It might have been a minute since you paused to consider your life’s purpose — if you ever have at all. It can be an overwhelming question, lofty and existential, and according to the people who study it, one that is frequently misunderstood.
“‘Purpose’ is conflated with lots of other words,” says William Damon, a professor of education at Stanford University, “like ‘meaning’ and ‘passion.’” Purpose, however, is something different — it’s broader than a goal, but it’s the guiding motivation that gives your life a sense of direction.
According to Damon, a life purpose has three components: It’s a long-term calling, act, or way of life that interests you; it’s something you have some competence in; and it makes a marginal difference in the world. Striving to be the best parent you can is a purpose — raising kids to become caring, respectful, and happy adults is your way of making a material impact — whereas wanting to make a lot of money with the sole intention of satisfying your every whim is not. It’s also common to have multiple purposes in life, Damon says: Your faith, your family, the satisfaction you get from your job are all common sources.
Considering your purpose may seem like a project for the privileged, that you must have enough time and money to seriously consider your values. However, purpose can relate to practical matters, such as keeping your family safe, as well as the broader contours of your interests. You can work toward your purpose in incremental ways without sacrificing resources.
If you struggle to define your purpose, to clearly articulate the thing — or things — you excel in that also leaves a mark on society, don’t fret. In his 20 years of research on life purpose, Damon finds most people falter for a bit before landing on the activity that lights their fire — about a quarter of participants in almost all of his studies did not have a purpose, he says. But gradually, he adds, over time, people do become more purposeful. “Out of all the things I’ve studied in terms of capacities and skills that young people develop,” Damon says, “purpose is the slowest one because it doesn’t really come to fruition until for most people until the late 20s, early 30s.”
Purpose isn’t fixed, either. As your life and values change, your purpose may, too. Throughout their lifespan, people’s purpose shifts according to their circumstances. Those parents who found purpose rearing their children may feel untethered and without meaning once they become empty-nesters. Or, an adult in their 40s may realize their creative hobby brings joy to an audience beyond their inner circle and decide to devote their time to sharing their talents.
Having a purpose in life isn’t simply a fanciful pursuit. Research has found that having purpose can prolong life, reduce depressive symptoms, and improve life satisfaction. Whether you’re faltering or flourishing, you can cultivate a purpose — or align your interests to live more purposefully. All it takes is some mining of the soul.
How to cultivate purpose in your own life
Thinking as broadly as possible, ask yourself some potentially challenging questions. What do you care about? What do you hope to accomplish? What difference do you want to make? What do you have to offer? What skills do you have that support the issues you’re passionate about? “It’s an ongoing process of reflecting on the things that you want to address in your life, the things you want to accomplish, or make progress toward in your life, and thinking about what you can uniquely contribute to that issue,” says Kendall Cotton Bronk, a professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University. “And it doesn’t happen overnight.”
As counterintuitive as it may sound, purpose shouldn’t be something achievable, says Patrick Hill, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Goals, even long-term ones, are still more short-term than purpose, which is a lifelong framework under which to organize those goals, Hill says. “If your purpose in life was to perform on Broadway and the first time you perform on Broadway, you’ve succeeded,” he says. “Then it’s like, what do I do now?” Instead, take that specific goal, such as performing on Broadway, and think bigger. Instead, your purpose may be to share unique and diverse stories with a wider audience.
In a 2010 study, Hill developed four categories of life purposes: creative, prosocial, financial, and personal recognition. For example, people with creative purposes are fulfilled by various artistic pursuits throughout their lives — performing in school plays as a kid, writing for the college newspaper, or pursuing a career as a copywriter. Prosocially focused people have goals of helping others, people with financial purposes are motivated by economic well-being, and personal recognition orientation is marked by a desire for respect from colleagues and peers. While the means of living out your purpose changes depending on your age and circumstances, Hill found that the same motivation drives you. “Whatever your purpose in life is, you’re probably going to pursue it and progress towards it in different ways across the lifespan,” Hill says. “Which doesn’t necessarily mean your purpose has changed, but just the way that you engage with it changed.”
