupational attainment. Although we could have chosen many different outcomes to examine, we selected these three because they are socially valued; they are measured in similar ways across studies; and they have been assessed as outcomes in studies of SES, cognitive ability, and personality traits. Mortality needs little justification as an outcome, as most individuals value a long life. Divorce and marital stability are important outcomes for several reasons. Divorce is a significant source of depression and distress for many individuals and can have negative consequences for children, whereas a happy marriage is one of the most important predictors of life satisfaction ( Myers, 2000 ). Divorce is also linked to disproportionate drops in economic status, especially for women ( Kuh & Maclean, 1990 ), and it can undermine men’s health (e.g., Lund, Holstein, & Osler, 2004 ). An intact marriage can also preserve cognitive function into old age for both men and women, particularly for those married to a high-ability spouse ( Schaie, 1994 ).

Educational and occupational attainment are also highly prized ( Roisman, Masten, Coatsworth, & Tellegen, 2004 ). Research on subjective well-being has shown that occupational attainment and its important correlate, income, are not as critical for happiness as many assume them to be ( Myers, 2000 ). Nonetheless, educational and occupational attainment are associated with greater access to many resources that can improve the quality of life (e.g., medical care, education) and with greater “social capital” (i.e., greater access to various resources through connections with others; Bradley & Corwyn, 2002 ; Conger & Donnellan, 2007 ). The greater income resulting from high educational and occupational attainment may also enable individuals to maintain strong life satisfaction when faced with difficult life circumstances ( Johnson & Krueger, 2006 ).

To better interpret the significance of the relations between personality traits and these outcomes, we have provided comparative information concerning the effect of SES and cognitive ability on each of these outcomes. We chose to use SES as a comparison because it is widely accepted to be one of the most important contributors to a more successful life, including better health and higher occupational attainment (e.g., Adler et al., 1994 ; Gallo & Mathews, 2003 ; Galobardes, Lynch, & Smith, 2004 ; Sapolsky, 2005 ). In addition, we chose cognitive ability as a comparison variable because, like SES, it is a widely accepted predictor of longevity and occupational success ( Deary, Batty, & Gottfredson, 2005 ; Schmidt & Hunter, 1998 ). In this article, we compare the effect sizes of personality traits with these two predictors in order to understand the relative contribution of personality to a long, stable, and successful life. We also required that the studies in this review make some attempt to control for background variables. For example, in the case of mortality, we looked for prospective longitudinal studies that controlled for previous medical conditions, gender, age, and other relevant variables.

We are not assuming that personality traits are direct causes of the outcomes under study. Rather, we were exclusively interested in whether personality traits predict mortality, divorce, and occupational attainment and in their modal effect sizes. If found to be robust, these patterns of statistical association then invite the question of why and how personality traits might cause these outcomes, and we have provided several examples in each section of potential mechanisms and causal steps involved in the process.

The Measurement of Effect Sizes in Prospective Longitudinal Studies

Before turning to the specific findings for personality, SES, and cognitive ability, we must first address the measurement of effect sizes in the studies reviewed here. Most of the studies that we reviewed used some form of regression analysis for either continuous or categorical outcomes. In studies with continuous outcomes, findings were typically reported as standardized regression weights (beta coefficients). In studies of categorical outcomes, the most common effect size indicators are odds ratios, relative risk ratios, or hazard ratios. Because many psychologists may be less familiar with these ratio statistics, a brief discussion of them is in order. In the context of individual differences, ratio statistics quantify the likelihood of an event (e.g., divorce, mortality) for a higher scoring group versus the likelihood of the same event for a lower scoring group (e.g., persons high in negative affect versus those low in negative affect). An odds ratio is the ratio of the odds of the event for one group over the odds of the same event for the second group. The risk ratio compares the probabilities of the event occurring for the two groups. The hazard ratio assesses the probability of an event occurring for a group over a specific window of time. For these statistics, a value of 1.0 equals no difference in odds or probabilities. Values above 1.0 indicate increased likelihood (odds or probabilities) for the experimental (or numerator) group, with the reverse being true for values below 1.0 (down to a lower limit of zero). Because of this asymmetry, the log of these statistics is often taken.

The primary advantage of ratio statistics in general, and the risk ratio in particular, is their ease of interpretation in applied settings. It is easier to understand that death is three times as likely to occur for one group than for another than it is to make sense out of a point-biserial correlation. However, there are also some disadvantages that should be understood. First, ratio statistics can make effects that are actually very small in absolute magnitude appear to be large when in fact they are very rare events. For example, although it is technically correct that one is three times as likely (risk ratio = 3.0) to win the lottery when buying three tickets instead of one ticket, the improved chances of winning are trivial in an absolute sense.

