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Finding purpose in life is one of those things that most people want. Whether we know it or not. As nice as it sounds, it can seem challenging to attain.
If you haven't spent a lot of time thinking about your own purpose, you might have some preconceived ideas about the purpose of life. These baked-in ideas about life often come from our family and the communities we grow up in. The purpose of our life is to get married and have kids. Or, maybe it's earning a certain amount of money or achieving a certain position in society.
But these types of achievements often don’t bring the kind of fulfillment that comes with finding your personal sense of purpose. A personal sense of purpose is less of a specific end goal and more of an ongoing impact on the world, large or small. Purpose is your why.
This personal sense of purpose guides and sustains you. Day to day and through the years. Even when you have setbacks and the world turns upside down, purpose gives you stability and a sense of direction. That’s why finding purpose is essential for living a happy, healthy life.
While asking what your purpose is can seem like a lofty question, it’s one worth asking. And trying to answer. Finding your purpose can unlock greater satisfaction and success in all areas of your life.
So let’s dive into the big questions: what is purpose in life, why it matters, and 12 steps to finding your purpose.
What is the purpose of life?
Philosophers have sought and debated "the purpose of life" for centuries. We won't try to answer that here. What matters is your purpose in life.
Most people will ask at some point, "Why am I here?" It can be a scary question or a thrilling one. Leaning into the discomfort of this existential question can lead to a better sense of self and more rewarding paths forward.
Your purpose in life is as unique to you as your fingerprint. We all have a particular set of talents, experiences, skill sets, and interests that light us up. Purpose is related to these, but it is your reason for being. It is why you get out of bed in the morning, even when the day is dreary, you're tired, and you know the tasks and challenges ahead are going to be hard or even boring.
Purpose is the long game, not the short-term goal. You never get to the end of it. However, even a strong sense of purpose can wear you down. That's why, ideally, your purpose blends with what interests you and brings you joy.
In Japan, this idea is known as ikigai, and it’s the concept of following your joy. Ikigai has grown popular in the West in recent years as a way to help people find their dream careers and career paths.
The concept is finding the overlap between what you love and the world needs with what you are good at and the world will pay for. You craft your sense of purpose from your passion as well as practical considerations.
If you’re lucky, you might have found your ikigai through your work. For example, a doctor hopefully believes their purpose is to help sick people or to ease suffering.
For others, finding meaning in our work and connecting it to our personal sense of purpose isn’t so easy. Between work, family responsibilities, and social expectations, we often abandon the idealistic version of ourselves that yearns to find a sense of meaning and purpose in life. We believe we have to make this tradeoff — that meaning and purpose can't exist with pragmatic considerations. But that isn't helpful.
You need a sense of purpose to sustain you over time. And even when life feels like a series of compromises, you can still discover and connect to your purpose by exploring what brings you joy and dedicating more time to it.
Why is finding purpose important?
Finding your purpose in life might sound like a nice-to-have, but it’s more important than you may think.
Having a sense of purpose comes from feeling connected to others. Using your gifts in the service of others can help you find your true purpose, while isolation and loneliness can cause you to have an existential crisis.
You will probably find that your purpose changes throughout your life. Continuous growth and progress can help you stay connected to your purpose.
How to find purpose in life: 12 tips
If you’re asking yourself, “What is my purpose?” you’re not alone. One study showed that just ¼ of American adults say they have a clear sense of purpose.
If you’re part of the other 75%, follow these 12 tips to get started on finding purpose and meaning in life.
1. Develop a growth mindset
Having a growth mindset is linked to having a sense of purpose. Constantly growing and becoming a better version of yourself helps you identify your purpose and commit to pursuing it.
A growth mindset also allows you to:
2. Create a personal vision statement
A personal vision statement can help you manage stress and find balance in your life. It also serves as a roadmap that will guide you toward your purpose by identifying your core values and establishing what’s important to you.
A purpose statement makes it easier for you to make decisions aligned to your values and helps you stay motivated as you work toward your personal goals.
3. Give back
Giving back, or prosociality as it’s known in psychology, can enhance your sense of meaning and purpose in life. This means that when you help others, you also help yourself.
Look for ways to be of service. You might want to volunteer in your local community or donate your money or skills to a cause that resonates with you. Or try spreading a little happiness by performing random acts of kindness.
4. Practice gratitude
Another study revealed that gratitude activates the same reward responses in the brain as prosocial behavior.
