Do you struggle with finding your purpose in life? Do you want to discover what is your reason of being? Do you ask yourself whether you are following your life mission?
The question about the meaning of human life and both our individual and collective sense of purpose in this world is as old as time.
Philosophers have been trying to answer it for centuries and, with the establishment of psychology as social science, psychologists spent the last few decades trying to find an empirical answer to the reason to live.
They still haven’t come to a definite answer, because if there was one, you’d know it, and you wouldn’t be sitting here asking Google about “finding your purpose in life”. You’d be living it, enjoying it, savouring it.
To help you figure out what is your purpose, we’ve decided to compose this educational article and share with you some different perspectives on the reason of being, originating from different eras. Also, we’ve prepared some tips on what you can do to find or enhance your sense of purpose in life. And the bast part, it’s all science-based.
Finding Purpose in Life: Different Approaches
People have been asking themselves about the meaning of life since they became able to think and speak, regardless of where they live(d).
Philosophers in ancient Greece discussed purpose of life and posed more or less the same questions as philosophers from the middle ages, or us today.
There are two main approaches to finding the meaning in life: philosophical and empirical. Philosophers and theorists use various methods, such as communicating with people and developing ideas through thought processes. The empirical approach is rather scientific and is more about collecting data from larger groups of people and using that data to derive conclusions.
One example of thinking and finding your purpose in life comes from one of the most important ancient Greek philosophers, Aristotle. Aristotle was the why man, and he wanted to get to the roots of any given phenomenon.
According to him, everything has a purpose, and, for humans, that purpose is reaching the state of ultimate happiness, or Eudaimonia: the joy of doing something just for the sake of itself.
Do you know what we mean by this? Do you have an activity you love doing just because you enjoy it per se?
Some of the examples are reading for the excitement caused by the story, discovering something out of curiosity and for the love of learning, or cooking for enjoying the process.
According to Aristotle, the ultimate reason that underlies this joy is our will to be happy.
Imagine having a conversation with a child, or an adolescent where they ask you why you are doing something, and your every answer is followed by another “why?”. Why do you go to work? To earn money. Why? So I can pay for things like home, bills, food, travel. Why? Because I want to live. Why? Well, probably because I want to be happy.
But what is “happy”? Is it bodily passions, having high moral standards, being open-minded, or to connect and engage with other people? What does Eudaimonia mean to you?
Those who have a “why” to live, can bear almost any “how”. – Friedrich Nietzsche
Some theorists found the meaning of their life after going through a major struggle. One of the greatest examples is the psychotherapist Viktor Frankl, who spent four years of his life in Nazi concentration camps.
After the war, when he returned to Vienna, he wrote and published his first book Man's search for meaning. In this book, he communicated that all people have “a will to meaning” – the desire to find purpose in life, no matter how hard life gets. He also shares that the one thing no one can take away from us is the freedom to choose our attitude in any given circumstances, even when we suffer. When it becomes impossible to change the world around us, we are faced with the choice to change ourselves.
This is what he observed among his fellow prisoners: those who had a stronger sense of purpose exhibited more resilience to everything that happened in the camps. Although the conditions of a concentration camp are an extreme example, we can extend this meaning of struggle to our regular lives, and ask ourselves: “what is the one thing that always keeps me going, no matter how hard life is?”
The Modern Approach: Defining and Measuring Purpose
We can say that Viktor Frankl was the father of the modern scientific approach to life purpose. His ideas are very close to what we call today a positive mindset, growth mindset, and mindfulness. If we adopt this way of thinking, then finding your purpose in life is a lot about having an open-minded approach to life and finding the good in every situation.
Viktor Frankl believed that the three main sources of meaning in human life are:
- Work (not necessarily a job, but just any kind of doing that brings fulfilment);
- Encounter (with another human or any living being);
- The attitude in the state of extreme and unavoidable suffering.
Scientific research that followed the works and ideas of Viktor Frankl focused on various sources of individual sense of purpose: personal experiences with other people, fighting for a greater cause, connecting to other people and the community we live in, etc.
In these studies, researchers most often surveyed people and asked them questions that referred to discovering their unique meaning of life. After a myriad of attempts, they came to a consensual definition of subjective life purpose:
“The purpose is a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once personally meaningful and, at the same time, leads to productive engagement with some aspect of the world beyond the self.”