Second, there is no accepted practice for how to divide continuous predictor variables when computing odds, risk, and hazard ratios. Some predictors are naturally dichotomous (e.g., gender), but many are continuous (e.g., cognitive ability, SES). Researchers often divide continuous variables into some arbitrary set of categories in order to use the odds, rate, or hazard metrics. For example, instead of reporting an association between SES and mortality using a point-biserial correlation, a researcher may use proportional hazards models using some arbitrary categorization of SES, such as quartile estimates (e.g., lowest versus highest quartiles). This permits the researcher to draw conclusions such as “individuals from the highest category of SES are four times as likely to live longer than are groups lowest in SES.” Although more intuitively appealing, the odds statements derived from categorizing continuous variables makes it difficult to deduce the true effect size of a relation, especially across studies. Researchers with very large samples may have the luxury of carving a continuous variable into very fine-grained categories (e.g., 10 categories of SES), which may lead to seemingly huge hazard ratios. In contrast, researchers with smaller samples may only dichotomize or trichotomize the same variables, thus resulting in smaller hazard ratios and what appear to be smaller effects for identical predictors. Finally, many researchers may not categorize their continuous variables at all, which can result in hazard ratios very close to 1.0 that are nonetheless still statistically significant. These procedures for analyzing odds, rate, and hazard ratios produce a haphazard array of results from which it is almost impossible to discern a meaningful average effect size. 1

One of the primary tasks of this review is to transform the results from different studies into a common metric so that a fair comparison could be made across the predictors and outcomes. For this purpose, we chose the Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient. We used a variety of techniques to arrive at an accurate estimate of the effect size from each study. When transforming relative risk ratios into the correlation metric, we used several methods to arrive at the most appropriate estimate of the effect size. For example, the correlation coefficient can be estimated from reported significance levels ( p values) and from test statistics such as the t test or chi-square, as well as from other effect size indicators such as d scores ( Rosenthal, 1991 ). Also, the correlation coefficient can be estimated directly from relative risk ratios and hazard ratios using the generic inverse variance approach ( The Cochrane Collaboration, 2005 ). In this procedure, the relative risk ratio and confidence intervals (CIs) are first transformed into z scores, and the z scores are then transformed into the correlation metric.

For most studies, the effect size correlation was estimated from information on relative risk ratios and p values. For the latter, we used the r equivalent effect size indicator ( Rosenthal & Rubin, 2003 ), which is computed from the sample size and p value associated with specific effects. All of these techniques transform the effect size information to a common correlational metric, making the results of the studies comparable across different analytical methods. After compiling effect sizes, meta-analytic techniques were used to estimate population effect sizes in both the risk ratio and correlation metric ( Hedges & Olkin, 1985 ). Specifically, a random-effects model with no moderators was used to estimate population effect sizes for both the rate ratio and correlation metrics. 2 When appropriate, we first averaged multiple nonindependent effects from studies that reported more than one relevant effect size.

The Predictive Validity of Personality Traits for Mortality

Before considering the role of personality traits in health and longevity, we reviewed a selection of studies linking SES and cognitive ability to these same outcomes. This information provides a point of reference to understand the relative contribution of personality. Table 1 presents the findings from 33 studies examining the prospective relations of low SES and low cognitive ability with mortality. 3 SES was measured using measures or composites of typical SES variables including income, education, and occupational status. Total IQ scores were commonly used in analyses of cognitive ability. Most studies demonstrated that being born into a low-SES household or achieving low SES in adulthood resulted in a higher risk of mortality (e.g., Deary & Der, 2005 ; Hart et al., 2003 ; Osler et al., 2002 ; Steenland, Henley, & Thun, 2002 ). The relative risk ratios and hazard ratios ranged from a low of 0.57 to a high of 1.30 and averaged 1.24 (CIs = 1.19 and 1.29). When translated into the correlation metric, the effect sizes for low SES ranged from −.02 to .08 and averaged .02 (CIs = .017 and .026).

SES and IQ Effects on Mortality/Longevity

Note. Confidence intervals are given in parentheses. SES = socioeconomic status; HR = hazard ratio; RR = relative risk ratio; OR = odds ratio; r rr = Correlation estimated from the rate ratio; r hr = correlation estimated from the hazard ratio; r or = correlation estimated from the odds ratio; r F = correlation estimated from F test; r e = r equivalent —correlation estimated from the reported p value and sample size; BMI = body mass index; FEV = forced expiratory volume; ADLs = activities of daily living; MMSE = Mini Mental State Examination; CPS = Cancer Prevention Study; RIFLE = risk factors and life expectancy.

Through the use of the relative risk metric, we determined that the effect of low IQ on mortality was similar to that of SES, ranging from a modest 0.74 to 2.42 and averaging 1.19 (CIs = 1.10 and 1.30). When translated into the correlation metric, however, the effect of low IQ on mortality was equivalent to a correlation of .06 (CIs = .03 and .09), which was three times larger than the effect of SES on mortality. The discrepancy between the relative risk and correlation metrics most likely resulted because some studies reported the relative risks in terms of continuous measures of IQ, which resulted in smaller relative risk ratios (e.g., St. John, Montgomery, Kristjansson, & McDowell, 2002 ). Merging relative risk ratios from these studies with those that carve the continuous variables into subgroups appears to underestimate the effect of IQ on mortality, at least in terms of the relative risk metric. The most telling comparison of IQ and SES comes from the five studies that include both variables in the prediction of mortality. Consistent with the aggregate results, IQ was a stronger predictor of mortality in each case (i.e., Deary & Der, 2005 ; Ganguli, Dodge, & Mulsant, 2002 ; Hart et al., 2003 ; Osler et al., 2002 ; Wilson, Bienia, Mendes de Leon, Evans, & Bennet, 2003 ).

