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Identifying your purpose in life

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Purpose is a very unique individualized phenomenon, which an individual must know and figure out personally, though others can certainly help provide input and guidance. Connecting with and living your purpose is a beautiful journey that typically unfolds in mysterious and surprising ways. It’s not something to be forced, or something to actively worry about “having to” find. I like to think of it as a treasure hunt, a perfectly paced adventure, with your eyes and heart wide open.{{more}}

It is well established that a sense of purpose is necessary for psychological health, and in turn, for human adaptation and survival. What is required, and what is most important is our ability and willingness to have an open mind in this area of our lives.

The belief that one is living a meaningful life is associated with positive functioning. This includes satisfaction with life (Chamberlain & Zika, 1988), enjoyment of work (Bonebright, Clay, & Ankenmann, 2000), happiness (Debats, van der Lubbe, & Wezeman, 1993), positive affect (Hicks & King, 2007; King, Hicks, Krull, & Del Gaiso, 2006), and hope (Mascaro & Rosen, 2005).

Perceiving life as meaningful is even associated with physical health and general well-being (Reker, Peacock, & Wong, 1987; Ryff, 1989; Ryff & Singer; 1998; Wong & Fry, 1998; Zika & Chamberlain, 1987; 1992). Higher levels of perceived meaning are also associated with lower levels of negative functioning, including psychopathology (Crumbaugh & Maholick, 1964), stress (Mascaro & Rosen, 2006), need for therapy (Battista & Almond, 1973), suicidal ideation (Harlow, Newcomb, & Bentler, 1986), and depression (Debats et al, 1993; Mascaro & Rosen, 2005). Steger (in press) provides a comprehensive treatment of the benefits of perceiving meaning in life.

Based on a review of empirical findings on a broad array of topics, including love, work, religion, culture, suicide, and parenthood, Baumeister (1991) concluded that the human experience is shaped by four needs for meaning, which can be understood as four ingredients or criteria of a meaningful life. First, a sense of purpose is reached when people perceive their current activities as relating to future outcomes, so that current events draw meaning from possible future conditions. Second, people desire feelings of efficacy. People feel efficacious when they perceive that they have control over their outcomes and that they can make a difference in some important way. Third, people want to view their actions as having positive value or as being morally justified. That is, people are motivated to act in a way that reflects some positive moral value, or at least to interpret their behaviour as conforming to ideals and standards of what is approved and acceptable. Fourth, people want a sense of positive self-worth. They seek ways of establishing that they are individuals with desirable traits. Finding some way of believing oneself to be better than other people seems to be a common form of this need for meaning.

One thing we must be mindful of is that our purpose does not have to be something BIG. The value of our impact on others and on the world has nothing to do with a scale, measuring who did more or who did what? It is in knowing that in order for our world to function, we need people living and contributing at all kinds of different levels. If we each could find and inhabit the sphere where we’re supposed to be, and contribute what we were made to contribute, what a beautiful world it would be!

There is a lot of distraction in the world that can cause people to miss the purpose of their life, and I will attempt to help you see past the ‘noise.’ Not only are there the typical day-to-day distractions (the pressure to buy stuff; mind-numbing entertainment; addictions to food and other habits; chronic busy-ness that doesn’t give us time to think and reflect and live purposefully), but there are also distractions that come in the form of other people’s expectations and preconceived ideas about what a worthwhile purpose or contribution looks like. Society has very specific ideas about which callings are worthy and appropriate, which can confuse and distract. For example, when I first started telling people that I wanted to be a psychologist, people would respond with guilt-provoking criticism; why would you want to do that with your life? You wouldn’t make any money etc. There was very little interest in how it related to why I believe it was my divine calling or purpose to do such. So, how can you identify your purpose? It may not be obvious and may be something that gradually emerges and takes form over years – you may even have several layers or aspects to what you are here for.

Here are some thoughts that may help connect you to your purpose:

1) What do you love to do, that you would do, even if you don’t get paid for it?

My true career or vocation is directly tied to my purpose, though the way you make your living does not necessarily have to have anything to do with why you are here. What is it you feel you must do, no matter what?

2) What do other people say you’re really good at?

Be careful of going in a direction just because others think you should. That said, it’s a good idea to pay attention to the way others compliment you. Is there anything that you’re particularly good at that people tell you that you should do professionally, or do more of? People often tell me that they feel better, uplifted and inspired, after talking with me. Not too surprising then, that I now spend my life and even earn my living encouraging others and helping them improve their lives.

And finally (3), What is the one thing you want to experience, or do, or accomplish, before you die, so that on your last day on earth you feel satisfied and have no regrets in that area?

Don’t worry if you don’t have an answer as yet. Keep asking the question, and keep your eyes open for clues that will come your way. Trust me, the answer to your purpose in life will show up in perfect timing.

Dr Miller is Health Psychologist at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital

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