Having a purpose leads to better health and more longevity. Are we risking our lives if we don’t know ours?
All the good press about the power of purpose has left many of us feeling anxious if we don’t know or can’t articulate ours. What we love and feel passionate about may feel selfish or not significant enough to qualify as a “real purpose.”
To all of my purpose-doubting friends, I offer this: relax. You know far more about what brings you meaning than you think you do.
Here’s an example from a conversation I’ve had, many times, with my husband:
He begins, “I don’t feel like I’m making a difference” (aka, “I’m not connected to a sense of larger purpose.”)
I ask, “But you love cars and have always loved cars.”
He says, “Yes.”
“And you’re always supporting friends with their car questions. They’re so grateful, which seems to also make you happy.”
“Yes, but what is that doing for the world?”
Aha! That’s it: Nobility syndrome. Having a passion for cars and helping people doesn’t sound big enough or life-changing enough, even though it’s the work that he loves to do.
Another friend feels befuddled because she cares about so many things and has so many passions that she agonizes which one is the purpose for her month, year or life.
With all the media blitz about life purpose, the word’s becoming a commodity, a thing everyone needs to acquire. Search Amazon and you’ll find more than 8,000 titles on finding your purpose. Search on Google and, in under one second, you’ll come up with more than a million entries.
If you want some questions to ask yourself, read one of those books. Or scan YouTube for relevant talks. But don’t feel pressed to come up with answers. I remember searching for my life’s purpose in my 30s at a weekend transformational seminar. For two days I was challenged to break through my old ways of thinking. Then, on Sunday afternoon, I stood before 100 participants, heart thumping, and announced how I’d discovered the meaning of life and found my purpose. I enjoyed a moment of thunderous applause.
By the following morning, however, my life-changing insight had started to fade. It probably dove back into the deep sea from whence it came. Because that’s where our deepest sense of meaning lies, hidden within our souls. Today, I don’t need to find a set of purpose-filled words that I can laminate and hang on the wall. For me, a true purpose needs to stay alive and evolving. I liken it to a porpoise. It swims around, under the surface of life, playing and exploring. Only rarely does it surface where it can be seen. It needs space to move and grow and doesn’t want to be caged or framed.
Why can’t we turn purpose into a verb rather than a noun that represents something we’re supposed to know? We could be “purposing” throughout our lives (sorry, English lovers), asking questions like, “How do I experience my calling, now?” or “What am I meant to do today?” or “What do I continue to love?”
Purposing would keep us constantly pointed toward a meaning-filled life.
We may benefit from different kinds of purposes at various points in our lives. The researchers who linked purpose to longevity didn’t define the type of purpose, big or small, that leads to a longer, healthier life.
Sometimes we may feel called to a significant, altruistic purpose, such as a desire to change the world. We may want to end world hunger, save the whales, help local refugees, heal lymphoma, or protect fair elections. Altruism and a desire to give back can inspire us, especially at a stage of life when we have more time to give. We search for these big purposes with questions like, “What is the world asking of me?” “How do I feel called to help others?” “Where can I contribute?” “What issues most concern me?”
If we’ve spent most of our time giving to others, however, our purpose might be to give to ourselves, and if that’s where your heart calls you, go for it. Maybe you want to explore a passion project, such as taking up painting. Or travel. Or spend more time nurturing an inner sense of peace. Just because your purpose is self-care or focused on you doesn’t make it less meaningful.
We can also gain from having a bite-sized, everyday sense of purpose. Life is a day-by-day adventure, and we can all use inspiration to get out of bed and view each day as ours to create. Research suggests that taking care of another being, be it a houseplant, a senior dog, or a parakeet, may be enough to bring meaning to our lives. Recently, my daily goal on my sister’s birthday was to help her celebrate. Nothing more needed.
Even if we are following a large calling, finding an everyday purpose brings this down from the stratospheric into the zone of daily action. My big goal of “helping people live more creatively as they age” won’t get me out of bed. But knowing, “I want to edit one chapter of my book today” does. (After “get a cup of tea,” which is always my first goal of the morning.)
We may have a purpose given to us, one we didn’t choose, but which chose us. We are called to help a partner, friend, or child go through an illness or difficult time. Although we didn’t ask for the job, we know it’s ours to do, and that sense of knowing gives meaning to our lives. Hopefully, the situation will pass, so we can pursue a passion project of our choosing.
Finally, there’s the deep purpose, the one we can’t articulate, like a porpoise living under the surface of the waters. Your soul knows why you are here. Unfortunately, the soul has a limited vocabulary and may never provide you that information in language. You may feel it, from time to time, during the moments when your heart beats fast or swells with joy, and you know, for an instant, “This is why I am here.” Staying open to wonder helps connect us with our feelings of deeper purpose.
Trouble is, when we put that purpose into language, it often comes out in words that sound trite, too general, or like a greeting card. “To bring more love into the world” is a beautiful purpose, but if saying it sounds like trivializing it, feel free to hold it privately in your heart.
However you find meaning in your life is the right way for you. Trust yourself, your heart, and the whispers that come to you. Keep the questions alive. If we fully knew all that we were about, where would we find mystery? Living our questions keeps us open to what we don’t yet know. Always knowing puts us at risk of staying stuck in the safety of the past.
Let’s treat our purpose like a verb and give it room to breathe. Enjoy your path as the meaning-seeking being you are and listen to your heart. That alone may be your best ticket to longevity.
Or try the way of the porpoise. Find your wisdom in the depths, enjoy swimming, changing directions, and playing. Then surface occasionally and share the truth you’ve found.
Sally Fox is a coach, speaker, podcaster, and owner of Engaging Presence, a firm that helps individuals and organizations develop and share their best brand stories. She is currently working on a book about finding your creative work in the third act of life. Find her blog at engagingpresence.com and listen to her podcasts at 3rd ActMagazine.com.