Table 2 lists 34 studies that link personality traits to mortality/longevity. 4 In most of these studies, multiple factors such as SES, cognitive ability, gender, and disease severity were controlled for. We organized our review roughly around the Big Five taxonomy of personality traits (e.g., Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, and Openness to Experience; Goldberg, 1993b ). For example, research drawn from the Terman Longitudinal Study showed that children who were more conscientious tended to live longer ( Friedman et al., 1993 ). This effect held even after controlling for gender and parental divorce, two known contributors to shorter lifespans. Moreover, a number of other factors, such as SES and childhood health difficulties, were unrelated to longevity in this study. The protective effect of Conscientiousness has now been replicated across several studies and more heterogeneous samples. Conscientiousness was found to be a rather strong protective factor in an elderly sample participating in a Medicare training program ( Weiss & Costa, 2005 ), even when controlling for education level, cardiovascular disease, and smoking, among other factors. Similarly, Conscientiousness predicted decreased rates of mortality in a sample of individuals suffering from chronic renal insufficiency, even after controlling for age, diabetic status, and hemoglobin count ( Christensen et al., 2002 ).

Personality Traits and Mortality

Note. Confidence intervals are given in parentheses. HR = hazard ratio; RR = relative risk ratio; OR = odds ratio; r rr = correlation estimated from the rate ratio; r hr = correlation estimated from the hazard ratio; r or = correlation estimated from the odds ratio; r B = correlation estimated from a beta weight and standard error; r e = r equivalent (correlation estimated from the reported p value and sample size); FEV = forced expiratory volume; CHD = coronary heart disease; SES =socioeconomic status; BMI =body-ass index; ADLs =activities of daily living; MMSE =Mini Mental State Examination.

Similarly, several studies have shown that dispositions reflecting Positive Emotionality or Extraversion were associated with longevity. For example, nuns who scored higher on an index of Positive Emotionality in young adulthood tended to live longer, even when controlling for age, education, and linguistic ability (an aspect of cognitive ability; Danner, Snowden, & Friesen, 2001 ). Similarly, Optimism was related to higher rates of survival following head and neck cancer ( Allison, Guichard, Fung, & Gilain, 2003 ). In contrast, several studies reported that Neuroticism and Pessimism were associated with increases in one’s risk for premature mortality ( Abas, Hotopf, & Prince, 2002 ; Denollet et al., 1996 ; Schulz, Bookwala, Knapp, Scheier, & Williamson, 1996 ; Wilson, Mendes de Leon, Bienias, Evans, & Bennett, 2004 ). It should be noted, however, that two studies reported a protective effect of high Neuroticism ( Korten et al., 1999 ; Weiss & Costa, 2005 ).

The domain of Agreeableness showed a less clear association to mortality, with some studies showing a protective effect of high Agreeableness ( Wilson et al., 2004 ) and others showing that high Agreeableness contributed to mortality ( Friedman et al., 1993 ). With respect to the domain of Openness to Experience, two studies showed that Openness or facets of Openness, such as creativity, had little or no relation to mortality ( Osler et al., 2002 ; Wilson et al., 2004 ).

Because aggregating all personality traits into one overall effect size washes out important distinctions among different trait domains, we examined the effect of specific trait domains by aggregating studies within four categories: Conscientiousness, Positive Emotion/Extraversion, Neuroticism/Negative Emotion, and Hostility/Disagreeableness. 5 Our Conscientiousness domain included four studies that linked Conscientiousness to mortality. Because only two of these studies reported the information necessary to compute an average relative risk ratio, we only examined the correlation metric. When translated into a correlation metric, the average effect size for Conscientiousness was −.09 (CIs = −.12 and −.05), indicating a protective effect. Our Extraversion/Positive Emotion domain included six studies that examined the effect of extraversion, positive emotion, and optimism. The average relative risk ratio for the low Extraversion/Positive Emotion was 1.04 (CIs = 1.00 and 1.10) with a corresponding correlation effect size for high Extraversion/Positive Emotion being −.07 (−.11, −.03), with the latter showing a statistically significant protective effect of Extraversion/Positive Emotion. Our Negative Emotionality domain included twelve studies that examined the effect of neuroticism, pessimism, mental instability, and sense of coherence. The average relative risk ratio for the Negative Emotionality domain was 1.15 (CIs = 1.04 and 1.26), and the corresponding correlation effect size was .05 (CIs = .02 and .08). Thus, Neuroticism was associated with a diminished life span. Nineteen studies reported relations between Hostility/Disagreeableness and all-cause mortality, with notable heterogeneity in the effects across studies. The risk ratio population estimate showed an effect equivalent to, if not larger than, the remaining personality domains (risk ratio = 1.14; CIs = 1.06 and 1.23). With the correlation metric, this effect translated into a small but statistically significant effect of .04 (CIs = .02 and .06), indicating that hostility was positively associated with mortality. Thus, the specific personality traits of Conscientiousness, Positive Emotionality/Extraversion, Neuroticism, and Hostility/Disagreeableness were stronger predictors of mortality than was SES when effects were translated into a correlation metric. The effect of personality traits on mortality appears to be equivalent to IQ, although the additive effect of multiple trait domains on mortality may well exceed that of IQ.

