If you had asked 5-year-old me my reason for living, I would have probably told you that I wanted to be an artist, a parent, and someone who helped the environment. As a child, I loved making things, had a ton of love to give, and saw the benefits of being of service. As I grew up, my immigrant parents tried to morph my passions into a career they thought would offer some financial security: design. It didn’t last long. Eventually, I decided to pursue a career as an art therapist, shaped by what I value (creative expression) and what I’ve known is my purpose: caring for and connecting with others. There have been times when I’ve fallen off course, but when I reflect on my adult life and when I’ve felt most aligned and fulfilled, it’s when I’ve allowed my purpose to dictate my choices. Ultimately, it has been a messy process, but I know that my mental health struggles benefit from the moments when my decisions align with what matters to me.
How is purpose defined?
Psychologists define purpose as an ongoing deliberate pursuit to achieve a long-term goal that is personally meaningful and makes a positive mark on the world. The scientific literature on purpose elaborates that purpose offers a generalized will to accomplish something personally meaningful and leads to productive engagement with some aspect of the world beyond the self. Put it all together, and it’s clear that purpose is not necessarily an achievable goal but the destination on the horizon that helps you create your path and identify how you want to get there.
Another important point is that we don’t have to worry about finding one true purpose. We can find purpose in different areas of life and during different life stages. While we often talk about or read about finding purpose, it isn’t something we find. We can cultivate it through deliberate action and reflection. Purpose may offer multiple destinations, and it’s also a journey and a practice. It’s accessible at any age and will likely evolve and transform over time.
Why is purpose important?
At some point, each of us has wondered why we’re here and what we want to do with our lives. Without realizing it, we often seek purpose through work, religion, relationships/community, and hobbies. Having purpose helps guide us through life, influencing our behaviors and the goals we pursue, and it can also significantly impact our mental health and overall well-being. We strive to be a part of something that gives reason to our existence, and when we can’t access it or lose that sense of direction, we may struggle with feelings of hopelessness, depression, and despair.
In the late 1980s, prominent American psychologist and academic Carol Ryff developed a theory, as well as an accompanying 6-factor scale, of psychological well-being that is commonly used to help assess an individual’s overall sense of contentment and happiness. According to Ryff, these six factors include autonomy, personal growth, self-acceptance, environmental mastery, positive relations with others, and purpose in life. Based on her research, the ability to identify that your life has, had, or will have meaning is a critical component of a person’s mental and emotional health. When we have a sense of meaning or purpose, we are more likely to feel like we belong and like our life has a path or a direction. Finding purpose in life makes us more likely to set and aspire to achieve goals for our future.
Sometimes, we’re taught or develop a set of values that help give our lives meaning and, perhaps, teach us that life itself is meaningful. However, it can be challenging for some to cope with life without a sense of purpose. Life can be terrifying, confusing, and often senseless, and this experience can be even more acute for those who don’t feel like their life has any meaning. Why go through the pain, the suffering, and the hardship that is sometimes a part of the human experience if there’s no reason to do so? In the absence of something that offers a sense of purpose, many people wind up feeling adrift, lost, and listless. In more severe cases, some may even fall into a deep depression and struggle with suicidal ideation if they come to believe that they have no reason to live.
What are the Benefits of Connecting with Your Purpose?
Years of study and research have provided clear evidence that those who feel they have a life’s purpose tend to have better mental and physical health outcomes than those who don’t. For many, being able to identify a life’s purpose or a calling can make the difference between feeling like they’re truly living and feeling like they’re simply going through the motions of surviving. It can also significantly boost a person’s mental health, increase their sense of optimism, and improve their self-esteem to feel as though their life and actions have an impact. Studies have also shown that those who think their life has a purpose are less likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors and coping strategies. They tend to eat more nutritious foods and engage in more restorative physical activities. And now, we have evidence suggesting that living a life that feels meaningful can even lead to better health outcomes in one’s later years and/or a longer life altogether.
Evidence from the MIDUS (Midlife in the US) study conducted in 2013 indicates that when people have a strong sense of meaning or purpose in their life, they are better able to recover from negative experiences such as trauma. The researchers found that a higher sense of purpose in life can help ward off depression by acting to soften the blow of adverse life events, including trauma. They found that those with a strong sense of purpose were more likely to develop more positive coping strategies and engage in less brooding/rumination in the aftermath of a negative event, which encouraged faster recovery and increased their overall resiliency.
