How A Sense Of Purpose Impacts Your Life

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Have you ever met someone who’s the same today as they were ten years ago? It’s as if time has stood still for them, all the while the rest world has moved on. When you ask them what their plans are they won’t be able to tell you anything new, and when you ask them what they’re looking forward to they either won’t have an answer or their answer will be a rehash of the “same old same old.”

According to the DISC Behavior Model, 69% of people are characterized as steady, stable, and supportive, and are largely motivated by the fear of losing security. In other words, they will actively avoid making changes—even positive changes. Beyond this inherent fear-based behavior, there are a number of external factors can contribute to this kind of limiting behavior:

  • People may be discouraged by others.
  • People may have been hurt by past disappointment.
  • People may settle for average.
  • People may simply lack confidence.

Whatever the cause, ultimately no one will ever change until they hurt enough that they have to change, learn enough that they want to change, and receive enough that they are able to change. To be clear, I’m not talking about change just for the sake of change, or compromising core values; rather, I’m talking about the kind of change that involves positive growth; growth that ensures that next year you’re not just a year older, but a year wiser too.

Live On Purpose
When we have to change, want to change, and are able to change, it offers us a sense of purpose—a meaningful and motivating drive to make the most of our days. According to Dr. Stephanie Hooker, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, having a sense of purpose is “basically the idea that your life makes sense, you’re here for a reason, and you’re significant in the world.” Yet without this drive we become demotivated, like a sailboat with neither sail nor wind. Though many of us have experienced firsthand the joy of having a sense of purpose, there’s also plenty of research to support these claims for those skeptical to the whims of emotions, including a number of health benefits. A sense of purpose can:

Based on these finding, Dr. Hooker concludes that, “People who have a greater sense of meaning may be more likely to take care of themselves because they feel as if their lives matter more…they’ve got this ultimate purpose that they’re trying to achieve, and health is the foundation for being able to do that.”

What You Believe Affects Your Ambitions
It’s clear that having a sense of purpose is good for us, but what about the causes that hold people back from cultivating a sense of purpose? How do we foster purpose when we’re discouraged by others, hurt by past disappointment, have settled for average, and simply lack confidence?

The author and corporate trainer Bridget Irby suggests, “The real reason most people get what they want out of life [is] belief,” which she narrows down to two core beliefs: When people are held back from positive growth they either don't believe they deserve more out of life, or they don't believe the can obtain it. What you can takeaway from this insight is that if you choose to believe in your worthiness and choose to believe that you can achieve what you set your mind to, you will be able to achieve it.

As Henry Ford reminds us: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can't, you're right.” And as the Little Engine that Could suggests, you should keep this as your mantra: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

Two Practices For Cultivating Purpose
To help you cultivate a sense of purpose, consider these two practices that you can implement today:

1. Serve Others
Sages throughout the ages have suggested that purpose can be found in helping others.

  • Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” 
  • Winston Churchill is credited as saying, “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” 
  • And a Chinese proverb suggests: “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a month, get married. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody else.”

Social scientists support these claims, with research indicating that service to others can provide a sense of meaning, contribute to one’s own success and growth and happiness.The behavioral neuroscientist Alice Walton suggests that valuing service to others can also provide mental health benefits, stating: “Much of our mental anguish, stress and depression is linked to rumination and worry-based, self-referential thoughts.” Therefore, focusing on others serves as a way to stop that rumination and give our minds a rest.

But not everyone is convinced that purpose is necessarily linked to servicing others. The psychotherapist Tina Gilbertson asserts that your purpose is simply what you do. “Just do your thing, whether it’s playing music, studying frogs, making a fortune or making pies.” And if whatever you do also happens to provide service to others, well isn’t that nice. One way to do this is to integrate our interests and talents, which can oftentimes overlap with the needs of others.

2. Stimulate Your Passions
In my book Are You P.O.S.I.T.I.V.E.?: Rethinking Positive Thinking, I share a practice called stimulate your passions. We define passion as the intersection of our talents and our interests—with our talents being the things that we can do better than most people with little or no effort, and our interests being the things that we think about even when we should be thinking about something else. Stimulating our passions honors the work that we have been “made for;” the work that the poet Rumi suggests has been naturally placed in “every heart.”

This distinction between talents and interests can also be understood as the tension between aptitudes and values, which brings up an important question: Just because we can do something, does that mean that we should do something? This line of questioning proposes a noteworthy difference between two conflicting purposes: Our primary inner purpose, and our secondary outer purpose. This is another way of stating the reminder that we are human beings, not human doings. In this understanding, our inner purpose involves our core convictions, and our outer purpose is how we express those values. In other words, we will discover our true sense of purpose when what we do in this life is a clear reflection of who we are in this life.


  1. What can you do today to serve others?
  2. What are your talents and interests? Why are they important to you?
  3. And how can you stimulate your passions in a way that honors the work that you've been made for?

Final Thoughts
Having a sense of purpose not only provides meaning and significance to our lives, it also comes with a myriad of physical and mental health benefits. Plus, there’s a good chance that we’ll be able to help others along the way, which can either be a happy happenstance or an intentional initiative. Finding your authentic life purpose is a discerning move, and by taking the time to be mindful and reflect on your positive impact on the world around you, you’ll be well-poised to enjoy the benefits.

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