Why would personality traits predict mortality? Personality traits may affect health and ultimately longevity through at least three distinct processes ( Contrada, Cather, & O’Leary, 1999 ; Pressman & Cohen, 2005 ; Rozanski, Blumenthal, & Kaplan, 1999 ; T.W. Smith, 2006 ). First, personality differences may be related to pathogenesis or mechanisms that promote disease. This has been evaluated most directly in studies relating various facets of Hostility/Disagreeableness to greater reactivity in response to stressful experiences (T.W. Smith & Gallo, 2001 ) and in studies relating low Extraversion to neuroendocrine and immune functioning ( Miller, Cohen, Rabin, Skoner, & Doyle, 1999 ) and greater susceptibility to colds ( Cohen, Doyle, Turner, Alper, & Skoner, 2003a , 2003b ). Second, personality traits may be related to physical-health outcomes because they are associated with health-promoting or health-damaging behaviors. For example, individuals high in Extraversion may foster social relationships, social support, and social integration, all of which are positively associated with health outcomes ( Berkman, Glass, Brissette, & Seeman, 2000 ). In contrast, individuals low in Conscientiousness may engage in a variety of health-risk behaviors such as smoking, unhealthy eating habits, lack of exercise, unprotected sexual intercourse, and dangerous driving habits ( Bogg & Roberts, 2004 ). Third, personality differences may be related to reactions to illness. This includes a wide class of behaviors, such as the ways individuals cope with illness (e.g., Scheier & Carver, 1993 ), reduce stress, and adhere to prescribed treatments ( Kenford et al., 2002 ).

These processes linking personality traits to physical health are not mutually exclusive. Moreover, different personality traits may affect physical health via different processes. For example, facets of Disagreeableness may be most directly linked to disease processes, facets of low Conscientiousness may be implicated in health-damaging behaviors, and facets of Neuroticism may contribute to ill-health by shaping reactions to illness. In addition, it is likely that the impact of personality differences on health varies across the life course. For example, Neuroticism may have a protective effect on mortality in young adulthood, as individuals who are more neurotic tend to avoid accidents in adolescence and young adulthood ( Lee, Wadsworth, & Hotopf, 2006 ). It is apparent from the extant research that personality traits influence outcomes at all stages of the health process, but much more work remains to be done to specify the processes that account for these effects.

The Predictive Validity of Personality Traits for Divorce

Next, we considered the role that SES, cognitive ability, and personality traits play in divorce. Because there were fewer studies examining these issues, we included prospective studies of SES, IQ, and personality that did not control for many background variables.

In terms of SES and IQ, we found 11 studies that showed a wide range of associations with divorce and marriage (see Table 3 ). 6 For example, the SES of the couple in one study was unsystematically related to divorce ( Tzeng & Mare, 1995 ). In contrast, Kurdek (1993) reported relatively large, protective effects for education and income for both men and women. Because not all these studies reported relative risk ratios, we computed an aggregate using the correlation metric and found the relation between SES and divorce was −.05 (CIs = −.08 and − .02), which indicates a significant protective effect of SES on divorce across these studies. Contradictory patterns were found for the two studies that predicted divorce and marital patterns from measures of cognitive ability. Taylor et al. (2005) reported that IQ was positively related to the possibility of male participants ever marrying but was negatively related to the possibility of female participants ever marrying. Data drawn from the Mills Longitudinal study ( Helson, 2006 ) showed conflicting patterns of associations between verbal and mathematical aptitude and divorce. Because there were only two studies, we did not examine the average effects of IQ on divorce.

SES and IQ Effects on Divorce

Note. Confidence intervals are given in parentheses. SES = socioeconomic status; HR = hazard ratio; RR = relative risk ratio; OR = odds ratio; r z = correlation estimated from the z score and sample size; r or = correlation estimated from the odds ratio; r F = correlation estimated from F test; r B = correlation estimated from the reported unstandardized beta weight and standard error; r e = r equivalent (correlation estimated from the reported p value and sample size); WAIS = Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale; NLSY = National Longitudinal Study of Youth; NLSYM = National Longitudinal Study of Young Men; NLSYW = National Longitudinal Study of Young Women.

Table 4 shows the data from thirteen prospective studies testing whether personality traits predicted divorce. Traits associated with the domain of Neuroticism, such as being anxious and overly sensitive, increased the probability of experiencing divorce ( Kelly & Conley, 1987 ; Tucker, Kressin, Spiro, & Ruscio, 1998 ). In contrast, those individuals who were more conscientious and agreeable tended to remain longer in their marriages and avoided divorce ( Kelly & Conley, 1987 ; Kinnunen & Pulkkenin, 2003 ; Roberts & Bogg, 2004 ). Although these studies did not control for as many factors as the health studies, the time spans over which the studies were carried out were impressive (e.g., 45 years). We aggregated effects across these studies for the trait domains of Neuroticism, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness with the correlation metric, as too few studies reported relative risk outcomes to warrant aggregating. When so aggregated, the effect of Neuroticism on divorce was .17 (CIs = .12 and .22), the effect of Agreeableness was − .18 (CIs = −.27 and −.09), and the effect of Conscientiousness on divorce was −.13 (CIs = −.17 and −.09). Thus, the predictive effects of these three personality traits on divorce were greater than those found for SES.

Personality Traits and Marital Outcomes

Note. Confidence intervals are given in parentheses. HR = hazard ratio; RR = relative risk ratio; OR = odds ratio; r d = Correlation estimated from the d score; r or = correlation estimated from the odds ratio; r F = correlation estimated from F test; r e = r equivalent (correlation estimated from the reported p value and sample size); MMPI = Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory; IHS = Institute of Human Development.

Why would personality traits lead to divorce or conversely marital stability? The most likely reason is because personality traits help shape the quality of long-term relationships. For example, Neuroticism is one of the strongest and most consistent personality predictors of relationship dissatisfaction, conflict, abuse, and ultimately dissolution ( Karney & Bradbury, 1995 ). Sophisticated studies that include dyads (not just individuals) and multiple methods (not just self reports) increasingly demonstrate that the links between personality traits and relationship processes are more than simply an artifact of shared method variance in the assessment of these two domains ( Donnellan, Conger, & Bryant, 2004 ; Robins, Caspi, & Moffitt, 2000 ; Watson, Hubbard, & Wiese, 2000 ). One study that followed a sample of young adults across their multiple relationships in early adulthood discovered that the influence of Negative Emotionality on relationship quality showed cross-relationship generalization; that is, it predicted the same kinds of experiences across relationships with different partners ( Robins, Caspi, & Moffitt, 2002 ).

