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The Purpose of Purpose

Figuring out your life purpose isn't some new-age cliche', but serious business when it comes to your health and wellbeing.

Last week we started talking about purpose. To be clear, we all have a purpose for everything we do every day, from waking up to brushing our teeth to eating a meal, but what I’m really talking about is a life purpose. While some people may roll their eyes if asked “what’s your purpose in life?”, it’s actually a very serious question. Living by your life purpose offers emotional and psychological benefits, and also influences physical health. Studies indicate that those who have a strong connection to their sense of purpose tend to live longer than those who don’t.

Purpose and meaning are powerful partners in determining the quality of our lives. Making meaning of our lives allows us to connect with our deeper purpose. The more we engage with a meaningful life, not only does it grow with time, it also provides us with a happy, fulfilling life. This is very different than a pleasurable life that is transient, current, and illusory. A meaningful life connects us to a larger sense of purpose and value, making positive contributions, not only to our personal and spiritual growth, but also to society and human civilization as a whole. As a result, a meaningful life is one that guides wise actions, giving a sense of constructive direction.

If you are able to know where you are, where you want to be, and what you need to do to get there, you are in the best position to have a fulfilling life. A life full of purpose.

If that’s not enough motivation to consider this, consider some of the benefits. Purpose can protect against heart disease according to studies. And how about preventing Alzheimer’s disease? In studies of thousands of elderly subjects, people with a low sense of life purpose were 2.4 times more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease than those with a strong purpose, and people with purpose were less likely to develop impairments in daily living and mobility disabilities. Purpose can also positively affect pain management. So, from a health perspective alone, figuring out your life purpose seems to be a good investment of time.

One of the common features among people who live with purpose is that they are able to find meaning in the things that happen to them. Andrew Zolli, author of Resilience, describes these people as being able to “cognitively reappraise situations and regulate emotions, turning life’s proverbial lemons into lemonade.” Seems like now might be a good time to be able to do that, considering our circumstances.

In research on the science of wellbeing, Ed Diener found that people with a strong sense of purpose handle the ups and downs of life better than those who don’t. Purpose offers a psychological buffer against challenges, so, a person with a strong sense of purpose remains satisfied with life even while experiencing difficult challenges or events. This kind of long-term resilience has been shown to lead to better cardiovascular health, less worry, and greater happiness over time.

Do you know your life purpose? Do you wake up each morning acknowledging that you are about to use the day to do something you love? Do you go to bed at night feeling fulfilled and satisfied that you spent the day doing work that was meaningful to you, where you utilized your talents, gifts and passions?

If not, you’re not alone. According to an international Gallup poll, less than 20% of respondents strongly agreed that they enjoyed what they did each day. Upon investigation by Gallup researchers, those who reported feeling engaged with their work had higher levels of happiness and less stress than those who reported feeling disengaged.

Since we spend the majority of our time at work, at least when not in pandemic shutdown, many tie their life purpose to their work. For others, work is just a job or a source of income, but unrelated to their broader purpose. Your calling or purpose may be a hobby, raising a family, charity work, or a way of helping others. If you feel unfulfilled by your work, it doesn’t mean you need to run out and switch careers. Pursuing meaningful work may simply mean integrating your talents and passion into the job you do have, like volunteering to organize a fundraising event or to start a recycling program in the office. There are, however, benefits to broadening your purpose beyond your work, since you won’t be working forever. At least hopefully.

Perhaps one of the most profound examples of this comes from Dan Buettner, author and National Geographic explorer, who discovered the world’s Blue Zones, where people live the longest, healthiest lives. He believes that the two most vulnerable times in a person’s life are the first twelve months after birth and the year following retirement. You may have heard stories about perfectly healthy men who died shortly after they retired from a lifelong career? Some researchers suspect that for these men, the end of their career also signified the end of their purpose in life, which affected their health and wellbeing.

Additionally, a study of retired employees at Shell Oil found that men and women who retired early, at age 55, were more likely to die early than those who retired at age 65. A similar study of almost 17,000 healthy Greeks showed that the risk of death increased by 51% after retirement.

These two studies suggest that there may be some risk in only finding meaning in a career. It seems important to reshape life’s big questions and find ways to continue serving purpose even after retirement to improve chances of a longer, healthier life.

Questions about life purpose may arise at any time in life, but you may notice that they are especially prevalent during times of transition or crisis. During a pandemic, for example, or a career or educational change, personal loss, or long-distance move. Sharon Daloz Parks calls these events “life’s shipwrecks.”

Richard Leider, a purpose expert, says that “genuine purpose points to the end of a self-absorbed, self-serving relationship to life.” When your authentic purpose becomes clear, you will be able to share it with the whole world. So although some assume pursuing a life purpose is somehow a selfish act, it is actually just the opposite. True purpose is about recognizing your own gifts and using them to contribute to the world, whether those gifts are painting masterpieces, playing beautiful music for others to enjoy, helping friends solve problems, discovering scientific break-throughs or simply bringing more joy into the lives of those around you.

How do you figure out your purpose? It really starts with identifying your values, talents and passions and then asking questions. What are your natural gifts? What are your skills? What do other people consistently comment on about you? Being mindful or aware of what you feel and what you observe are the two strongest tools you have in helping you to identify your purpose. I discovered my life purpose through observation, but I feel kind of dense when I look back at how long it took me. Working as an accountant, which was not my calling or purpose, but a job to pay the bills, I was constantly frustrated with clients who ate up all of my time wanting to talk when I visited to do their accounting. I think it took me three years to recognize that my gift was not numbers, but listening to people and having a positive affect on them! Once I got that, I realized that accounting was a skill, but being empathetic, listening and intuitively knowing what kind of support a person needed were my gifts. I also realized that I have an odd gift which is that I can stay completely calm and pretty clear-headed in a crisis. And that’s how I figured out that my purpose was being of service. My purpose is purposely broad. I love the curiosity involved in figuring out how I can be of service in different situations and for different people. But it took me awhile to get there. I kept coming up with more specific purposes, like being a coach, or being a teacher, or being a therapist. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But mindfully observing the situations that presented themselves made me realize that I needed a much broader purpose. Some people find a calling to be a minister, a nurse, a musician…there is no right or wrong about it. It’s going to be unique for each of us.

Keep in mind that your purpose can change throughout life in response to the evolving priorities and fluctuations of your own experiences. But at any point, you can check in and ask:

Who am I right now?

Where do I belong?

When do I feel fulfilled?

What do I care about most in the world?

Whom do I want to help the most?

When do I feel most engaged with what I am doing?

How would I use a gift of a million dollars if it had to be given away?

When your life and work decisions are based on your values, talents, gifts and passions, the power of life purpose emerges, bringing alignment, energy and aliveness. Living on purpose feels authentic. It’s full of clarity. It can frequently include psychological flow experiences, which is a state of total absorption in which time seems to disappear and you feel content and fulfilled.

A 2009 study assessing the purpose of over 1,000 adults found that those with a high sense of meaning in their lives spent more time and attention on their loved ones and communities. On the whole, people with purpose tend to be more engaged with their families, colleagues, and neighbors, enjoying more satisfying relationships as a result. That might be something the world needs right now, don’t you think?

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