This Month’s Featured Article

On Purpose – Creating Meaning in Our Lives

By Published On: November 29th, 2018

By Mary B. O’Neill, PhD |

At its core, purpose is connecting and contributing to something larger than self. For each of us, what lends purpose to our lives might vary. There’s no one-size-fits-all for defining what gives each of us purpose. Despite these differences, the benefits of having identified a purpose to our lives are consistent and demonstrable.

Purpose as a choice

Nazi concentration camp survivor and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl credits his strong sense of purpose for surviving the horrors of the camps and the ability to rebuild his life, despite the tragedies he experienced.

In his powerful book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl evokes an existential approach to purpose, which became the basis for his therapeutic model of logotherapy. Based on his experience, Frankl believed that we must decide our own purpose. It doesn’t exist outside of our choice to create it.

There’s no inherent meaning in the universe that waits for us to discover it. We are ultimately responsible for manufacturing our purpose and seeking ways to fulfill it. For Frankl, lack of self-defined purpose leads to a life of meaninglessness, shallowness, misplaced priorities, and self-destructive behavior.

In recent research, a strong sense of purpose has been identified as a key to well-being and happiness, and studies increasingly prove this connection. This is because it gives us a framework within which we can structure a life well-lived and serves as a guide to our actions.

Purpose provides a larger intentional context for decisions, allows us to be more resilient in the face of setbacks, and connects us to others and our world in a meaningful way. It creates our skin in the game of life.

Purpose in our whole lives

Many of us separate the pursuit of purpose in our work and personal lives. Perhaps this doesn’t need to be the case. Organizations are increasingly seeing the measurable connection between cultivating purpose in the workplace with happier employees, increased productivity and work quality, and higher profits. Individuals are seeing the benefits of unifying their work and personal lives. When this happens there can be less dissonance and more alignment between various parts of our lives.

We can consider purpose a sense of calling, but that makes it sound like a state reserved for a chosen few who have seen the light, leaving the rest of us to muddle through. That’s not the case. There are concrete actions we can take to strengthen purpose in our lives and integrate our whole selves in the process. While achieving this sense of alignment through purpose takes an effort to identify and maintain, it does lead to a more effortless way of being because our lives and priorities are in synch.

Sounds good, right? So, how do we do it? Well, there are some ways of creating perspective, doing some deep reflective work, and incorporating smaller life hacks that can set the stage for greater purpose. But first…

Baby steps

Embrace that personal change of the magnitude of creating and deepening purpose must be done in baby steps. No behavioral change or mind-shift can be sustained with sudden large alterations.

Remember that diet that eliminated all carbs in one fell swoop? Great for a few weeks, hard to keep doing in the long term. It’s better to change one meal at a time. Go from a two slice of bread sandwich to an open face. Pare down servings of pasta from a big bowl to a smaller one. And so it is with the long-term work needed to sustain purpose in the face of setbacks, upheavals, and change. Create small changes, fold them into your life, and celebrate being able to keep them going over time.

That’s not to say you won’t have lapses. Here’s where self-compassion comes in. Life happens. Change is easier when we feel robust, harder when we feel emotionally fragile. Take the Bunny Hop approach to life change – one jump forward, one jump back, and, if we’re lucky, three jumps forward.

Glass half full

One method to frame purpose in our lives is Appreciative Inquiry. This organizational change model can easily be adapted and applied to our whole lives. It begins with taking stock of what you bring to the table – your skills, talents, and traits. It asks us to envision moments when we felt most engaged and effective. Thus, we begin from a place of fullness and not of lack. We don’t begin with what we don’t have or can’t do. Starting from that place leaves us paralyzed with fear and doubt, not hope and energy.

Then we look at the end of the continuum and imagine what our ideal purpose might be and what our best self might look like. Where do we want to be? How do we want to feel?

Envisioning that desired state of being becomes a beacon in the distance – one that we can get to with some work and persistence. And our starting point? Not at the other end of the continuum where all the perceived negative aspects of our lives lie, but likely somewhere in the middle.