An important goal for future research will be to uncover the proximal relationship-specific processes that mediate personality effects on relationship outcomes ( Reiss, Capobianco, & Tsai, 2002 ). Three processes merit attention. First, personality traits influence people’s exposure to relationship events. For example, people high in Neuroticism may be more likely to be exposed to daily conflicts in their relationships ( Bolger & Zuckerman, 1995 ; Suls & Martin, 2005 ). Second, personality traits shape people’s reactions to the behavior of their partners. For example, disagreeable individuals may escalate negative affect during conflict (e.g., Gottman, Coan, Carrere, & Swanson, 1998 ). Similarly, agreeable people may be better able to regulate emotions during interpersonal conflicts ( Jensen-Campbell & Graziano, 2001 ). Cognitive processes also factor in creating trait-correlated experiences ( Snyder & Stukas, 1999 ). For example, highly neurotic individuals may overreact to minor criticism from their partner, believe they are no longer loved when their partner does not call, or assume infidelity on the basis of mere flirtation. Third, personality traits evoke behaviors from partners that contribute to relationship quality. For example, people high in Neuroticism and low in Agreeableness may be more likely to express behaviors identified as detrimental to relationships such as criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling ( Gottman, 1994 ).

The Predictive Validity of Personality Traits for Educational and Occupational Attainment

The role of personality traits in occupational attainment has been studied sporadically in longitudinal studies over the last few decades. In contrast, the roles of SES and IQ have been studied exhaustively by sociologists in their programmatic research on the antecedents to status attainment. In their seminal work, Blau and Duncan (1967) conceptualized a model of status attainment as a function of the SES of an individual’s father. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin added what they considered social-psychological factors ( Sewell, Haller, & Portes, 1969 ). In this Wisconsin model, attainment is a function of parental SES, cognitive abilities, academic performance, occupational and educational aspirations, and the role of significant others ( Haller & Portes, 1973 ). Each factor in the model has been found to be positively related to occupational attainment ( Hauser, Tsai, & Sewell, 1983 ). The key question here is to what extent SES and IQ predict educational and occupational attainment holding constant the remaining factors.

A great deal of research has validated the structure and content of the Wisconsin model ( Sewell & Hauser, 1980 ; Sewell & Hauser, 1992 ), and rather than compiling these studies, which are highly similar in structure and findings, we provide representative findings from a study that includes three replications of the model ( Jencks, Crouse, & Mueser, 1983 ). As can be seen in Table 5 , childhood socioeconomic indicators, such as father’s occupational status and mother’s education, are related to outcomes, such as grades, educational attainment, and eventual occupational attainment, even after controlling for the remaining variables in the Wisconsin model. The average beta weight of SES and education was .09. 7 Parental income had a stronger effect, with an average beta weight of .14 across these three studies. Cognitive abilities were even more powerful predictors of occupational attainment, with an average beta weight of .27.

SES, IQ, and Status Attainment

Note. SES = socioeconomic status.

Do personality traits contribute to the prediction of occupational attainment even when intelligence and socioeconomic background are taken into account? As there are far fewer studies linking personality traits directly to indices of occupational attainment, such as prestige and income, we also included prospective studies examining the impact of personality traits on related outcomes such as long-term unemployment and occupational stability. The studies listed in Table 6 attest to the fact that personality traits predict all of these work-related outcomes. For example, adolescent ratings of Neuroticism, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness predicted occupational status 46 years later, even after controlling for childhood IQ ( Judge, Higgins, Thoresen, & Barrick, 1999 ). The weighted-average beta weight across the studies in Table 6 was .23 (CIs = .14 and .32), indicating that the modal effect size of personality traits was comparable with the effect of childhood SES and IQ on similar outcomes. 8

Personality Traits and Occupational Attainment

Note. SES = socioeconomic status; IHD = Institute of Human Development.

Why are personality traits related to achievement in educational and occupational domains? The personality processes involved may vary across different stages of development, and at least five candidate processes deserve research scrutiny ( Roberts, 2006 ). First, the personality-to-achievement associations may reflect “attraction” effects or “active niche-picking,” whereby people choose educational and work experiences whose qualities are concordant with their own personalities. For example, people who are more conscientious may prefer conventional jobs, such as accounting and farming ( Gottfredson, Jones, & Holland, 1993 ). People who are more extraverted may prefer jobs that are described as social or enterprising, such as teaching or business management ( Ackerman & Heggestad, 1997 ). Moreover, extraverted individuals are more likely to assume leadership roles in multiple settings ( Judge, Bono, Ilies, & Gerhardt, 2002 ). In fact, all of the Big Five personality traits have substantial relations with better performance when the personality predictor is appropriately aligned with work criteria ( Hogan & Holland, 2003 ). This indicates that if people find jobs that fit with their dispositions they will experience greater levels of job performance, which should lead to greater success, tenure, and satisfaction across the life course ( Judge et al., 1999 ).

