In the movie the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there is a famous scene where a “race of hyper-intelligent, pan-dimensional beings got so fed up with the constant bickering about the meaning of life, that they commissioned two of their brightest and best to design and build a stupendous super computer to calculate the answer to life, the universe, and everything.” In the movie, seven and half million years later the computer was able to conclude that the profound answer to life, the universe and everything, is 42.
Obviously comical in nature, this scene hits on a valuable point: we seek purpose and meaning in our lives. In 1992, Victor Frankl reflected on the popularity of his book, Man’s Search for Meaning,
selling millions of copies in the 50 years since it was originally copied. He said, “In the first place I do not at all see in the bestseller status of my book an achievement and accomplishment on my part but rather an expression of the misery of our time; if hundreds and thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promisesto deal with the question of a meaning to life, it must be a question that burns under their fingernails.”
This is indeed a burning question for many. And it is not a trivial question or a fruitless journey. We know there are many benefits to feeling a sense of purpose and meaning in life. Purpose and meaning in life are associated with more optimism, happiness, physical health, life satisfaction, longevity, decreased risk for psychopathology and higher overall well-being.
Purpose and meaning are often used together and interchangeably. They are related and overlapping terms, but I am going to focus mainly on purpose. The “big” question of purpose can be divided into two.
- What is the purpose of life? (more global) and
- What is the purpose of my life? (more personal).
- The second question concerns itself with identifying how we, individually, ought to live our lives or what we should do to live a fulfilling, happy, and meaningful life. It concerns itself with the idea that you have something unique to contribute during your time here; something that only you can do.
Nature of Purpose
To quote another movie: in the Lego Movie, the main character, Emmet, asks, “How can I just decide to believe I’m special? When I’m not?” To which, Ghost Vitruvius responds, “Because the world depends on it.”
People who feel a sense of purpose in their lives are engaged in a journey to align the vision of their inner selves with their outer lives. Purpose comes from their authentic selves and personal truths. People with purpose believe they have something to offer that extends beyond providing for their own basic needs. They are pursuing something bigger than themselves. Purpose can be defined as, “A central, self-organizing life aim that organizes and stimulates goals, manages behaviors, and provides a sense of meaning.” (McKnight & Kashdan, 2009). I like this definition because it emphasizes the action nature of purpose.
Here are some important concepts to know about purpose as you begin to explore your own:
Your purpose should be authentic to you.
Your purpose should not be defined by what others expect of you or a desire to get approval. Purpose should not be motivated by perfectionism, which is driven by anxiety and a desire to be worthy and accepted. Your purpose should be about your passions, your talents, your dreams, your wishes, and the contribution you want to make in the world.
Purpose is not measured by a concrete outcome.
A purpose is different from a goal. Goals can be achieved on route to your purpose, but a concrete goal is not a purpose. For example, someone’s purpose should not be to become a CEO of a start up company. However, that person’s purpose might be a desire to provide a needed product into the community that they believe in, see lives improved through availability of said product, provide meaningful jobs for employees, and contribute to making the world a better place in this way. See the difference? Concrete outcomes, achievements, or goals, can be part of purpose, but they are not Your purpose, in turn, should inspire the generation of goals but not be the goal.
Purpose is most meaningful when it extends beyond yourself.
A purpose that inspires you to look beyond your own experience and connect with others is a powerful one. For examples, purpose can be about your family, your friends, your community, or the global community.
Purpose can change and evolve over time.
Just as we change and evolve as we grow and progress through life. Our purpose can reflect that change and growth, changing shape and direction with us. We do not need to feel pressure to maintain the purpose we identified for our lives when we were 14, or in college, or as a young parent, etc.
You may have more than one purpose.
It can be hard for some people to identify one overarching aim or purpose for their lives. You may find you have two or several purposes. What is important to recognize, however, is your resources (such as time, emotional availability, support, etc) and the limits of your capacities to pursue all the purposes at once. It might be feasible to pursue two purposes at the same time, but extending beyond that, you are likely to find yourself stretched thin and not able to pursue your purposes in as meaningful of a way as you would like. Consider timing and circumstance as you try to prioritize. Also trust, that if a purpose is authentic and true for you, it will be there waiting in a year or several years, when the timing is right.
Developing purpose can be a process.
Some people feel anxious that they must identify and pursue their purpose “right now!” This anxiety gets in the way of authentic self-reflection and your ability to meaningfully identify your purpose. Give yourself permission to embark on a process of creating your purpose. Recognize that it will include trial and error. Also pay attention to any life lessons or purposes you feel through your experience of living.
Our life experiences can have profound impact on our purpose. Recognize that the process of creating your purpose in the first place is just as valuable as pursuing your purpose and don’t put a time-line on that. Remember, purpose changes over time anyway, so you don’t need to identify your entire life purpose this week! In fact, maybe you could identify your purpose for this week, this month, this year. Doing so will increase flexibility, decrease your anxiety, and help you connect with what is authentic for you.
Considerations in creating purpose.
Creating your purpose can be an enjoyable and invigorating experience. Give yourself the space to be creative. Some things to explore and consider as you identify your purpose include:
- What are your passions?
- What makes a great day; what in a great day brings out your best?
- What makes you feel most connected? To yourself, to others, to a higher power?
- What brings you joy? Consider the what/where/with whom of joy.
- Who are your heroes? What are the qualities they possess that you admire? How are they living their purpose?
- What lessons has life already taught you that informs your purpose, what experiences have you had in life that inform who you are and who you want to be?
- What were your childhood dreams? Have any of those dreams persisted to now? Is there a common thread through your childhood dreams? (e.g. adventure, connection, contribution)?
- Mission statement in 6 words. If you had to make a personal mission statement in just 6 words, what would it be? My personal mission statement is, “Be brave and make a difference.” The first part of my mission statement is inspired by life experience and the latter part is inspired by what matters most to me and how I find most connection, meaning and joy. Other good six word mission statements I have read from students include, “No matter what, I stay strong.” “My weakness will become my strength.” “Loving, building, believing, feeling and forward thinking.” “Create awesome, be awesome, share awesome.” Have fun and experiment with a six word mission statement for yourself!
Once you have created/identified a purpose for yourself, let that purpose stimulate meaningful goals. Let that purpose inspire your daily behaviors. Let it impact your relationships. In other words, strive to live your purpose! In doing so, you will feel more empowered, your life more fulfilled, and indeed feel infused with meaning.