Various studies have discovered benefits of having a sense of purpose in life, also called the existential fuel, and now we’ll shortly tackle some of them.
The Benefits of Finding Your Purpose in Life
Research conducted throughout the last few decades confirmed that Frankl was right: individuals who have a stronger sense of purpose and meaning are more resilient to stress and have various physical and mental health benefits that further affect their overall satisfaction in life.
For example, a study published in 2019 revealed that the feeling of purpose in life is associated with decreased odds of mortality from all causes among adults older than 50. This is further connected to a 2017 study, which showed that adults with a higher sense of purpose were under a lower risk of developing physical symptoms such as weak grip or slow walk.
An even earlier 2004 study discovered that older women with a high sense of purpose were less likely to become overweight, had a stronger immune system, and lower cholesterol levels, while a 2010 study proved that the sense of purpose in life lowers the odds of cognitive decline at older age and even Alzheimer’s dementia.
There's even more: one study conducted in 2016 discovered that a higher sense of purpose in life can predict a higher salary. This means that participants in the study who felt like their work was meaningful and purposeful, tended to earn more money.
Let's admit: we only know that these phenomena are associated, and the probability of causality remains unknown, yes still it’s clear that finding your purpose in life is very important for our overall well-being: mental, emotional, and physical.
Finally, we’ve reached the most important part of this article: tips on finding your purpose in life.
Finding Your Purpose in Life: Tips and Tricks
As you’ve probably understood by now, no one can tell you what your purpose in life is. That’s something you have to find by yourself. The key idea of logotherapy is to discover the meaning of your life – because we each have a unique reason of being – through your experience instead of simply creating it.
What we can tell you is that certain activities can contribute to an increased sense of personal purpose, while some decrease it.
In the following paragraphs we’ll share with you the activities that can help you either discover or enhance the already existing personal sense of purpose.
History, success stories, philosophy, self-development books, novels, theoretical papers: they’re all connected to our sense of purpose.
There is something about the act of reading itself: the connection with the stories, characters, or virtues, that seems to be a universal phenomena regardless of whether the material is religious, fictional, or reality-based.
That’s exactly what one 2011 research revealed: reading poetry and fiction promotes a coherent autobiographical narrative among children, which is further linked to an enhanced personal sense of purpose.
If you ask people you know about the things that changed their lives, we guarantee that some books' headlines will pop-up. For example, Oprah Winfrey says that the book The Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav had a major impact on her life during the ‘80s. Bill Gates claims that meditation as a mental exercise has changed his life, but that he would never be into it if he hadn’t read Andy Puddicombe’s book The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness.
Whether it's the stories, characters, values, or a free-flow of ideas, there’s something about books and reading that gives a deeper purpose to our lives.
This only leads us to one conclusion: if you’re having trouble finding your purpose in life, head over to the nearest library or bookstore, and find a book that might interest you. Repeat this several times, maybe even keep a book journal, write down your reflections and see how it affects you. One of the great options to start with is Ikigai, the Japanese secret to finding the meaning of life.
- Not only are humans able to maintain a sense of purpose even when life hits them hard, like Frankl said, but we can sometimes find the meaning in ours or others’ suffering.
It doesn’t mean to enjoy the pain, but rather to find a way to rise above it and help others in similar situations to do the same.
How many times did you hear stories about people who started from the bottom, but somehow figured life out and made it to the top?
One of those stories is the story of Oprah Winfrey, the famous talk-show host, millionaire, and philanthropist. Born by a poor teenage mother in Mississippi, Oprah survived an abusive and traumatic childhood. After a series of misfortunes, she was sent to live with her father Vernon Winfrey.
While she was still in high school, she landed a gig at a local radio station from which she progressed to where she is now: one of the most powerful African American women of all time.
Oprah never forgot about her roots and all the adversities she’s been through. That’s why she decided to give back to the community in so many ways: from promoting unrecognized book authors to donating money to educational, health, and cultural preservation causes. She also fights for women’s rights and empowerment through her angel’s network.
Some people find meaning and purpose in suffering that helps them rise above and conquer it, while others are being crushed by adversities. Why? Let’s find out.