It also found that cultivating gratitude can make you more generous and lead to acts of kindness, which we now know contributes to finding a sense of purpose.
Practicing gratitude can feel a bit awkward at first. We get so used to our negative thoughts that switching them for positive ones can feel unnatural.
To get started, try writing three to five things you feel grateful for first thing in the morning or at night before you go to sleep.
5. Turn your pain into purpose
We all face struggles in life. Overcoming these challenges shapes who we become and gives us our unique strengths and perspectives.
Many people ask for help when struggling to overcome a major life change. Some later find their purpose in helping others facing similar struggles to those they have overcome.
Some choose a career working directly with people, such as a life coach or social worker. Others find ways to touch the lives of others through the arts, such as writing, painting, or music. Some become motivational speakers.
How you transform your pain into purpose is up to you.
6. Explore your passions
Your passions and interests are a good indicator of the area in which your life purpose might lie. But they can be hard to identify. They’re so ingrained in our ways of thinking that we can become blind to them.
If you’re not sure what your passions are, ask the people who know you best. Likely, you’re already pursuing them in some way without even realizing it.
Perhaps you’re an unofficial mentor to young people in your community. If so, that could be your passion.
Another way to find your passion is to think about what you’re good at. Someone who’s great at helping others solve their problems might want to consider a career as a coach.
You might prefer to keep your passion as a hobby, or you might decide to turn it into a side hustle or full-time source of income.
7. Be part of a community
Purpose is about feeling connected to others, so being an active member of a community can contribute to a greater sense of purpose in life.
When you find your purpose, you’ll discover that there are many others out there who share your passions, interests, and values.
Joining or creating a community allows you to find that sense of connection with others as you work together toward a common goal.
8. Spend time with people who inspire you
Motivational speaker Jim Rohn said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
If you spend time with people who are positive and purpose-driven, they are likely to inspire you to have the same mindset. You may even discover your purpose through them.
Look beyond your colleagues and family members and ask yourself who you choose to spend your time with. Evaluate those relationships and make sure you are surrounding yourself with aspirational, positive people who lift you up.
One of the best ways to expand your mental horizons is through reading fiction. Nonfiction books are useful for acquiring knowledge on certain subjects. But research suggests that reading fiction may have more benefits.
Reading also connects you to other people across time, place, and cultures. This helps you cultivate the sense of connectedness that generates a sense of purpose in life.
10. Join a cause
We all have a cause that we feel passionately about. Perhaps you have strong feelings about social justice, animal welfare, or the environment.
Fighting for a cause ties together several of the tips mentioned above, including:
- Giving back
- Forming part of a community
- Doing something you’re passionate about
- Surrounding yourself with people who inspire you
Maybe you want to raise money for research into a particular disease or give inner-city children access to green spaces. Whatever it is, getting involved with a cause will help you find more purpose in your life.
11. Practice self-acceptance
Accepting your limitations can help you be kinder to yourself when things go wrong. We all make mistakes, but instead of beating yourself up for your failures, try to see each setback as an opportunity to grow.
Self-compassion can help you become more self-aware and self-accepting. When you accept all of yourself, you’re more likely to give the best of yourself in every situation. This might be at work, with your family, or while doing the things you love.
This can lead to a greater sense of connection to others and everything you do, giving more meaning to your life.
12. Take time for self-care
But why is self-care important? Because when our brains are relaxed, they are at their most creative. You cannot achieve or serve others when you are battling against yourself.
Have you ever noticed that some of your best ideas come when you’re in the shower? That’s because our minds are more open and receptive to the flow of ideas than they are when we try to force ourselves to think.
Creative thinking comes naturally when our minds are in a state of relaxation. And it can lead you closer to finding your purpose.
Finding purpose in life doesn’t have to be hard
Behind every successful person is clarity of purpose. And unless you find yours, you’ll continue to cruise through life on autopilot. You may find yourself knocked off-course and lost, uncertain how to move forward or which direction is forward. Or, life may be smooth but one day you may look back and wish you had used your time differently.
Identifying, acknowledging, and honoring your purpose is the foundation of a well-rounded life. It requires some courage because it opens up questions and ideas that might not be comfortable. Yet it's worth it. Purpose provides you with an inner compass that guides every decision and leads you to the experiences that will light up your soul.
Finding your purpose and connecting your purpose to meaningful work can be hard. Supportive guidance can help. If you'd like help finding your purpose and creating more meaning in your life, get in touch with BetterUp. One of our expert coaches will be happy to support you.