Purpose and Life

Life purpose not only means different things to different people, but it also means different things to each person as we progress through the stages and events of our lives. On the formal side, Hill et al., (2010) identified four main types of life purpose as follows:

  1. The prosocial purpose, defined as the inclination to help others and to have a positive influence on society.
  2. The creative purpose centers on the desire to achieve artistic goals through originality and innovation.
  3. The financial purpose bolsters the desire for well-being, and often includes the inclination toward administrative success.
  4. The personal recognition purpose is driven by the desire for recognition from colleagues for contributions that matter.

A balanced life requires the pursuit of each of the four types in varying degrees. The question to ponder when determining the focus among the four main types involves the examination of what brings a sense of happiness. A meaningful life has been described as one that includes the expression of values, principles, excitement, purpose, and accomplishment (Smith, 2018). We can start to identify and define our purpose by asking ourselves how we feel about each of these areas, and where we feel drawn to focus our efforts. Our life’s purpose is not a “one and done”! Most of us have many purposes that closely overlap, sharply diverge, and take turns occupying the center stage position of our lives. To further our discovery of purpose, we can ask ourselves some important questions.

  • What do I see is life’s inherent value?
  • What are the driving principles that I apply to decision making in my life?
  • What is my personal philosophy and how has it guided me thus far?
  • When I think of the times in my life that I felt excited, interested, and engaged, what was happening?
  • What goals have I accomplished that were particularly difficult, or easy, to achieve, and would I do it again?
  • What are my inherent strengths, weaknesses, skills, and traits?
  • Do I have any clear goals or intentions right now? Is there something I have always wanted to understand, see, do?
  • What do others say are my gifts and talents?
  • Where do I feel most at home?
  • What am I doing when I lose track of time because I’m so engaged?
  • What things, people, places, or activities make me feel energized?
  • Is there a problem, injustice, challenge, etc. that I would love to see solved?
  • Who do I want to help? What do I want to contribute to the world?
  • What am I willing to sacrifice for?

Now that all this pondering has brought us such clarity, we can begin to craft some action plans! Start by thinking about who we are, and who we wish to become. Remember that goals are only wishes until they are broken down into achievable objectives that are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely).

Some say that finding one’s purpose feels a lot like finding oneself; that place in which we know who we are, what we are meant to do, and how we can move forward in alignment with our values, attitudes, and skills. Many spiritual teachers throughout history caution us to remember that the journey, experiences, and moments of connection with others are as, or more, important than the benchmarks achieved. Ignatius (1491-1556) taught that living one’s purpose feels like walking a path that is meant for you alone, yet there is no actual map to follow. We must figure out our own special way forward.

Perhaps the greatest advice is to be ever willing to step off the path we are currently walking when we discover that our purpose calls another direction. In a nutshell, pursuing our life purpose can be frightening, with moments of doubt and uncertainty. When it comes down to the final vote on the many forks in the road to choose, we must rest deeply inside ourselves and recognize what feels right for us. Teresa of Calcutta wrote, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love”.

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