One of Hill’s recent studies outlined three ways people nurture their purpose. Some are proactive in their quest: they define a goal — to mentor others, for example — and work toward achieving it. Others stumble onto their raison d’être and upon deeper reflection, realize their actions have been serving their purpose all along. People also take inspiration from their peers and attempt to pursue a passion in the same manner. While these frameworks aren’t necessarily prescriptive in nature, Cotton Bronk says, intentional thinking may lead you down one of these paths of discovery.
Your job can be purposeful, but not your sole purpose
One of the most common ways of living out purpose is through work. This isn’t inherently a bad thing: When people pursue their passions, they tend to end up in jobs they enjoy and give them meaning. But because American society values work above leisure, art, and community, people tend to lose themselves in labor. “If your job is your sole source of meaning and identity, and you lose it, what’s left?” says Simone Stolzoff, author of the forthcoming book The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work.
Untangling work from purpose can be difficult. For instance, if your purpose is to support your family, working an unfulfilling yet well-paying job is still meeting your purpose, Damon says. You should never feel ashamed for trying to get by. But if you can, try to foster purpose during non-working hours. Stolzoff stresses the importance of engaging in meaningful activities outside of work: coffee dates with friends, tending to a community garden, playing on a recreational sports league, exploring your faith. Regardless if your job gives you purpose or if it’s simply a way of funding the rest of your life, you can meet your need for passion (which is not the same as purpose, but is good to have) outside of work through enjoyable hobbies, like reading, knitting, or playing music — all energizing activities, but ones you do for yourself, and not for the greater good.
It is possible to tie your job to a greater purpose. In a study of cleaners in a hospital, those who saw themselves as integral to the patients’ healing process found more meaning in their jobs than those who did not. “Connecting what you do to a greater sense of ‘why’ can often make the daily tasks and fluctuations of your job more pleasurable,” Stolzoff says. “Just be clear about why you care about what you’re doing, and how those values are reflected in your behaviors, and how you choose to spend your time.”
Because many people do find purpose in their work, retirement or periods of unemployment can be unmooring. During this phase of life, think back on the core purpose your job fulfilled — perhaps educating people — and find ways to achieve that elsewhere, Damon says, like substitute teaching, babysitting grandchildren, or volunteering at a youth organization.
Ways to pursue purpose regardless of your circumstances
So how do you nurture purpose when life is always changing? If you’re in the middle of a major move, in an unfulfilling job, or are dealing with new circumstances — like parenthood or retirement — living purposefully can seem like a daunting task. Hill recommends paying attention to the activities in your day-to-day life that motivate you, excite you, or make you feel goal-oriented. “Organize your life in a way that allows for you to make those things more habitual,” Hill says. “Ultimately, that can be a way to help people think about developing a purpose from the ground up, eventually.”
If you struggle to identify anything that enlivens you at work or at home, take it as a sign that you may not have purpose in this domain, Hill says. You shouldn’t quit your job if you find no excitement in it, but how can you manufacture motivation in other areas of your life? Maybe that means joining an activist organization that fights for systemic change or teaching piano lessons to neighborhood kids.
Since purpose tends to materialize well into adulthood, Damon suggests looking back on previous moments in your life when you had a sense of fulfillment: when you were captain of the basketball team, when you helped a lost tourist find their hotel, when you tutored your cousin in math. “It gives them clues about the kinds of experiences that offer them this satisfaction and what they’re capable of,” Damon says. How can you recreate these circumstances where you thrive within your current life?
Clearly defining the areas where you make the most impact can be difficult. Enlisting the help of trusted friends or loved ones gives you an objective view of your strengths, Cotton Bronk says. Try asking five people — mentors, colleagues, friends, family — three questions, she suggests: “What do you think I do particularly well?” “What do you think I really enjoy doing?” and “How do you think I will leave my mark?” Often, those in your inner circle can more easily identify your talents and passions than you can.
Cultivating a purpose and marching on the path of progress looks different for everyone. What you value and excel in will be unique to you and the various seasons of your life. Just make sure your purpose is what matters to you.
“The important part is that you’re actively choosing,” Stolzoff says. “Opposed to, as is all too often the case, inheriting the values of the institutions that we’re a part of. We start climbing ladders that we don’t actually want to be on, or playing games we don’t actually want to win because we haven’t taken the time to think critically about, what is it that I actually value?”