Define Your PurposeOct 23, 2023
As an existentialist, I don’t believe that we are born with a pre-defined destiny. Consciousness does not come with a road map, so you are free to choose your own self-meaning. Let’s take a look at why you might want to define your purpose.
This article is a high-level overview of my much more in-depth work on purpose. And while it begs the question, this is not the time nor place for a detailed debate on the nature or existence of free will. It is clear that there are some circumstances we can control and others that we can’t.
So why would we want to have a purpose, anyway? Can’t we just be?
Much Ado About…Everything
Of course it is possible to go through life without a plan or a sense of purpose. Take things as they come, one step at a time.
This is the passive, reactive path. Life is seen as a series of events to which we react as best we can with the resources available to us. It is by far the most common mode of existence for two reasons. First, it is easy. There are no parameters to remember, no code of conduct to mind, no one else to consider. The second reason is because it is the default condition. It is the choice you make when you choose not to decide.
This reactive mode is fine for a long time for some people. Until it isn’t.
The passive path works until you are faced with a situation that rocks you out of your comfort zone. At that point, you realize that the passive way of being in the world also means that you are not in control of your life.
The death of a loved one, a chronic illness or major injury, a loss of income and status; all can leave you scared and confused. No one wants to feel a complete lack of control, especially when you see how life can deal a crushing blow in the blink of an eye.
Your task, at that point, is to realize that while you can’t control the seemingly random events of life, you can control your reactions and our interpretation of events. You can impose an active sense of order on an otherwise chaotic world.
When you choose to define your sense of purpose, you go from passive victim to active agent in the world. You can assign yourself a meaning that allows you to make sense of the senseless.
The Rewards of Purpose
People who operate from a sense of purpose are happier1,2,3,4,5 and healthier6,7 and live longer.8,9,10 Purposeful people are better able to handle the inevitable psychological stress that is a part of human consciousness.11,12,13,14,15
It is important to clearly summarize the research: A sense of purpose - which is a mental construct - increases your physical health, adds to your quality of life, and reduces your chance of premature mortality.
And on a more immediate, daily time frame, a sense of purpose will keep you going through adverse events. This resilience comes from a personal meaning that encompasses something larger than yourself.
Creators: A Special Case
Psychological and emotional resilience is of particular importance to professional creators. For many decades, education has been designed to train future corporate workers to have a predictable but not necessarily happy lifestyle. The goal is maximum efficiency in the service of the business. For most non-C-level positions, independent thinking is not particularly valued (to say the least).
Creators are faced with the opposite situation (but in most cases are still trained to be efficient corporate worker bees). Actors, painters, musicians, content creators - all people who create something new - are rewarded specifically for their ability to entertain, to educate, to “think outside the box.”
There is significant personal risk in these endeavors. The creator comes from a very personal place of invention: the task is to create something that didn’t exist before. By definition, there is no rule book to follow; no Generally Accepted Accounting Principles or Building Standards Code upon which they can rely - and blame if they fail.
More Than Personal
Imagine the creator who has just poured heart and soul into a course, or song or book. Now imagine that, once released to the public, it flops. Setbacks of this kind have led many a creative soul to say, “Am I cut out for this?” “Maybe I’m not good enough…” or worse, to give up altogether.
I routinely see people who are derailed by a perceived failure, and people who take it in stride and move on to the next project. The difference? A sense of purpose in a broader context that includes the people who need what you have to offer - your audience.
When success is defined in solely personal terms, our fragile self esteem is on the line. If our purpose is to “be famous,” or “be popular,” or “influential,” one bad card can bring the whole house down.
But a sense of meaning that encompasses a larger purpose brings resilience. The blog post that doesn’t reach a million people but gets 15 comments that say, “This is exactly what I needed - thank you.” is a rousing success. A podcast episode that doesn’t “go viral” but gets rave reviews from 100 engaged listeners was well worth the time. A social media account with 1,000 people who have a sense of community is worth more than 50,000 who will be gone in a year.
