Most of us want a purpose to our lives. For some, having a family, a secure job, a strong community or deeply-held religious beliefs mean that we can find it quite easily. But as society changes, fewer of us can rely on the things that have traditionally given people purpose and a sense of meaning to their life. So it’s completely normal to feel that you need to discover it for yourself!
Research shows that having a sense of purpose is good for our well-being, and improves our resilience to stress and even our ability to think. The founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, includes meaning in his PERMA model of happiness.
What does purpose mean? And how can you find or create it?
Having a purpose means different things to different people. To me it means having a reason to get up in the morning, to feel like I’m contributing to the world in some way, and to have a sense of direction in my life. It creates a compass to help me navigate decisions, opportunities, behaviours and actions by identifying my True North.
There are many ways to discover it, but one which has drawn lots of attention in recent years is the Japanese concept of Ikigai;
Ikigai means “reason for being” and it isn’t related to someone’s financial status! It’s about the mental and even spiritual circumstances that mean people feel their lives are valuable and worthwhile.
This is why it’s so important to our well-being.
It can be tough to get up in the morning if you feel like your life isn’t valuable in some small way. After years of social isolation due to a disabling chronic illness, giving meaning to my life - that I choose to be the love I want to see in the world - has really helped to lift my depression and my sense of self-worth, even when I’m still isolated.
I share this because your purpose isn’t restricted by your current circumstances, which may be difficult, challenging or simply far from ideal. If you have an aspiration or goal in mind which arises from what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs and (ideally!) what you can be paid for, you may feel ikigai.
Most importantly, there is a kindness to the design! The actions and behaviours that create the feeling of ikigai, or purpose, are natural and spontaneous rather than forced or restrictive.
Many of us want to discover our purpose so we can create a life we love.
One of the best ways to explore your purpose is to start gathering data on what you already enjoy.
For this, I love the book Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. Springing from their incredibly popular Stanford course, which helps students to create the life they want, they apply five rules of design thinking to its discovery and creation;
Know it’s a process
Ask for help
It’s marketed as a career-planning book but it goes way beyond what you do for a job. If you don’t know what you love or enjoy, why not start capturing your activities in their good-time journal activity log, so you can record and then see what engages you and what, most importantly, gives you energy.
Their book also shows you a simple way to build the compass I mentioned earlier. As they put it,
Our goal for your life is rather simple; coherency. A coherent life is one lived in such a way that you can clearly connect the dots between three things:
1. Who you are
2. What you believe
3. What you are doing
Answering questions such as “Why work?”, “What defines good or worthwhile work?” and “What do experience, growth, and fulfillment have to do with it?” reveal your Work-view.
You can find out your Life-view, your “matters of ultimate concern” by asking yourself questions like “Why are we here?”, “What is the relationship between the individual and others?”, and “What is the role of joy, sorrow, justice, injustice, love, peace, and strife in life?”, etc.
By seeing where the two sets of answers complement each other - and where they clash! - you can start to see how integrated they are. The more integrated they are, the stronger your compass for future navigation.
And remember that this compass, and these answers, aren’t set in stone! It’s good to recalibrate it and re-answer these questions any time you feel your life isn’t working, or if you’re going through - or about to go through - a major transition.
Action for May; Live your purpose!
A purpose isn’t authentic unless you live it, in however small a way. So, how can you make living your purpose a habit? Here are a couple of ideas, and remember; it’s easier to keep habits if they’re obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying.
How can you make your purpose really obvious to you? Can you stick a post-it note up on your bathroom mirror or add a reminder to your phone? Can you write yourself a note that says, “I am here to ...”, to remind you of your contribution to the world?
How can you make this habit attractive? Who can you share your purpose with? How can living your purpose be rewarding for you? Perhaps you can find others who share your sense of purpose, so you can amplify each other’s good intentions through inspired action and accountability.
How can you make it easy? What simple daily action helps you to align with your purpose? Take out your list of habits from February’s post; can you “stack” a new habit with an old one? Perhaps it’s as simple as coming up with a statement as you make your morning cup of tea, ie “I am here to .. make a positive difference in people’s lives” or “I am here to .. encourage those I love to be kinder to themselves and others”.
How can you make it satisfying? If taken with an authentic sense of purpose, an action or behaviour is often its own reward. But how can you amplify that? Can you write yourself a note of gratitude each night, to acknowledge whatever tiny action you’ve taken towards your True North?
Don’t know where to start? Here’s a great blog post by Jack Canfield on finding your purpose.
Finding a purpose can often feel that it’s all about what you do for work. That can feel disheartening if you don’t/can’t work, or your job doesn’t satisfy you. Remember, many people say that our purpose in life is to be happy, to find our gifts, or to find inner peace, so don’t forget that you’re a human BEING not DOING.
Remember, you can CREATE meaning in your life rather than simply wait to FIND it.
Don’t worry if you don’t know what your purpose is! It can feel stressful to chase after it, or to feel that we can’t do anything until we know it. Being caught up in our thinking (and feeling that thinking!) can keep us from noticing the quiet signals, signs and opportunities that allow it to emerge naturally.
Your purpose isn’t a fixed thing that you have to get right the first time! Why not try something out for a week, to see if it makes your life better or more satisfying?