"The climb might be tough and challenging, but the view is worth it. There is a purpose for that pain; you just can't always see it right away." -- Victoria Arlen
How a Sense of Purpose Impacts Your Life
Have you ever met someone who’s the same today as they were ten years ago? It’s as if time has stood still for them, all the while the rest world has moved on. When you ask them what their plans are they won’t be able to tell you anything new, and when you ask them what they’re looking forward to they either won’t have an answer or their answer will be a rehash of the “same old same old.”
There can be something said for maintaining stability. According to the DISC Behavior Model 69% of the population is characterized as Steady, Stable, and Supportive, and largely motivated by the fear of losing security. In other words, they will actively avoid making changes—even positive changes! Beyond this inherent fear-based behavior, there can be a number of external factors at work too:
Whatever the “stumbling stone” may be, ultimately no one will ever change until “they hurt enough that they have to change, learn enough that they want to change, [and] receive enough that they are able to change.” To be clear, I’m not talking about change just for the sake of change, or compromising core values; rather, I’m talking about the kind of change that involves positive growth; ensuring that next year we’re not just a year older, but a year wiser too.
When we have to change, want to change, and are able to change, it offers us a sense of purpose—a meaningful and motivating drive to make the most of our days. According to Dr. Stephanie Hooker, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, having a sense of purpose is “basically the idea that your life makes sense, you’re here for a reason, and you’re significant in the world.” Yet without this drive we become demotivated, like a sailboat with neither sail nor wind. Though many of us have experienced firsthand the joy of having a sense of purpose, there’s also plenty of research to support these claims for those skeptical to the whims of emotions, including a number of health benefits. A sense of purpose can:
These claims by social scientists makes purpose sound like some kind of magic spell, but there can be logical reasons for why having a sense of purpose can be so beneficial to our health. According to Dr. Hooker, “People who have a greater sense of meaning may be more likely to take care of themselves because they feel as if their lives matter more…they’ve got this ultimate purpose that they’re trying to achieve, and health is the foundation for being able to do that.”
How To Live With Purpose
It’s clear that having a sense of purpose is good for us, not just to give us something to do today, but to also offer meaning and value to all our days while at the same time giving us natural motivation to maintain sound health. Okay, that’s great—but what about those stumbling stones we mentioned at the top of this article? How do we foster purpose when we’re discouraged by others? When we’re hurt by past disappointment? When we have settled for average? And what about when we simply lack confidence?
The author and corporate trainer Bridget Irby suggests, “The real reason most people get what they want out of life [is] belief.” She narrows it down to two core beliefs. When people are held back from positive growth they either 1) don't believe they deserve more out of life, or 2) they don't believe the can obtain it. The idea is that if you choose to believe in your worthiness and choose to believe that you can achieve what you set your mind to, you will be able to achieve it.
This notion is reminiscent of the transportation innovator: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can't, you're right,” and also the century transportation affirmationist: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”
If you or someone you know is hung up on self-efficacy and confidence issues, then a good place to start with fostering a sense of purpose is with advice from the many sages throughout the ages who have suggested that purpose can be found in helping others.
Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Winston Churchill is credited as saying, “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” And then there’s this popular suggestion attributed as a Chinese proverb: “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a month, get married. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody else.”
Social scientists support these claims, with research indicating that service to others can provide a sense of meaning, contribute to one’s own success and growth and happiness. The behavioral neuroscientist Alice Walton suggests that valuing service to others can also provide mental health benefits, stating: “Much of our mental anguish, stress and depression is linked to rumination and worry-based, self-referential thoughts.”
But not everyone is convinced that purpose is necessarily linked to servicing others. The psychotherapist Tina Gilbertson asserts that your purpose is simply what you do. “Just do your thing, whether it’s playing music, studying frogs, making a fortune or making pies.” And if whatever you do also happens to provide service to others, well isn’t that nice. As the poet Rumi offers, “Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart.” One way to do this is to integrate our interests and talents, which oftentimes overlaps with the needs of others.
Stimulate Your Passions
One way to find a natural sense of purpose is to stimulate your passions, one of the strategies I share in my book Are You P.O.S.I.T.I.V.E.?: Rethinking Positive Thinking. In this book passion is defined as the intersection of our talents and our interests—with our talents being the things that we can do better than most people with little or no effort, and our interests being the things that we think about even when we should be thinking about something else. Stimulating our passions honors the work that we have been “made for;” the work that Rumi suggests has been naturally placed in “every heart.”
This distinction between talents and interests can also be understood as the tension between aptitudes and values, which brings up an important question: Just because we can do something, does that mean that we should do something? This line of questioning proposes a noteworthy difference between two conflicting purposes: 1) our primary inner purpose, and 2) our secondary outer purpose. This is another way of stating the reminder that we are human beings, not human doings. In this understanding, our inner purpose involves our core convictions, and our outer purpose is how we express those values. In other words, we will discover our true sense of purpose when what we do in this life is a clear reflection of who we are in this life.
Here’s Your Positivity Magic Challenge For The Week:
1) Identify Your Interests, Core Convictions &Values: Who are you? Don’t confuse this for what you do, rather think of who you are. What are you about? What are your values? What presence do you bring to the world? What do you think about even when you should be thinking about other things? What kind of influence and impact do you have on the people around you?
2) Identify Your Talents, Skills & Aptitudes: What do you do well? What do you enjoy doing? How can you use your natural talents and learned skills to express your core convictions? How might these “doings” solve a problem that others may have? How might your purpose be of service to the world around you?
3) Test Your Purpose: In the book Put Your Dream To The Test Dr. John C. Maxwell shares a list of 10 questions to help readers cultivate an authentic sense of purpose that is both meaningful and impactful. As you reflect on your deep-seated purpose, answer these four questions:
Having a sense of purpose not only provides meaning and significance to our lives, it also comes with a myriad of physical and mental health benefits. Plus, there’s a good chance that we’ll be able to help others along the way, which can either be a happy happenstance or an intentional initiative. Finding your authentic life purpose is a discerning move, and by taking the time to be mindful and reflect on your positive impact on the world around you, you’ll be well-poised to enjoy the benefits.
Jonas Cain is an instructional designer, facilitator of fascination, and purveyor of positivity—helping to initiate and manage positive change for individual, team, and community growth.