In researching for this article we were confounded by the sheer number of concepts, schools of thought and definitions pertaining to the theme of purpose. One article even implied we are living in a time of ‘peak purpose’! Do we need to have a purpose to have a fulfilling life? Does our purpose evolve with age and life experience?
Oprah recently interviewed Amanda Gorman, the extraordinary 23 year old poet, who made an impact at President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ inauguration with her poem “The Hill We Climb”.
When watching the interview I was amazed at how much meaning and purpose Amanda had at such a young age. Purpose and meaning varies so widely from person to person. A person who is struggling with the basics of life may have physical survival as their purpose versus someone who has service of others as their purpose. As an expansion of Maslow’s well known Hierarchy of Needs, Richard Barrett created the 7 Levels of Consciousness model to highlight how we can evolve from survival to contribution.
One of Barrett’s appendages to Maslow’s work was the expansion of self-actualisation through the application of Vedic philosophy in which we can experience seven states of consciousness.
Barrett’s work on self-actualisation and beyond is important as growing research shows society is shifting closer towards self-actualisation. Our definition of happiness has also shifted - evolving from hedonistic to eudaemonic. We no longer find fulfilment in the pursuit of enjoyment and pleasure alone. Humankind is searching for purpose and meaning in order to feel whole and content.
Jeremy Adam Smith describes this phenomenon in Berkeley's Greater Good Magazine,
“It’s not enough to just feel like you’re a small part of something big; you also need to feel driven to make a positive impact on the world.”
Some people know their purpose, others find their purpose consciously, some find their purpose when they are not looking and others live a life without purpose and meaning.
We combed through a myriad of resources to understand the role of purpose in our professional and personal lives, and how we can discover our purpose when at times it can feel elusive.
Purpose is ultimately a reason for doing. It is the deeper, gravitational pull towards something that we love or that fulfills us. It is what we wake up for in the morning. It can be self serving, though often it is altruistic. Purpose allows us to make an impact.
“Every time you wake up and ask yourself, ‘What good things am I going to do today?’ remember that, when the sun goes down at sunset, it will take a part of your life with it.”
This Indian proverb reminds us of the gravitas of having a purpose, but also reinstates the need to find a purpose if we haven’t already. Life is fleeting and so too are the opportunities to make an impact. For those without purpose some days may feel like wasted potential.
Self-fulfilment aside, a life of purpose has been shown to have an effect on physical and mental health, including links to a longer lifespan. This is evident in the Blue Zone regions (first identified by Dan Buettner). These are locations with significantly lower chronic disease and longer lifespans which share commonalities including whole plant food diets, physically active lifestyles and healthy social networks.
Another notable similarity within these regions is life purpose. In the blue zone of Nicoya this is called ‘plan de vida’, and in Okinawa ‘ikigai’ — a concept which we explore later in this article.
Living with purpose allows us to be more intentional, focused and productive as we work towards a larger goal. In a world of white noise, commitments and distraction, having an underlying purpose allows us to prioritise. As James Clear writes, ‘Having a clear purpose and a specific goal allows you to get right back to what is important after you respond to the everyday emergencies.’
We know a sense of purpose is integral to quality of life… so how do we find it?
There are innumerable resources at our disposal from TED Talks, to podcasts, to self help books that explain how we can find our purpose.
Often this process involves a sequence of self-examination or inquiry, reflection and subsequent action (a cycle similar to The Experiential Learning Cycle by David Kolb). There are many resources online to guide self-inquiry.
Here are a series of questions by Leo Barbatua of Zen Habits to prompt introspection as the first step in finding our purpose:
myhaventime tip → You can copy these questions into a new gem and begin exploring each point in your secure, calm and uninterrupted myhaventime room.
In addition to a process of self inquiry and reflection, we can look at concepts such as Ikigai to inform our search for purpose. Ikigai abstractly translates from Japanese as reason for being or value in living and is a concept widely documented in western media over recent years.
Psychologist Katsuya Inoue explains ikigai as consisting of two aspects: One, “sources or objects that bring value or meaning to life” and two, "a feeling that one's life has value or meaning because of the existence of its source or object".
Ikigai has long been embedded in Japanese culture, however it was popularised in 1966 by psychiatrist and academic Mieko Kamiya, and later conceptualised into the widely understood venn diagram by entrepreneur Marc Winn in 2014.
Winn’s diagram may not capture the essence of what ikigai means to the Japanese people, however it allows us to understand the fundamental ingredients of our true purpose: that which you love, that which the world needs, that which you can be paid for, and that which you are good at. When these elements combine we experience ikigai.
Whether you follow a process of self-inquiry or explore the application of ikigai to your own life, perhaps the pursuit of our purpose is in vain?
Can we really hypothesise our life purpose? Should we even search for our purpose? Or should we discover it inadvertently through lived experience?
To this point Iza Kavedžija writes for The Conversation, “Unlike the English term “purpose in life”, ikigai need not imply large or extraordinary projects that promise to lift one above everyday experiences. Such projects can equally be located in the mundane and the humble.”
Over the years my own pursuit of purpose had me listening to podcast after podcast, reading, reflecting and undertaking self inquiry. In an attempt to articulate my purpose, I had decided my work as a digital marketer was to help others communicate when they could not.
I do love this kind of work, but truth be told it hasn’t redefined my existence. Deep down I know I am still searching for my true purpose — the very thing I get up for in the morning.
So, in writing this article I found solace in learning that purpose is often discovered over time - not hypothesised, feverishly searched for or stumbled upon overnight.
In his article for New York Times Dhruv Khullar writes,
“Finding purpose is rarely an epiphany, nor is it something you pick up at the mall or download from the app store. It can be a long, arduous process that requires introspection and conversation, then a commitment to act.”
This is echoed in the words of eminent psychologist Carl Rogers who wrote, “The good life is a process, not a state of being”.
Yes we can undertake self-inquiry questionnaires, apply concepts like ikigai or consume countless books and podcasts, however some of us will only realise our purpose through lived experience.
Purpose can be found in everyday life - even painful, challenging experiences. It can be as simple as reframing one’s circumstances.
This article explains the scenario in which esteemed psychiatrist and founder of logotherapy (the belief that human nature is motivated by the search for a life purpose), Viktor Frankl, meets with an elderly patient overcome with grief after the passing of his wife. Frankl reframed the situation, allowing the man to see his purpose had been to spare his wife the pain of losing him first.
This is a poignant example of discovering purpose in unlikely places.
Life is abound with opportunities to create, build relationships, exercise our skills, care for others… If we simply reflected on these everyday experiences more often, the things that truly fulfil us may become apparent.
Some of us like Amanda Gorman are lucky to discover our purpose early in life.
A word for the rest of us… perhaps even more important than searching for an almighty purpose is stopping to notice the bounty of opportunities for meaning in everyday life. They are all around us.
To conclude with Dhruv Khullar, “The key to a deeper, healthier life, it seems, isn't knowing the meaning of life — it's building meaning into your life.”