If someone came up to you and asked: “What’s your life purpose? What do you think you’re here for?” – Could you give them a straight answer? Don’t feel discouraged if you haven’t got the answer to that yet. Most people we encounter, including the elderly often appear puzzled by that question. Not because it’s a silly one but because they haven’t thought about it.
So, why think about one’s purpose in life?
As the great philosopher Socrates would tell you: “A life unexamined is not worth living.” Which basically means that when you don’t think through your life, you’re merely existing and not truly living, not leaving your mark and a legacy behind. You end up wasting your life and trust me, nobody wants to reach the end of their lives thinking: “if only I had known!”
So what’s an appropriate life’s purpose then?
There’s no right answer – just YOUR answer
Finding one’s purpose in life is not always easy. Although some people seem to be born with the knowledge of their life’s mission – like becoming a doctor, an artist, a musician… Don’t feel discouraged if you don’t have an answer yet. Remember: as long as you’re breathing there’s always time to find your life’s purpose.
My advice is: don’t think big (not everyone can find a cure for cancer or be the first Man on the moon). Your purpose in life is usually something quite simple and can be summarized in a small sentence. For instance, I have the inner belief my life’s purpose is to help others deal with their suffering and see the light at the end of the tunnel – and that’s why I became a psychologist. Is it difficult to live accordingly to one’s life purpose? Sometimes it can be excruciatingly painful but the notion that you’re fulfilling your life’s purpose helps you get through the bad days and remember it’s all worth it, because it’s all part of the legacy you’ll be leaving behind. My personal moto is: let’s help people one at the time. And be patient about it because it requires a lot of dedication.
Most importantly, don’t compare yourself to others. You may want to get some inspiration from other people’s actions but comparing yourself to others is not the way to go. Especially because we tend to be more forgiving towards others when it comes to seeing their shortfalls, than we are with ourselves.
Characteristics of an inspiring life’s purpose
Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy states 3 levels to find one’s meaning and life purpose:
1. What we have
2. What we do
3. The legacy we leave behind through our actions and relationships with others
Breaking the three levels down: what we have or own and what we’ve accomplished in life, is as we all know, a key part of the motivation process – we need that to be driven to a goal in life. What we do is also a crucial part of motivation. Our actions and decisions are the shapers of our destiny, and knowing that gives us control over our lives. Things don’t just happen to us – we attract certain results with every little action or decision we take. Obviously, we need to take into consideration events that are out of our control (such as accidents, chronic illness or natural catastrophes, just to name a few examples).
All three levels are important to bear in mind. However, reaching the third level is, at the same time, the hardest thing to do and the most fulfilling one. The true meaning to our life are the people in it, and how we’ve affected them and they’ve affected us. And how the impact your life has caused on others lingers on.
Psychiatrist Irwin Yalom calls this the “rippling effect”. In his book “Staring at the Sun – Overcoming the Fear of Death”, he states that we don’t truly die until the last person who’s life we’ve touched and mimics our behavior/personality also dies. How often do you find yourself quoting a teacher you’ve looked up for?
This argument gives strength to the notion that we humans are essentially social creatures. And it is the depth of our relationship and commitment to others that finally gives our lives purpose. But that’s not all. Happiness is a complex thing to achieve.
Positive psychology’s answer to finding happiness
Positive psychology studies well-being and what make people thrive. Martin Seligman presents the PERMA model for well-being that helps us get a sense of how we can achieve well-being and what are its components. PERMA stands for:
P – Positive Emotion
E – Engagement
R – Relationships
M – Meaning
A – Accomplishments
As you can see, meaning is one of the components of happiness and these concepts all intertwine and rely on each other. To some extent, finding your life’s purpose is part of finding happiness in your life. So long as you don’t ignore all other aspects.
5 tips to start looking for meaning
If you’re still unable at this point in your life to answer the question: “What’s your life’s meaning and purpose?” – you might want to check out our suggestions on how to start looking for your answer. Remember a great journey always starts with a first step and getting to know yourself is crucial here.
1. Find something you love
Love seems to be the key ingredient for everything. Because it is! It’s not your life’s purpose if you’re not passionate about it, if you don’t thrive and overcome any obstacles, if you don’t believe in the end it’s all worth it. Doing things and seeking glory is not the way to go, do things for love first and glory will come to you naturally.
2. Try new things
You’re not going to find your life’s purpose if you insist on doing the same things over and over again. Step outside the box and challenge yourself.
3. Not everyone is going to save the world
It’s wrong to believe one’s life purpose is something grand, it could be something as simple as raising a family, owning a small business, doing volunteer work… The smallest gestures are just as important as the great ones.
4. Think about your legacy
Answer the question: “Is this the legacy I want to leave the world when I’m gone?” What do you want to be remembered for? What do you want to build for yourself and others?
5. Your purpose can be many things at the same time
We don’t have one single purpose in life and it can evolve over time as we grow older and change our perspective.