Second, personality-to-achievement associations may reflect “recruitment effects,” whereby people are selected into achievement situations and are given preferential treatment on the basis of their personality characteristics. These recruitment effects begin to appear early in development. For example, children’s personality traits begin to influence their emerging relationships with teachers at a young age ( Birch & Ladd, 1998 ). In adulthood, job applicants who are more extraverted, conscientious, and less neurotic are liked better by interviewers and are more often recommended for the job ( Cook, Vance, & Spector, 2000 ).

Third, personality traits may affect work outcomes because people take an active role in shaping their work environment ( Roberts, 2006 ). For example, leaders have tremendous power to shape the nature of the organization by hiring, firing, and promoting individuals. Cross-sectional studies of groups have shown that leaders’ conscientiousness and cognitive ability affect decision making and treatment of subordinates ( LePine, Hollenbeck, Ilgen, & Hedlund, 1997 ). Individuals who are not leaders or supervisors may shape their work to better fit themselves through job crafting ( Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001 ) or job sculpting ( Bell & Staw, 1989 ). They can change their day-to-day work environments through changing the tasks they do, organizing their work differently, or changing the nature of the relationships they maintain with others ( Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001 ). Presumably these changes in their work environments lead to an increase in the fit between personality and work. In turn, increased fit with one’s environment is associated with elevated performance ( Harms, Roberts, & Winter, 2006 ).

Fourth, some personality-to-achievement associations emerge as consequences of “attrition” or “deselection pressures,” whereby people leave achievement settings (e.g., schools or jobs) that do not fit with their personality or are released from these settings because of their trait-correlated behaviors ( Cairns & Cairns, 1994 ). For example, longitudinal evidence from different countries shows that children who exhibit a combination of poor self-control and high irritability or antagonism are at heightened risk of unemployment ( Caspi, Wright, Moffitt, & Silva, 1998 ; Kokko, Bergman, & Pulkkinen, 2003 ; Kokko & Pulkkinen, 2000 ).

Fifth, personality-to-achievement associations may emerge as a result of direct effects of personality on performance. Personality traits may promote certain kinds of task effectiveness; there is some evidence that this occurs in part via the processing of information. For example, higher positive emotions facilitate the efficient processing of complex information and are associated with creative problem solving ( Ashby, Isen, & Turken, 1999 ). In addition to these effects on task effectiveness, personality may directly affect other aspects of work performance, such as interpersonal interactions ( Hurtz & Donovan, 2000 ). Personality traits may also directly influence performance motivation; for example, Conscientiousness consistently predicts stronger goal setting and self-efficacy, whereas Neuroticism predicts these motivations negatively ( Erez & Judge, 2001 ; Judge & Ilies, 2002 ).


It is abundantly clear from this review that specific personality traits predict important life outcomes, such as mortality, divorce, and success in work. Depending on the sample, trait, and outcome, people with specific personality characteristics are more likely to experience important life outcomes even after controlling for other factors. Moreover, when compared with the effects reported for SES and cognitive abilities, the predictive validities of personality traits do not appear to be markedly different in magnitude. In fact, as can be seen in Figures 1 – 3 , in many cases, the evidence supports the conclusion that personality traits predict these outcomes better than SES does. Despite these impressive findings, a few limitations and qualifications must be kept in mind when interpreting these data.

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Average effects (in the correlation metric) of low socioeconomic status (SES), low IQ, low Conscientiousness (C), low Extraversion/Positive Emotion(E/PE), Neuroticism (N), and low Agreeableness (A) on mortality. Error bars represent standard error.

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Average effects (in the standardized beta weight metric) of high socioeconomic status (SES), high parental income, high IQ, and high personality trait scores on occupational outcomes.

The requirement that we only examine the incremental validity of personality measures after controlling for SES and cognitive abilities, though clearly the most stringent test of the relevance of personality traits, is also arbitrarily tough. In fact, controlling for variables that are assumed to be nuisance factors can obscure important relations ( Meehl, 1971 ). For example, SES, cognitive abilities, and personality traits may determine life outcomes through indirect rather than direct pathways. Consider cognitive abilities. These are only modest predictors of occupational attainment when “all other factors are controlled,” but they play a much more important, indirect role through their effect on educational attainment. Students with higher cognitive abilities tend to obtain better grades and go on to achieve more in the educational sphere across a range of disciplines ( Kuncel, Crede, & Thomas, 2007 ; Kuncel, Hezlett, & Ones, 2001 , 2004 ); in turn, educational attainment is the best predictor of occupational attainment. This observation about cumulative indirect effects applies equally well to SES and personality traits.

Furthermore, the effect sizes associated with SES, cognitive abilities, and personality traits were all uniformly small-to-medium in size. This finding is entirely consistent with those from other reviews showing that most psychological constructs have effect sizes in the range between .10 and .40 on a correlational scale ( Meyer et al., 2001 ). Our hope is that reviews like this one can help adjust the norms researchers hold for what the modal effect size is in psychology and related fields. Studies are often disparaged for having small effects as if it is not the norm. Moreover, small effect sizes are often criticized without any understanding of their practical significance. Practical significance can only be determined if we ground our research by both predicting consequential outcomes, such as mortality, and by translating the results into a metric that is clearly understandable, such as years lost or number of deaths. Correlations and ratio statistics do not provide this type of information. On the other hand, some researchers have translated their results into metrics that most individuals can grasp. As we noted in the introduction, Rosenthal (1990) showed that taking aspirin prevented approximately 85 heart attacks in the patients of 10,845 physicians despite the meager −.03 correlation between this practice and the outcome of having a heart attack. Several other studies in our review provided similar benchmarks. Hardarson et al., (2001) showed that 148 fewer people died in their high education group (out of 869) than in their low education group, despite the effect size being equal to a correlation of −.05. Danner et al. (2001) showed that the association between positive emotion and longevity was associated with a gain of almost 7 years of additional life, despite having an average effect size of around .20. Of course, our ability to draw these types of conclusions necessitates grounding our research in more practical outcomes and their respective metrics.

