What's My Purpose?
Take a moment to find a quiet space where you can think. Take a deep breath, find your center, and reflect upon the following question:
Why do you get up in the morning?
How did that feel? Did an answer emerge quickly, or did you have trouble coming up with something? Perhaps you said you get up in the morning so that you can make it to work and earn money to pay bills. Maybe you get up simply because your cat is meowing to be fed or because the alarm clock is going off!
What is purpose?
But there is also likely a deeper layer to your answer that involves why you do those things. Purpose is where we find meaning—what we want to do and contribute. Purpose certainly can be linked to your job or career, but many people don't find their purpose in their work. And even if it is linked, purpose is broader than just a job. For those who have a sense of spirituality in their life, purpose is generally interwoven, often around a sense of meaning and connection. But purpose is also broader than spiritual health—it goes to the heart of what we value and who we are.
Why is having a sense of purpose important?
New research is emerging that reveals how important it is to find and define our own purpose in life. Studies show that purpose can...
- Improve your physical health
A landmark study done with over 1,400 senior citizens this year found that having a strong sense of purpose can actually reduce the detrimental effects of Alzheimer's disease. Purpose can also positively affect pain management—another study found that women with a stronger sense of purpose are better able to handle heat and cold stimuli.
- Lengthen your life
You've probably heard stories about people in seemingly good health who die shortly after retirement. Researchers now believe that a strong sense of purpose can is connected to ageing, and those with a stronger sense of purpose may live longer. The Blue Zones project examined the lives of elder Okinawans, and found that those who expressed clear goals in their lifetimes tended to live much longer—well into their 100s!
- Make you happier
Barbara Fredrickson, a leading expert on positive psychology, describes people who flourish as "highly engaged with their families, work and communities. They're driven by a sense of purpose: they know why they get up in the morning." Having a sense of where you're going in life and what you're living for can relieve a lot of the stress and anxiety that comes from being directionless. When you're living your life purpose, you'll feel energetic, focused, and satisfied.
How can I find my purpose?
Richard Leider, the author of The Power of Purpose, gives a simple equation:
gifts + passion + values = purpose.
- Your gifts are not just your skills and talents, but what you love to do.
- Your passion is something for which you feel a deep curiosity and interest.
- Your values include your beliefs and what you consider to be most important.
When you can identify those three aspects of your identity, you will have a better sense of how you can maximize your sense of purpose in order to improve your health and sense of wellbeing.
Find a time when you can sit down, without distraction, and write honestly. Ask yourself the following questions (adapted from Richard Leider's Life Map Guide):
- Who am I?
- What do I have to contribute to the world?
- If I only had one year left, how would I spend it?
- What are my core beliefs, morals, and principles?
- In what moments in the past week have I found myself completely engaged in and focused on what I'm doing, without stress or distraction?
Allow yourself to write openly and honestly for as long as you need to come up with answers to these questions, which will help you discover your gifts, passion, and values. You can find more exercises like this in our Identify Your Purpose and Meaning page.
And remember—there's no right or wrong answer, and your purpose can change throughout your life! You may need to take some time and re-assess your responses to these questions a few times over a period of weeks to come to an understanding of your own personal purpose in life. Stay mindful of your attitudes and feelings during the day, and reflect upon the times when you feel that you feel fully alive. This process of self-discovery will help you move closer to your own reason for being, which can have powerful effects on your health and wellbeing.
You may also be interested in checking out the Purpose Project Workshops at the Center for Spirituality and Healing. The Working on Purpose, Living on Purpose, and Healing on Purpose workshops help people discover the power of purpose at all stages of life.
Boyle, P. A., Buchman, A. S., Wilson, R. S., Yu, L., Schneider, J. A., & Bennett, D. A. (2012). Effect of purpose in life on the relation between Alzheimer disease pathologic changes on cognitive function in advanced age. Archives of General Psychiatry, 69(5), 499-505. doi: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.1487
Jacobs, T. L., Epel, E. S., Lin, J., Blackburn, E. H., Wolkowitz, O. M., Bridwell, D. A., Saron, C. D. (2011). Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 36(5), 664-681. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2010.09.010
Morozink, J. A., Friedman, E. M., Coe, C. L., & Ryff, C. D. (2010). Socioeconomic and psychosocial predictors of interleukin-6 in the MIDUS national sample. Health Psychology : Official Journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 29(6), 626-635. doi: 10.1037/a0021360
Smith, B. W., Tooley, E. M., Montague, E. Q., Robinson, A. E., Cosper, C. J., & Mullins, P. G. (2009). The role of resilience and purpose in life in habituation to heat and cold pain. The Journal of Pain : Official Journal of the American Pain Society, 10(5), 493-500. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2008.11.007
Tsai, S. P., Wendt, J. K., Donnelly, R. P., de Jong, G., & Ahmed, F. S. (2005). Age at retirement and long term survival of an industrial population: Prospective cohort study. BMJ (Clinical Research Ed.), 331(7523), 995. doi: 10.1136/bmj.38586.448704.E0
Wallace, L. (2012). Can a sense of purpose slow Alzheimer's? The Atlantic.