Because we’ve started from a place of strength and capacity, the gap between where we are and where we want to be is more narrow than if we had started by listing all the traits and resources we don’t have.

Feeling vs. doing

Danielle LaPorte, in her book The Desire Map, identifies an interesting distinction between what we want to do and how we want to feel. This distinction can also help us identify and cultivate purpose.

LaPorte believes that we spend much of our time identifying goals in terms of the things we want to do – be a this, do a that. While this might garner us an impressive resume, LaPorte asserts that a more fulfilling and spacious way to look at our lives is to ask how we want to feel, e.g., challenged, competent, creative, loved, valued, energized.

Once we identify those core desired feelings then we look for situations and relationships that generate them for us. This allows us to see multiple ways to achieve those feelings. We become less attached to a specific path and its destination and more to the scenery along the way.

LaPorte allows that we may be situated in a certain life with structures and demands that can’t be altered at the moment, and suggests a baby step approach. Not feeling energized and creative at work, but can’t change that at the moment? Then look for baby steps to create those feelings. While doing that, it’s critical that you be intentional about the feelings you’re trying to create and honor the steps you’ve taken to create them.
Suddenly, the creativity you crave can be found in a new holiday menu, a poetry reading on date night, or rearranging your living room.

Personal mission purpose statements

Mission statements are critical to the organizations we work for. They define what the organization does. They give direction and focus to strategy, anchor employee behavior and motivation, and inform the customers about what the company is trying to achieve.

A growing number of companies are creating purpose statements. These statements provide a more existential reason for being, create an emotional connection, and draw attention to how the organization impacts its customers and employees. It asks, “How does this company change or enhance lives?”

Purpose statements create empathy and emotional connection. Why? Because neuroscience is showing us that the seat of our decisions doesn’t lie in reason, but in emotion. Want someone to love what you do or make? Go for the heart – not the mind.

We can also create purpose statements for our personal lives. These statements are not the taglines at the top of our resume. They are a statement about how we live our lives. They involve identifying the kind of person, friend, parent, community member we want to be, the contributions we want to make, and our core values. From these reflections, we create a purpose statement that governs how we conduct ourselves in our lives.

Go with the flow

Another method for exploring purpose is flow. This concept, researched by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is the sweet spot of a pursuit. It’s that thing you do that is challenging – but not frustrating, encourages a merging of self with the activity, cultivates a sense of control and mastery, stems from intrinsic motivation, and causes you to lose track of time. It’s when you look up from what you’re doing and the clock has advanced two hours when it felt like five minutes. Flow can be found in creative arts but also the seemingly mundane – working on a math problem, gardening, tinkering with an engine, writing poetry, or DIY projects.

Studies on well-being indicate that creating more opportunities for flow state in our lives improves purpose. Many of us already have these flow activities in our lives. Again, be intentional about what they are, celebrate the importance of them in your life, and do them more often.

Mind the gap

Mindfulness is the single greatest creator of purpose and well-being. At its most basic level, mindfulness is the awareness of the present moment without judgment. Many times we go along in our lives unaware of how we are being impacted, how we impact others, and how many of our actions are driven by emotional reflex and not thoughtful decision making.

Mindfulness practices, such as meditation, draw us back to the now – which exists in our consciousness and is the only moment we can control. Our past lives in our memory and our future dwells in the imagination.

We are a future-seeking species, thanks to that part of the brain behind our forehead. However, while it’s natural to imagine a future or multiple futures, it’s not always beneficial. These imagined futures can be a source of distraction, worry, fear. We tend to give these created scenarios the full weight of reality. Yet, the faculty of imagination has no such reality. We could easily imagine a number of different outcomes that could occur.

Mindfulness allows us to build the pause, create the space, so we can experience the moment we’re living now. Then we can put it in context and observe it without judgment. This creates the intentionality of thoughts and actions critical to building purpose.

On purpose

Creating and sustaining purpose in our lives requires persistence and resolve. But as with any task, if we can see the big picture and we believe it’s worthwhile, then we embrace that we are working hard in the name of something larger and enduring – and that makes this work, well, seem less like a slog and more like the self-creating activity that it is – and one that we do on purpose.