There is one salient difference between many of the studies of SES and cognitive abilities and the studies focusing on personality traits. The typical sample in studies of the long-term effect of personality traits was a sample of convenience or was distinctly unrepresentative. In contrast, many of the studies of SES and cognitive ability included nationally representative and/or remarkably large samples (e.g., 500,000 participants). Therefore, the results for SES and cognitive abilities are generalizable, whereas it is more difficult to generalize findings from personality research. Perhaps the situation will improve if future demographers include personality measures in large surveys of the general population.


One of the challenges of incorporating personality measures in large studies is the cost–benefit trade off involved with including a thorough assessment of personality traits in a reasonably short period of time. Because most personality inventories include many items, researchers may be pressed either to eliminate them from their studies or to use highly abbreviated measures of personality traits. The latter practice has become even more common now that most personality researchers have concluded that personality traits can be represented within five to seven broad domains ( Goldberg, 1993b ; Saucier, 2003 ). The temptation is to include a brief five-factor instrument under the assumption that this will provide good coverage of the entire range of personality traits. However, the use of short, broad bandwidth measures can lead to substantial decreases in predictive validity ( Goldberg, 1993a ), because short measures of the Big Five lack the breadth and depth of longer personality inventories. In contrast, research has shown that the predictive validity of personality measures increases when one uses a well-elaborated measure with many lower order facets ( Ashton, 1998 ; Mershon & Gorsuch, 1988 ; Paunonen, 1998 ; Paunonen & Ashton, 2001 ).

However, research participants do not have unlimited time, and researchers may need advice on the selection of optimal measures of personality traits. One solution is to pay attention to previous research and focus on those traits that have been found to be related to the specific outcomes under study instead of using an omnibus personality inventory. For example, given the clear and consistent finding that the personality trait of Conscientiousness is related to health behaviors and mortality (e.g., Bogg & Roberts, 2004 ; Friedman, 2000 ), it would seem prudent to measure this trait well if one wanted to control for this factor or include it in any study of health and mortality. Moreover, it appears that specific facets of this domain, such as self-control and conventionality, are more relevant to health than are other facets such as orderliness ( Bogg & Roberts, 2004 ). If researchers are truly interested in assessing personality traits well, then they should invest the time necessary for the task. This entails moving away from expedient surveys to more in-depth assessments. Finally, if one truly wants to assess personality traits well, then researchers should use multiple methods for this purpose and should not rely solely on self-reports ( Eid & Diener, 2006 ).

We also recommend that researchers not equate all individual differences with personality traits. Personality psychologists also study constructs such as motivation, interests, emotions, values, identities, life stories, and self-regulation (see Mayer, 2005 , and Roberts & Wood, 2006 , for reviews). Moreover, these different domains of personality are only modestly correlated (e.g., Ackerman & Heggested, 1997 ; Roberts & Robins, 2000 ). Thus, there are a wide range of additional constructs that may have independent effects on important life outcomes that are waiting to be studied.


In light of increasingly robust evidence that personality matters for a wide range of life outcomes, researchers need to turn their attention to several issues. First, we need to know more about the processes through which personality traits shape individuals’ functioning over time. Simply documenting that links exist between personality traits and life outcomes does not clarify the mechanisms through which personality exerts its effects. In this article, we have suggested a number of potential processes that may be at work in the domains of health, relationships, and educational and occupational success. Undoubtedly, other personality processes will turn out to influence these outcomes as well.

Second, we need a greater understanding of the relationship between personality and the social environmental factors already known to affect health and development. Looking over the studies reviewed above, one can see that specific personality traits such as Conscientiousness predict occupational and marital outcomes that, in turn, predict longevity. Thus, it may be that Conscientiousness has both direct and indirect effects on mortality, as it contributes to following life paths that afford better health, and may also directly affect the ways in which people handle health-related issues, such as whether they exercise or eat a healthy diet ( Bogg & Roberts, 2004 ). One idea that has not been entertained is the potential synergistic relation between personality traits and social environmental factors. It may be the case that the combination of certain personality traits and certain social conditions creates a potent cocktail of factors that either promotes or undermines specific outcomes. Finally, certain social contexts may wash out the effect of individual difference factors, and, in turn, people possessing certain personality characteristics may be resilient to seemingly toxic environmental influences. A systematic understanding of the relations between personality traits and social environmental factors associated with important life outcomes would be very helpful.

Third, the present results drive home the point that we need to know much more about the development of personality traits at all stages in the life course. How does a person arrive in adulthood as an optimistic or conscientious person? If personality traits affect the ways that individuals negotiate the tasks they face across the course of their lives, then the processes contributing to the development of those traits are worthy of study ( Caspi & Shiner, 2006 ; Caspi & Shiner, in press ; Rothbart & Bates, 2006 ). However, there has been a tendency in personality and developmental research to focus on personality traits as the causes of various outcomes without fully considering personality differences as an outcome worthy of study ( Roberts, 2005 ). In contrast, research shows that personality traits continue to change in adulthood (e.g., Roberts, Walton, & Viechtbauer, 2006 ) and that these changes may be important for health and mortality. For example, changes in personality traits such as Neuroticism have been linked to poor health outcomes and even mortality ( Mroczek & Spiro, 2007 ).

