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What is your purpose in life?

“The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Being alive is the meaning.” ―Joseph Campbell

The search of finding meaning in life, has been an urgent search of questioning in human existence for thousands of years.

The search for meaning in life refers to the idea that individuals are strongly motivated to find meaning in their lives, to be able to understand the nature of their personal existence, and feel it is significant and purposeful1

So, what is purpose?

Purpose, is the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists2  

What does it mean to have purpose?

Purpose creates meaning, which offers a sense of direction and helps guide our paths, behaviour and our goals when applied to our lives3

How can you find more meaning in your life ?

Life feels meaningful to people when they can satisfactorily can answer the big questions about their lives, such as:

  • Who am I?
  • Why am I here?
  • What is truly important to me?
  • What am I supposed to do with my life?

The Research

Modern scientific research on human purpose has its origins in a Holocaust survivor’s experiences in a series of Nazi concentration camps. Psychologist Viktor Frankl , while a prisoner at Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and two satellite camps of Dachau, Frankl noticed how fellow prisoners who had a sense of purpose ; showed greater resilience to the torture, slave labour, and starvation than those who did not – those who had no purpose simply gave up ( they died easily or committed suicide).    

Writing of his experience later, Frankl found a partial explanation in a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear almost any ‘how.’” He accounted his experiences in 1959 through his manuscript book Man’s Search for Meaning4

Theorists like Frankl (1976), Maslow (1971) & Yalom (1980) research concurred that all individuals strongly need the guidance of certain values in their search for purpose and meaning in life, regardless of whether these values are consciously held or not yet conceptualised – without values the quest for meaning (in one’s life) would lack any direction5

Purpose and the science of happiness

Research shows that having a sense of purpose is good for our well-being, and improves our resilience to stress and even our ability to think. The founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, includes meaning in his PERMA model of happiness.6

These five elements or components (PERMA; Seligman, 2012) are 

  • Positive emotion
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishments

Positive psychologist Jonathan Haidt (2006) explains that when people yearn to understand the meaning of life, they are actually seeking answers to one or both of two distinct questions: the question of the purpose of life, and/or the question of purpose within their lives.

In his book The Happiness Hypothesis7, Haidt discusses “the meaning of life,” making the distinction between a purpose for life and a purpose within life. Love and work give a sense of meaning to life too.8

Meaning & Purpose at work

Research indicates that more and more people are craving a life of purpose within their work – as we spend the majority of our lives working we need to enjoy what we are doing and it needs to give us a sense of purpose.

A study conducted by Net Impact (2012), for example, showed that 72% of college students and 59% of employed adults classified meaningful work—defined as that which makes a difference or has some positive social impact—as one of their most important goals in life9

Other research , from the University of Michigan research (2010)10 clearly shows that working with a sense of purpose and meaning leads to far greater engagement, motivation, productivity, and retention.

Purpose is the profound “Why?” Having it creates a sense of mission to do something worthy. It’s your significant “yet-to-do” in life. Purpose integrates who you are with what you do. It inspires us to renew our commitments and stretch further to manifest it, which is why having a sense of purpose in your work is so powerful.11

Meaning & purpose & your health

Research points to at least three ways in which your awareness of a sense of purpose may promote physical health12:

  • Reduced stress
  • Improved coping
  • Health-promoting behaviours

Furthermore,Purpose is associated with heightened levels of overall well-being (e.g., Bonebright, Clay, & Akenmann, 2000), global happiness (e.g., Debats, van de Lubbe, & Wezeman, 1993; Ryff & Keyes, 1995), and life satisfaction (e.g., Steger, Oishi, & Kashdan, 2009), robust physical health (e.g., Hill & Turiano, 2014), and a reduced risk of psychopathologies (e.g., Debats et al., 1993; Park, Park, & Peterson, 2010).

Studies show that lacking a sense of purpose in life is linked to psychological illbeing (e.g., Heisel & Flett, 2004)13

Life purpose involves commitment.

Individuals must first “know” what their purpose &  commit themselves to it .

People who didn’t have a strong life purpose — which was defined as “a self-organizing life aim that stimulates goals” — were more likely to die than those who did, and specifically more likely to die of cardiovascular diseases14

How can I achieve meaning & Purpose? Meaning can be achieved through various ways e.g., altruism, dedication to a cause, creativity, or hedonism (the pursuit of pleasure; sensual self-indulgence). However, since most individuals are aware of the self-created nature of their personal meanings, a second action is required, commitment.

Individuals need to commit themselves wholeheartedly to their chosen meanings and purposes if they wish to avoid the anxiety of nihilism (Irvin Yalom’s Theory. Yalom (1980)15

Meaning in Life Experiences

According to positivepsychology.com , the simple answer to lasting happiness is living out your purpose through both meaningful positive and negative experiences in life16

Positive Experiences

Meaningful, positive experiences can be found in many different contexts, but some of the most common and impactful experiences include:

  • Falling in love
  • The birth of a child
  • The birth of a grandchild
  • A reconciliation or reunion with a loved one
  • Immersing yourself in a new culture or way of life
  • The first time you make a big, life-altering decision for yourself
  • Showing someone the depth of your feelings for them, or receiving this expression of feelings

Although the big ones are likely the ones your mind went to first, meaning can also be found in many of the small moments in life, such as:

  • A child taking your hand for the first time, or giving you a completely voluntary and enthusiastic hug
  • Running into a friend you haven’t seen in a while
  • Experiencing a new culture on a vacation or humanitarian trip
  • A loved one expressing their gratitude for you
  • Coming home to a happy, loving pet
  • Quitting something that makes you unhappy
  • Enjoying some unexpected time alone
  • Realizing you’ve mastered a difficult skill
  • Hopping in the car for a spontaneous road trip

Negative Experiences

strengths lie, how to push further ; than we have ever pushed before, and how to truly thrive.

