Here in Australia the lazy, hazy days of the summer holidays are coming to an end. My beaded, braided, sun-tanned family and friends are making their final trips to the beach, organising hair cuts, opening emails, and planning their inevitable return to work and school.
Amidst our good intentions and “new-year new-me” promises, there is an interesting theme I’m detecting before the crazy-busyness of our everyday lives recommences. One friend described her dread at the thought of returning to her high-stress, high-stakes, all-or-nothing job. Another described his uncertainty about why he’s going back to thankless work, and another was questioning the definition of work-life balance. In fact, during many of the conversations I’m having at the moment, I detect a general yearning for a deeper sense of connection – a need for direction, for passion, for something more than a paycheck... a need for purpose.
Research indicates that an increasing number of people are craving a life of purpose. One report showed that 72 percent of college students and 59 percent of working adults classified meaningful work as one of their most important goals in life. In fact, meaningful work ranked above children, a prestigious career, wealth, and leadership in importance, and only below financial security and marriage. Another study found that an overwhelming majority of Americans (97 percent) agreed or strongly agreed with the prompt, “For me, it is important that I live a purposeful life.”
So what exactly is purpose and why does it matter?
The meaning of purpose
According to two leading researchers, Patrick McKnight and Todd Kashdan from George Mason University, purpose is “a cognitive process that defines life goals and provides personal meaning.” In other words, it’s a way of thinking about what you want to achieve and how to make sense of your life.
Another leading researcher, Corey Keyes from Emory University, also focuses on the goal-orientation of purpose, saying that it is the “quality of being determined to do or achieve an end” but he adds another crucial element. Keyes believes that an “authentic purpose,” is one that “employs one’s gifts, brings a deep sense of worth or value, and provides a significant contribution to the common good.” By this definition, having a purpose means that you not only have direction, but you’re also giving something of value to society. You’re making the world a better place. You’re mattering.
This doesn’t mean that you have to give up your worldly possessions and become a missionary. It’s true that some people feel they’re on-track when rallying people to a cause or rescuing the needy, but others will find their purpose in the act of comforting a sick child, designing a beautiful space, or making a nutritious meal to share. Some people find purpose in the creation of art or music, others in a neatly prepared spreadsheet.
There’s an important distinction to be made here between “meaning” and “purpose,” which are highly interrelated but not the same thing. In general, meaning looks backward and helps you make sense of things that have happened in your past. Purpose in life, on the other hand, looks forward and helps motivate you into the future. It involves more than just understanding something. It requires doing.
Why do we need purpose?
As I’ve written about in my blog post, The Health Benefits of Finding Meaning and Purpose, increasing evidence suggests that the more meaning and purpose people feel they have, the better health they have. A 2011 study found that cocaine addicts who have purpose in life are half as likely to relapse six months after rehab as addicts who do not have that sense of purpose.
This makes sense. If you don’t know what your purpose is, you don’t know why you are here and it can be hard to keep going. When you have purpose you feel that your existence matters and that what you do every day is important. In turn, you feel driven to behave in ways that allow you to work toward your goals.
Coming from the perspective of someone who has been diagnosed with a chronic illness, this is a critical takeaway for me – being motivated to be healthy comes from having purpose. But good health is not the only benefit associated with purpose. People who have found their purpose have significantly more positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment, as well as significantly lower negative emotion than those who are still searching for it. With purpose comes clear goals and intentions, a sense of direction, and a determination to accomplish something. Without it, we are are lost, searching… dissatisfied.
How do we find purpose?
We’ve all heard the stories of accomplished luminaries who have felt their calling their entire lives, or the proclamations of people who have survived against the odds and now live life to the full. But despite the proliferation of these inspirational tales, the vast majority of us are not born knowing our purpose or have a defining ‘ah ha’ moment to speak of.
Research also shows that 66 percent of us encounter ‘purpose anxiety’ – feelings of stress, worry, anxiety, frustration, and fear during our search for purpose, or while struggling to enact it. I suspect this is because we think that having a purpose must mean that we're saving the whales or feeding the needy, and we feel inadequate if we’re not.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s a great word in the Japanese language – Ikigai – which means having "a reason for being.” You may live to wake up in the morning and raise your children, build your business, or simply tend your vegetable garden. It may also be that you have more than one purpose in your life and that each is completely independent of the other.
As you move through your life you’ll spend time doing mundane and routine things and you’ll also spend time doing things that have significance and importance. It’s the things that are important to you that give you purpose. So, rather than asking vague and lofty questions such as – “Why am I here?” or “Where is my place?”, in many ways what you’re really asking is, “What can I do with my time that is important to me?”
Keeping in mind the aforementioned idea of “authentic purpose,” you might also like to think about how to use your gifts, what gives you sense of value, and how you can contribute to the common good. You might ask, “What lights me up and provides a tangible benefit to other people’s lives?
As each new year ticks over I’m becoming increasingly aware that I’m on this earth for an extraordinarily brief period of time and that I want to make the most of it. For me, having meaningful close relationships with others is essential, which is why nurturing my family and friendships is so important to me. But at the same time the journalist in me is driven to seek truth and to explain why things are as they are. By doing this, I hope to create positive change in the world. I’m still working on refining all this into a neat sentence, but for now, I’ll go with this –
My purpose in life is to create positive change in the world by nurturing my family and friendships and by helping others understand the world through storytelling.
If you’d like to share your own life purpose, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.