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What should I do with my life?

It’s an important question. And if you’re not sure about the answer, don’t worry. You are not alone.

According to purpose expert William Damon, 80% of young folks between 12 and 26 don’t feel purposeful.13

As for those in mid-life or older, studies indicate that sense of purposefulness declines as we age in part due to changing life circumstances14. In one sample of 5,400 adults 18+ only 20% were confident that they had a clear sense of purpose.15

You’ve come to an excellent place to help you explore the answer.

Take a moment to consider your life, especially what you’re doing with it right now. (Really! Pause for at least fifteen seconds and consider what you’re invested in right now.)

Which series of the following statements do you feel applies most to you?

  • I’m generally bored.
  • When I think about my life in 5 or 10 years, I’m not excited by what I find there.
  • I dread my work.
  • I feel stuck.
  • I don’t think what I’m doing matters.
  • It’s too late to make a change.
  • I feel like something is missing from my life.
  • I’m disappointed by the daily grind.
  • I feel uninspired.
  • I feel like I’m wandering aimlessly.
  • I don’t feel fulfilled.
  • I don’t know what I want.
  • I don’t know what’s next.
  • Things feel “fine” or even “good” but I’m wondering what else is possible.
  • I’m not as motivated as I want to be.
  • I wouldn’t say I’m totally fulfilled.
  • I feel purposeful.
  • I’m considering a career change.
  • I’m excited about fulfilling my potential.
  • I know what I want to do with my life.

No matter which of the above columns you identify with, there is something here for you, whether it is gaining greater self-awareness, developing passion, cultivating purpose, or simply learning about how and why purpose works!

Purpose The Gist of Purpose Parts of Purpose Purpose Fundamentals Purpose in Context Purpose as your Work Should You Quit Your Job Purpose Myths Hindrances to Purpose Benefits of Purpose Passion The Purpose Journey Clarify your Purpose Align with your Purpose Support your Purpose Purpose Practice and Exercises Purpose Resources

Purpose is an intentional life aim that is…

Personally Meaningful

Your purpose is significant to you specifically.

Goal-Oriented

Your goals are HOW you execute your purpose. They are actionable.

Self-Transcendent

Your purpose will impact the world beyond yourself.

Are you aligned with purpose?
Take the Quiz to find out!

“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.” –Viktor Frankl

Life On Purpose: How Living for What Matters Changes Everything
Vic Strecher, a behavioral scientist, re-examined his life purpose when his daughter passed away. In this talk, he explains how purpose impacts the brain by decreasing our fear and pain responses. He admonishes us to give our best self to the things in our lives in order to live purposefully.

“I’m Fine Thanks”
This film depicts the typical story we’re fed about how to live a happy life, and follows ordinary people on their journey of questioning this story. “A documentary crew travels around the United States to interview everyday people on how they got trapped in complacent, dull lives and careers, and the steps they took to change their lives forever.”

The Proof is in the Purpose Pudding

Research indicates that Purposefulness Improves Our Lives!

  • Live up to 7 years longer.¹
  • Greater sense of purpose is correlated with better immunity, better sleep, and better sex.² ³ ⁴ ⁵
  • Be 2x as likely to learn something new every day.
  • Experience a 47% increase in feelings of abundance in your life.
  • Be 125-225% more productive in your work.
  • Have stronger and more abundant relationships.
  • Experience endorphins from helping others.⁸ ⁹ ¹⁰ ¹¹

Carol Ryff on Purpose and health
Carol Ryff is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Dr. Ryff is well-known for identifying six dimensions of psychological well-being:one of which is purpose. In this video she explains some of the benefits.

How to unlock the power of purpose | Richard Leider | TEDxEdina
Richard Leider, an executive coach and author, uses stories to illustrate the power of purpose and explains its health benefits in this Ted Talk.  He then shares his formula for discovering your Calling. “Gifts + Passions + Values=Calling”

“This is the true joy in life: being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live.
I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” – George Bernard Shaw
(See the topics of Obsessive Passion and Busyness for more insight)

Purposeful People

Krista Tippett is an American broadcaster, author, and founder of the radio program On Being.