Define Your Purpose
All of these cases depend upon the intent to help more than just yourself. And when you define your purpose as something that serves the greater good - even if for a limited, specific audience - your definition of success will change.
Remember that you get to (have to!) define your own purpose. You can pick any meaning you like and can change it whenever you want. When you do, remember to consider the people who will benefit from your creative efforts.
When it matters to you that your work is valuable to others, you are more likely to stay the course through setbacks and challenges.
And you can’t reach a million people if you’re not in the game.
Next week we will look at some strategies to develop a resilient, larger sense of purpose. Stay tuned.
1. Ryff, C. D., & Singer, B. H. (2008). Know Thyself and Become What You Are: A Eudaimonic Approach to Psychological Well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9(1), 13-39.
2. Steger, M. F., Frazier, P., Oishi, S., & Kaler, M. (2006). The meaning in life questionnaire: Assessing the presence of and search for meaning in life. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53(1), 80-93.
3. Kashdan, T. B., & McKnight, P. E. (2009). Origins of Purpose in Life: Refining our Understanding of a Life Well Lived. Psychological Topics, 18(2), 303-316.
4. Zika, S., & Chamberlain, K. (1992). On the relation between meaning in life and psychological well-being. British Journal of Psychology, 83(1), 133-145.
5. King, L. A., Hicks, J. A., Krull, J. L., & Del Gaiso, A. K. (2006). Positive affect and the experience of meaning in life. Journal of personality and social psychology, 90(1), 179-196.
6. Kim, E. S., Strecher, V. J., & Ryff, C. D. (2014). Purpose in life and use of preventive health care services. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(46), 16331-16336.
7. Koizumi, M., Ito, H., Kaneko, Y., & Motohashi, Y. (2008). Effect of having a sense of purpose in life on the risk of death from cardiovascular diseases. Journal of Epidemiology, 18(5), 191-196.
8. Boyle, P. A., Barnes, L. L., Buchman, A. S., & Bennett, D. A. (2009). Purpose in life is associated with mortality among community-dwelling older persons. Psychosomatic Medicine, 71(5), 574-579.
9. Alimujiang, A., Wiensch, A., Boss, J., Fleischer, N. L., Mondul, A. M., McLean, K., ... & Pearce, C. L. (2019). Association Between Life Purpose and Mortality Among US Adults Older Than 50 Years. JAMA Network Open, 2(5), e194270-e194270.
10. Hill, P. L., & Turiano, N. A. (2014). Purpose in life as a predictor of mortality across adulthood. Psychological science, 25(7), 1482-1486.
11. Southwick, S. M., Bonanno, G. A., Masten, A. S., Panter-Brick, C., & Yehuda, R. (2014). Resilience definitions, theory, and challenges: interdisciplinary perspectives. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 5(1), 25338.
12. Masten, A. S. (2011). Resilience in children threatened by extreme adversity: Frameworks for research, practice, and translational synergy. Development and Psychopathology, 23(2), 493-506.
13. Maddi, S. R., & Khoshaba, D. M. (2001). Personal Views Survey III: The Measurement of Stress Hardiness. In Innovations in Stress and Health. Palgrave Macmillan UK.
14. Papero, D. (2014). Assisting the resilient person: fostering a sense of purpose and the capacity for productive focus. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 35(4), 421-433.
15. Ong, A. D., Bergeman, C. S., Bisconti, T. L., & Wallace, K. A. (2006). Psychological resilience, positive emotions, and successful adaptation to stress in later life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(4), 730-749.
I am a creator (musician, writer, live-streamer and podcaster), entrepreneur, counselor and professor.
To learn more about how to use these concepts or to inquire about working with me, you can contact me through my website, the comments section on my Substack or Medium accounts or The Authentic Life Blog page. If you have found value in this article, consider following my Instagram and Twitter (now called X) accounts. To support this community, you can even Buy Me A Coffee or donate through my Patreon account.
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