Some of the significant negative experiences that can lead to profound meaning include:

  • The death of a loved one
  • Divorce, separation, or another break in a relationship
  • Loss of a job (getting fired or laid off)
  • Natural disaster (e.g., flood, fire, avalanche)
  • Becoming the victim of a crime
  • Suffering a trauma (e.g., soldiers in combat or witnesses of extreme violence)
  • Near-death experiences
  • Sustaining serious injuries
  • Getting diagnosed with cancer or a debilitating disease

For all of these experiences, you have probably heard at least one or two stories about someone finding meaning in their trauma17 or stress.  

The important take away is that the definition of “meaningful” can vary widely; some people will find significant and life-changing meaning in situations in which others would simply shrug and move on with their life.

What’s your purpose in life?

It’s a daunting question, but your answer may say a lot about your well-being. Studies link a sense of purpose to better physical18 and mental19 health. But your purpose isn’t just about you. According to researchers, a true purpose is one that is both personally meaningful and also makes a positive impact on the lives of other people—your family, friends, neighbours, city, country, or even the whole world.

Purpose, and meaning can be found in every single encounter and interaction that we have in our life , it is a lifelong ‘thing’ that we yearn and chase after but often do not realise it already exists when we have values and goals which we strive for.

Remember to pause and look for meaning in moments big and small. It’s so often the little moments that we remember for years after we experience them.

Ready to find your meaning & purpose with a life coach as your guide?

 References:

  1. Psychology Search for Meaning in Life, Search for Meaning in Life Definition link : http://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/prosocial-behavior/search-for-meaning-in-life/
  2. Merriam Webster, purpose noun , link : https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/purpose
  3. Simple minded, what does it mean to have purpose Link: https://www.simpleminded.life/what-having-purpose-means/
  4. John Templeton foundation , CHARACTER VIRTUE DEVELOPMENTTHE PSYCHOLOGY OF PURPOSE https://www.templeton.org/discoveries/the-psychology-of-purpose
  5. Meaning in life Debats, Dominique Louis Henri Maria, link: https://pure.rug.nl/ws/portalfiles/portal/10223320/c1.pdf
  6. Happiness is how you are, not how you feel , Happiness is more importantly relational than individual link: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/am-i-right/201301/happiness-is-how-you-are-not-how-you-feel
  7. Wikipedia, The Happiness Hypothesis https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Happiness_Hypothesis
  8. The Search for Purpose in Life: An Exploration of Purpose, the Search Process, and Purpose Anxiety Larissa Rainey link: https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1061&context=mapp_capstone
  9. The Search for Purpose in Life: An Exploration of Purpose, the Search Process, and Purpose Anxiety Larissa Rainey link: https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1061&context=mapp_capstone
  10. Brent D. Rosso, Kathryn H. Dekas, Amy Wrzesniewski, On the meaning of work: A theoretical integration and review, Research in Organizational Behavior, Volume 30, 2010, Pages 91-127, ISSN 0191-3085,link: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191308510000067?_ga=2.202679318.628728581.1565536149-525230422.1563631094
  11. https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/minding-the-body/201707/how-sense-purpose-in-life-improves-your-health
  12. Inc.com , 27 Year study says 1 thing is key to happiness & Longevity at work https://www.inc.com/scott-mautz/a-27-year-study-says-1-thing-is-key-to-happiness-longevity-in-work-life.html
  13. The Search for Purpose in Life: An Exploration of Purpose, the Search Process, and Purpose Anxiety Larissa Rainey link: https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1061&context=mapp_capstone
  14. Alimujiang A, Wiensch A, Boss J, et al. Association Between Life Purpose and Mortality Among US Adults Older Than 50 Years. JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(5):e194270. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.4270 https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2734064?utm_source=For_The_Media&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=ftm_links&utm_term=052419
  15. Meaning in life Debats, Dominique Louis Henri Maria, link: https://pure.rug.nl/ws/portalfiles/portal/10223320/c1.pdf
  16. Positive Psychological What is the Meaning of Life According to Positive Psychology link: https://positivepsychology.com/meaning-of-life-positive-psychology/
  17. Positive Psychological Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Life After Freud link https://positivepsychology.com/trauma-focused-cognitive-behavioral-therapy/
  18. UCL Sense of meaning and purpose in life linked to longer lifespan https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2014/nov/sense-meaning-and-purpose-life-linked-longer-lifespan
  19. Greater Good Living with a Purpose Changes Everything https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/living_with_a_purpose_changes_everything

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