After working in the realm of geopolitics after college she realized something wasn’t quite right and took a hiatus to reflect. It was then she came fully into her passion for spirituality and theology. Krista returned to the field of journalism with vigor for discussing these topics and to this day hosts a successful radio show about them.

Blake Mycoskie is the CEO of TOMS Shoes. Inspired by the dire need he discovered for safe footwear amongst children in Argentina, he combined his passion for entrepreneurship with charity and created a hugely successful model for impactful, purpose-driven business that provides shoes to children all over the world.

Alice Waters is an American chef and food activist who found combined purpose and passion in transforming modern food culture. She brought focus to and enhanced the perceived value of whole, unprocessed, local and seasonal foods, pioneering what is now known as the “Slow Food” movement.

By reading the Purpose section and applying it in your life, you will:

  • Clarify your priorities by understanding your values and use them to design a life you love that is uniquely fit for you.
  • Design both mental AND actionable experiments to learn what makes you come truly alive.
  • Figure out if you should quit your job, stay there, or craft something powerfully in between.
  • Discover the beliefs that hold you back from experiencing greater purpose and passion.
  • Learn how your culture has contributed to what you believe is possible or right for your life.
  • Build resilience by harnessing the powers of challenge and “failure” on your purpose journey.
  • Manage multiple passions, interests, and purposes.
  • Continue to take action, set attainable goals, and persevere towards your dreams.

The Purpose Challenge
The Purpose Challenge is a program for high schoolers that helps them cultivate purpose. This video is their pitch, inspiring their audience to pursue purpose through listing the many mental, emotional, and physical benefits of purpose. They impress that your purpose is your “why.”

Maybe you think…

But actually…

You only have ONE purpose. You could have multiple purposes!
Your purpose is something you’re passionate about. Purpose and passion are DIFFERENT things; they may or may not overlap!
You live your purpose through your JOB. Your purpose does NOT have to be channelled through your job. However, we do spend between 80,000-150,000 hours12 on our careers, and this is a wonderful chunk of time to do something purposeful.
Having a purpose will make you happy. It may… or it may not. Having a purpose tends to involve challenges, so easy-going happiness isn’t a part of the picture. Your purpose will certainly contribute a sense of fulfillment, however!
You figure out your purpose through introspection. Introspection is only half the battle! To cultivate purpose you must TAKE ACTION. This means getting out into the real world to experiment and learn about yourself in real time!

Learn more about purpose myths here!

Purpose is a Journey, Not a Destination

The purpose journey is filled with twists and turns, course-corrections, detours, and dead-ends. And it doesn’t end at a specific destination- it’s a journey you will be on your entire life!

Think of it as following a guiding star (or several if you have multiple purposes). The purpose journey is consistently directing yourself towards your distant star. You never actually reach the star (although you will achieve specific landmarks along the way, AKA ‘goals’), but it guides your actions and direction. You spend your life re-aligning your ship to pursue this vision as storms blow you off track, you take detours to explore, or change your mind and choose other stars.

But how do you know what star(s) to follow?

The purpose journey has a few stages, and you can move through them over and over in an intentional life. Although they aren’t necessarily chronological, it can help to think of them in the following order:

1. Clarify

2. Fortify

3. Align

1. Clarify 

In order to cultivate purpose we have to start by examining the stories we believe to be true about ourselves and the way the world works (i.e., ‘What does success mean to me personally?’ ‘What do I think I’m capable of?’). These narratives will illuminate roadblocks we’ve set up for ourselves and better enable us to disassemble them.

After understanding our narratives and how they’ve impacted us we move on to clarify our values, strengths, and desires.

This helps us choose a star (or multiple) to follow and illuminates the landscape we’ll be traversing.

2. Fortify

There are several provisions with which we can fortify ourselves to make our purpose journey more successful. And if you already have these things in your life, you’re more likely to experience purposefulness!

Self Knowledge

Harmonious Passion

Supportive Mentors & Community

Growth Mindset

Challenge

And More!