Practice Gratitude and Admiration and Nurture Altruism
Cultivating certain emotions and behaviors such as gratitude and altruism can be a real game-changer when it comes to finding your purpose in life.
This can also be the underlying reason why some people manage to overcome the adversities they’re going through.
Studies conducted by Dacher Keltner revealed that the feeling of admiration and awe enhances our perceived connectedness to something greater than ourselves, which is the cornerstone of finding purpose in our lives. It can also drive our motivation to do some good and make a positive impact on the world around you.
This motivation is often driven by the feeling of gratitude. Gratitude is an often neglected, yet so powerful driver of meaning in our lives. Over the past few decades, research has revealed that practicing and feeling gratitude has immense benefits on our lives:
- Grateful individuals tend to have better physical health;
- This also goes for mental health and overall happiness in life;
- Grateful people are more resilient to stress;
- They feel more connected to others;
- They also tend to contribute to the world around them in a positive way more often.
How To Practice Gratitude?
One way of giving thanks regularly is changing the way you communicate.
Becoming more conscious about the way you talk to people around you, whether you praise them explicitly for the amazing work they do or tell them how much they mean to you, can really open you up to the world. Thanking people will make them feel more valued and appreciated. That way, your connection will grow stronger. You can also engage in volunteer work as a way of giving thanks to the community you live in.
And the most efficient way of systematically practicing gratitude is by keeping a gratitude journal.
That’s why we’ve designed The Five Minute Journal: a simple, yet powerful tool that helps you shift your mind into a state of greater positivity and open up your soul to gratitude and appreciation.
- What would make today great?
- What am I grateful for?
- Daily affirmation: I am…?
This way, each day will begin with positive thoughts, and regardless of how tough life gets, you’ll always be reminded to focus on the good things.
You can also do this in the evening, ending your day with some positive reflections instead of worries. The Five Minute Journal invites you to list three amazing things that happened to you that day, and how could you have made that day even better.
By filling out The Five Minute Journal, you’re training your brain and shaping your mindset into a more positive one.
Create or Find a Community
Being connected to other people with whom we share the same goals or values can have a major impact on finding your purpose in life.
A research conducted in 2006 in the USA revealed that people who had a stronger sense of belonging to a community or who participated in recreational events in their local communities had a stronger feeling of purpose in life.
Some people find their purpose in strengthening the relations in their family and friends, while others decide to join book clubs, creative workshops, or various NGOs with whom they share interests and values.
Being part of a community can strengthen your values and inspire you to do meaningful things. Take a look around: what do you have in common with people around you? Can you offer them to form some kind of a community? Can you do something together to make a positive impact on the world? Can you give something to them?
Hear and Accept Gratitude and Praise from Others
Giving thanks to others and thinking about amazing things in our lives can enhance our sense of purpose, but so can listening to others praising us.
Our brains are naturally wired to first hear and focus on negativity. That’s called the negativity bias. With the negativity bias, we sometimes overhear all the positive things coming from other people: their gratitude, praise, compliments, etc.
It’s pretty logical: if the gratitude you express can strengthen your relationships with others, the same way can other people’s gratitude that’s aimed at you.
One’s faith can easily be restored once they feel gratitude, or discover how they made progress and positive changes. Our advice is, open your mind, be more present and notice when people appreciate you. This kind of positive feedback can inspire you and help you on the path of finding your purpose in life.
Explore Your Interests and Follow Your Passions
Is there a topic you always take a pause to read about? Something you often share on social media, or passionately discuss with friends? It could be anything: gardening, amateur interior design, climate change, sustainable living, writing short stories...
If you think about the things that engage you, things you enjoy talking about, or discussions you look forward to having, and that make some difference, they might help you discover your true drives in life that can help you find your purpose.
Complex as it is, finding your purpose in life can be a road full of smiles, roadblocks, gratitude, or challenges.
Throughout history, the purpose of human existence remains an unanswered question. Although no one can give you an answer about your personal purpose, in this article we shared some of the actions you can take that have proven to enhance the sense of purpose or help you find it.
We’re confident that if you’re patient, curious, intentional, determined, hard-working, and also open-minded towards experimenting, you’ll eventually find your purpose in life.