Studies suggest that those of us living with purpose live healthier, happier and more meaningful lives. Psychologist Stanislava Puač Jovanović explores the power of purpose and offers suggestions for how to rediscover what your true role in life is.
The power of purpose is a well-known psychological super-tool. In fact, the idea of purpose is so important that an entire school in psychotherapy named logotherapy is based on it.
However, you do not need to be a psychologist to recognise how a powerful purpose transforms your life. Having something to live and fight for fills you with vigour and fervour. On the other hand, a lack of purpose can sometimes makes it feel like you are simply stuck on this planet, fiddling around.
Yet, it is way too easy to slip into inertia. Indeed, we can often get stuck in a rut before we even realise it. Everyday obligations and chores tend to pile up and steal our time — no matter how trifling they may be. Suddenly, all we do is get up, go to work, shop for groceries, come home, eat, sleep. And repeat.
Luckily, you always have the option to make a change in life. One way or an other, you can choose to find meaning in your life. If you are unsure where to start, this article might provide some guidance.
The power of purpose: theory, research and practice
Having a purpose, according to scholars, means having a clear long-term direction toward which to strive that organises one’s behaviours and sense of self.
A powerful purpose can be anything from earning a degree to raising a healthy child, writing a book or changing the world. It can be lifelong or stay with you for a limited time. The crucial aspect of a powerful purpose is that it must make sense to you personally. It can reside in any area of life, such as:
- Spiritual and personal development
- Arts and creativity
- Friends and family
- Profession and career
- Contributing to the community
- Activism, humanitarian work and causes
Why living with purpose improves your life
The power of purpose is well-documented in theory and empirical research.
In the introduction, I mentioned logotherapy. Viktor Frankl, a 20th-century medical doctor, psychiatrist, neurologist and philosophy student, developed this psychological theory shortly before being sent to the concentration camps. There, he was able to test his views under the most trying of circumstances.
Logotherapy means “healing through meaning” in Greek. It is a school of thought centred around a sense of purpose. It promotes freedom of choice and personal responsibility. One of its basic concepts states that we are motivated to find meaning. When this search is thwarted, we experience existential frustration and feelings of meaninglessness. Although we all intuitively agree with this postulation, empirical studies provide scientific corroboration.
Furthermore, according to scientific findings, a sense of meaning in life is closely associated with well-being. The power of purpose is reflected in mental and physical health across a lifespan.
“Having something to live and fight for fills you with vigour and fervour. On the other hand, a lack of purpose can sometimes makes it feel like you are simply stuck on this planet, fiddling around.”
And a large-scale study in the US from 2008 determined that a sense of purpose combined with a sense of control and a feeling like what you do is worthwhile – known as ‘eudaimonic well-being’ – contributes to a person’s longevity.
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Interestingly, research has also shown that a sense of purpose contributes to higher levels of household income and net worth and their greater increase over time.
The assumed mechanism through which the power of purpose works is based on transcendence.
According to logotherapy, we have the ability and the ultimate necessity to self-transcend in order to improve humanity. In other words, we need to be less self-centred and be a part of something greater than ourselves. By creating, experiencing, and taking a stance, we derive meaning in unavoidable guilt, suffering and death. In other words, we need to have a powerful purpose in order to overcome this trio of ills, named “the tragic triad of life” by Frankl.
The other side of the coin: not having a purpose
Frankl was unwillingly submitted to the ultimate test of his theory during the three years he was kept in the most infamous Nazi concentration camps. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning (provocatively named Why Haven’t You Killed Yourself? in my country), he witnessed the power of purpose first-hand. The prisoners would expect the end of the war, hoping for it to come, for example, by Christmas. They survived petrifying living conditions in surprisingly good health, living off that conviction. However, when the war did not end when they expected it to, they would suddenly become ill and perish within a few days. Frankl explains that they had lost their sense of purpose. They felt no meaning in living, and their bodies followed.
Thankfully, most of us are not exposed to circumstances anywhere close to those that were seen in concentration camps. However, the same mechanism is familiar to all of you, I am sure of it.
Here is a personal example from when I was a student. When I would pass an exam with the highest marks, one would expect me to feel relieved and exhilarated. And I did — only for the shortest time when I saw the mark. Then, for a few dreadful days that always followed, I used to feel utterly depressed. I felt deflated. I had some spare time between exams, and I could not get myself to do anything. I felt as if the colours in the world had faded.
It lasted until I started studying for the next exam. That is, until I found the next purpose.
Could your power of purpose lie in activism? shutterstock/Rawpixel.com
I know I am not alone in this experience. A close friend of mine was so severely struck by such a deflation that he attempted suicide after passing his bar exam. He worked towards it relentlessly for years. When he finally reached this massive goal, the endless void of a lack of purpose felt like too much to withstand.
These examples highlight how the power of purpose is vast and can work in both ways. When you live meaningfully, you thrive. And when you feel your life has no purpose, you dwindle.
It is perfectly normal sometimes to feel lost in life. However, if you are ready to find your purpose, there are ways you can go about.
Ways to find a powerful purpose
Are you ready to draw from the power of purpose to make you healthier and happier? Not knowing where to start to find your purpose can be off-putting. How to navigate through the long and winding road to determine the purpose that will keep you inspired?
First, let us move a common obstacle to feel the power of purpose out of the way. Many people object that they are not overly enthused to commit to any great cause. However, that is perfectly fine. This does not prevent you from living a purposeful life. You may remember that we spoke about purpose having to be absolutely personal.
“The power of purpose works both ways. When you live meaningfully, you thrive. And when you feel your life has no purpose, you dwindle.”
Frankl speaks of an older woman in therapy who felt that, in the end, her long life had no meaning whatsoever. Yet, he helped her realise that she has raised healthy and happy children and is a loving grandmother to her grandchildren. She is loved, and she will be missed. Her life was anything but meaningless.
In other words, you do not need to change the world for your existence to be meaningful. Here are a few ideas and questions to ask yourself when you are trying to tap into the power of purpose. Some are rather direct, and others are meant to stimulate the reflection and creativity you need to find and use the power of purpose in your life.
Takeaway: making your life count
Allow me to start this article’s final section with a cliché — you only live once. Yes, I realise it is a turn of phrase that has long lost its potency to move anyone. However, it is an essential notion that deserves a second glance.
So, give it a thought as if you were hearing this saying for the first time: you only get to live once.
Consider if you want to waste that bewildering opportunity? Spend your days void of meaning? Or do you want to take every breath knowing that it has a powerful purpose? That it bestows you the chance to grow, help, empathise, understand, give, learn, create, feel? Personally, I opt for the latter. And you? •
Main image: shutterstock/Song_about_summer
Written by Stanislava Puač Jovanović
Stanislava Puač Jovanović has a master’s degree in psychology and works as a freelance writer and researcher in this area. Her primary focus is on questions relating to mental health, stress-management, self-development and well-being.