A 2019 study done by researchers at UCSD found that the presence of meaning in life led to better health outcomes and increased cognitive functioning. When you have a sense of purpose in your life, you are often more content and less stressed. Therefore you’re less likely to develop comorbidities commonly associated with anxiety and depression, such as substance misuse disorders or hypertension. They also observed that those who reported a lower presence of life purpose were overwhelmingly younger and had higher stress and anxiety levels. This finding could help to contextualize part of why adolescents and young adults present with a higher rate of adverse mental health outcomes than older adults; they are still trying to figure out who they are and what’s important to them, and that journey can be challenging and dysregulation for many young people.
Finally, a 2012 study conducted by researchers at Rush University’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center found that their Alzheimer’s patients with higher levels of purpose in life not only saw a decrease in the harmful effects of cognitive decline, they saw a decrease in the rate of cognitive decline as a whole. Further, their research indicated that those subjects with a high sense of life’s purpose, who didn’t already have Alzheimer’s at the start of the study, were 2.4x less likely to develop the disease!
How Do I Find My Purpose?
Unfortunately, knowing the positive impacts of having a purpose in life doesn’t make it any easier to identify yours. Below are a few steps we hope can help you gain a greater sense of purpose in your life:
Explore new and different interests/hobbies
Have you ever wanted to take dance lessons, enroll in a cooking class, or thought it would be fun to learn kickboxing but ultimately, you talked yourself out of it? There were surely valid reasons why it wasn’t feasible at the time (busy work schedule, lack of energy, more time-consuming family/life responsibilities), but we often convince ourselves not to explore our interests from a place of fear.
In childhood, most life experiences are centered around learning new things. However, it can be challenging and intimidating in adulthood to pick up new hobbies and try something new later in life. We become set in our ways, anxious about what could go wrong, and self-conscious if we don’t immediately succeed. This thinking is limiting, however, and by letting ourselves get blocked by fear, we ultimately wind up preventing ourselves from the potential of achieving real fulfillment. By trying new things and remaining open to possible successes and failures, you will likely find yourself developing interests and passions that you could never have conceived of, which help ground you in what matters to you as you make choices and set goals.
Practice self-reflection around what is important to you
When many of us endeavor to find a greater sense of purpose in our lives, our first thought often turns to living a life that we feel is “important” in some way. Given that the idea of what is important can be highly subjective, it’s crucial to focus on what is important to you rather than striving to attain something because it feels like you should. It’s noble to want to create a positive change and do something with your life that serves a goal beyond your own needs, for example, but following that path won’t always bring everyone fulfillment, and that’s okay. Take some time to reflect upon your goals and values. Consider what impact you want to make on your community, family, friends, neighbors, etc. Imagine what relationships you want to foster to help determine what is important to you and what might give your life a greater sense of purpose.
Look backward to look forward
Sometimes thinking about our childhood selves can help us reconnect with what was important to us before we learned to prize productivity and output. What were you most excited about as a child? Who did you see yourself becoming as an adult? What were your strengths? Of course, we all change as we grow, but clues from this period in your life might help you understand the overarching themes you can rely on to guide you.
Find and build community
Many people find meaning through the community and relationships they build. A strong community can provide a sense of belonging, identity, and purpose through shared goals and values. By joining a community, be it something more energy intensive like a bicycling group or something that you can easily access like an online group of anime fans, you will not only be able to spend time engaging in something that you enjoy, but you’ll also be getting to know like-minded people, who could potentially expose you to more opportunities to find a greater sense of purpose.
Take time to reconnect with yourself and what brings you joy
Many of us have busy, overly scheduled days. It can be easy to get bogged down by our seemingly endless responsibilities until we ultimately become so disconnected from our needs that we lose hope. We wonder whether we still have or could feed those parts of ourselves that don’t feel fulfilled.
What makes us feel most fulfilled can often instill the greatest sense of happiness, but many of us learn from an early age that our happiness or fulfillment is not a priority. This further separates us from our ability to find meaning. Spending time reconnecting with what once made you feel joyful can be crucial in finding purpose. Some can achieve this through journaling, meditation, or any other series of mindfulness activities that allow them to slow down and take stock of what is important to them. For those who struggle to identify what brings them joy, it might be best to get out there and start trying new things.
We understand that attempting to find a purpose in life will not always be easy or straightforward. Some have known and been sure of their life’s purpose since childhood, and some have made several attempts and failed to truly cultivate their purpose. Others have an idea of what might is important to them in their lives but don’t feel like they have the luxury to go after it. Paying bills and feeding one’s family are real concerns. While those demands are valid, we’d like to encourage those who have yet to find their purpose to keep making the attempt. Even those who live to be 100 will tell you that life is short, so why not try to live a life that feels fulfilling to you? It’s your life to live.
As always, if you need support or a sounding board as you work to find a sense of purpose, please know that we are here to help. Call or text (323) 388-5578 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.