Fourth, our results raise fundamental questions about how personality should be addressed in prevention and intervention efforts. Skeptical readers may doubt the relevance of the present results for prevention and intervention in light of the common assumption that personality is highly stable and immutable. However, personality traits do change in adulthood ( Roberts, Walton, & Viechtbauer, 2006 ) and can be changed through therapeutic intervention ( De Fruyt, Van Leeuwen, Bagby, Rolland, & Rouillon, 2006 ). Therefore, one possibility would be to focus on socializing factors that may affect changes in personality traits, as the resulting changes would then be leveraged across multiple domains of life. Further, the findings for personality traits should be of considerable interest to professionals dedicated to promoting healthy, happy marriages and socioeconomic success. Some individuals will clearly be at a heightened risk of problems in these life domains, and it may be possible to target prevention and intervention efforts to the subsets of individuals at the greatest risk. Such research can likewise inform the processes that need to be targeted in prevention and intervention. As we gain greater understanding of how personality exerts its effects on adaptation, we will achieve new insights into the most relevant processes to change. Moreover, it is essential to recognize that it may be possible to improve individuals’ lives by targeting those processes without directly changing the personality traits driving those processes (e.g., see Rapee, Kennedy, Ingram, Edwards, & Sweeney, 2005 , for an interesting example of how this may occur). In all prevention and intervention work, it will be important to attend to the possibility that most personality traits can have positive or negative effects, depending on the outcomes in question, the presence of other psychological attributes, and the environmental context ( Caspi & Shiner, 2006 ; Shiner, 2005 ).

Personality research has had a contentious history, and there are still vestiges of doubt about the importance of personality traits. We thus reviewed the comparative predictive validity of personality traits, SES, and IQ across three objective criteria: mortality, divorce, and occupational attainment. We found that personality traits are just as important as SES and IQ in predicting these important life outcomes. We believe these metaanalytic findings should quell lingering doubts. The closing of a chapter in the history of personality psychology is also an opportunity to open a new chapter. We thus invite new research to test and document how personality traits “work” to shape life outcomes. A useful lead may be taken from cognate research on social disparities in health ( Adler & Snibbe, 2003 ). Just as researchers are seeking to understand how SES “gets under the skin” to influence health, personality researchers need to partner with other branches of psychology to understand how personality traits “get outside the skin” to influence important life outcomes.

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Average effects (in the correlation metric) of low socioeconomic status (SES), low Conscientiousness (C), Neuroticism (N), and low Agreeableness (A) on divorce. Error bars represent standard error.


Preparation of this paper was supported by National Institute of Aging Grants AG19414 and AG20048; National Institute of Mental Health Grants MH49414, MH45070, MH49227; United Kingdom Medical Research Council Grant G0100527; and by grants from the Colgate Research Council. We would like to thank Howard Friedman, David Funder, George Davie Smth, Ian Deary, Chris Fraley, Linda Gottfredson, Josh Jackson, and Ben Karney for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.

1 This situation is in no way particular to epidemiological or medical studies using odds, rate, and hazard ratios as outcomes. The field of psychology reports results in a Babylonian array of test statistics and effect sizes also.

2 The population effects for the rate ratio and correlation metric were not based on identical data because in some cases the authors did not report rate ratio information or did not report enough information to compute a rate ratio and a CI.

3 Most of the studies of SES and mortality were compiled from an exhaustive review of the literature on the effect of childhood SES and mortality ( Galobardes et al., 2004 ). We added several of the largest studies examining the effect of adult SES on mortality (e.g., Steenland et al., 2002 ), and to these we added the results from the studies on cognitive ability and personality that reported SES effects. We also did standard electronic literature searches using the terms socioeconomic status, cognitive ability , and all-cause mortality . We also examined the reference sections from the list of studies and searched for papers that cited these studies. Experts in the field of epidemiology were also contacted and asked to identify missing studies. The resulting SES data base is representative of the field, and as the effects are based on over 3 million data points, the effect sizes and CIs are very stable. The studies of cognitive ability and mortality represent all of the studies found that reported usable data.

4 We identified studies through electronic searches that included the terms personality traits, extroversion, agreeableness, hostility, conscientiousness, emotional stability, neuroticism, openness to experience , and all-cause mortality . We also identified studies through reference sections of the list of studies and through studies that cited each study. A number of studies were not included in this review because we focused on studies that were prospective and controlled for background factors.

5 We did not examine the domain of Openness to Experience because there were only two studies that tested the association with mortality.

6 We identified studies using electronic searches including the terms divorce, socioeconomic status , and cognitive ability . We also identified studies through examining the reference sections of the studies and through studies that cited each study.

7 We did not transform the standardized beta weights into the correlation metric because almost all authors failed to provide the necessary information for the transformation (CIs or standard errors). Therefore, we averaged the results in the beta weight metric instead. As the sampling distribution of beta weights is unknown, we used the formula for the standard error of the partial correlation (√ N −k−2) to estimate CIs.

8 In making comparisons between correlations and regression weights, it should be kept in mind that although the two are identical for orthogonal predictors, most regression weights tend to be smaller than the corresponding zero-order validity correlations because of predictor redundancy (R.A. Peterson & Brown, 2005 ).

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