3. Align

Once you have your star(s) and your provisions (although re-visiting these and developing them will happen throughout the alignment process) you can begin aligning with the path towards your star. This involves designing potential courses of action that utilize your values, interests, and strengths. It involves experimenting with these designs, reflecting on them, and adjusting accordingly. Alignment also involves perseverance and commitment!

“The tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream… It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for. Not failure, but low aim is sin.” – Benjamin Mays

Alan Watts – Life and Music 
This short animation from the creators of South Park illustrates a speech by philosopher Alan Watts as he explains the hamster-wheel path of life we’re taught. He offers that we are always chasing the next phase of our lives and can forget to enjoy it along the way.

Personal Purpose Journeys

Dame Anita Roddick was originally a teacher who felt the call of travel. After years of exploring other countries she started a B&B with her husband, then a restaurant. In 1976 she shut the restaurant down to fund a massive horse-back trip for her husband and decided to open up a skin-care shop (inspired by the knowledge she gained during her travels) to support her daughters in the meantime.

She stuck to her values and made sure to ethically source her ingredients and prioritize minimal waste. The Body Shop became one of the first examples of ethical consumerism and today has shops all over the world.

Jamie Kern Lima for The Good Life Project Podcast
The Good Life Project interviews entrepreneur Jamie Kern Lima in this episode, demonstrating that your life path can take unexpected turns.

“Jamie Kern Lima thought she’d spend her life in the world of broadcast TV. Then, the camera started picking up a genetic skin condition that she struggled to hide and threatened to derail what she’d worked for. That experience set in motion a quest that eventually led her out of broadcast journalism and into the world of entrepreneurship where she’d eventually found IT Cosmetics, a company she started in her living room and would eventually sell to L’Oreal for $1.2 Billion, becoming the first female CEO in L’Oreal’s 100+ year history.”

Mining Poems or Odes, from Psyche
Robert Fullerton grew up in the Glasgow shipyards. If it wasn’t for a mentor who encouraged him to read a philosophical book several times, he wouldn’t have taken up poetry. He spent his life dedicated to writing verse and welding. His welding informed and inspired his writing.

Jake Wood for The Good Life Project Podcast
The Good Life Project interviews Team Rubicon founder Jake Wood with an epic tale of purpose!

“When Marine sniper Jake Wood arrived home in the States after two brutal tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he wasn’t leaving war behind him. Ten years after returning home, Jake’s unit lost more men to suicide than to enemy hands overseas, including his friend Clay.
Reeling, Jake wondered if there was a way to help communities in crisis, often in the wake of natural disasters, while providing a new mission to veterans, purpose, community, and sense of identity? With that, he built on the early missions to co-found the now-iconic Team Rubicon, a disaster relief organization with over 140,000 volunteers that drop into locations around the world to battle hurricanes, tornados, wildfires, pandemics, and civil wars, while reconnecting with a sense of purpose along the way.”

Let’s face it. You’re going to die one day.

Here’s a fun collection of content to make the concept of death more intimate.
This calculator will even estimate what day that will be (it’s a fun one to check out really quick, and only takes a minute.)

Now considering how much time you have left after checking the death calculator above, consider it in the context of blogger Tim Urban’s time pie of how our time typically gets used up (based on someone living to the age of 85):

The time we have available to go out into the world and do something meaningful, fulfilling, and impactful is limited! Tim Urban estimates it at 250,000 hours, or roughly a third of our lives.

Take a look at the life you’re living right now. How did you decide to do the things you’re currently committed to? Were you following the path your culture dictated? Did you experiment and find what works for you personally?

Life Is Short

You don’t know how much time you really have left. While ups and downs are inherent to our lives, regularly feeling bored, unfulfilled, directionless, or unsure of what you’re missing out on does not have to be your default setting. If this is the case for you, do you want to spend the precious time you have feeling this way?

And if you don’t feel this way often, have you taken the time to question your beliefs about happiness, success, and meaning? How do you know if you’re missing something? Is what you’re experiencing now really “good enough?”

NOW is always an excellent time to start living purposefully!

William Schiemann, author of “Fulfilled,” explains that we all gamble when it comes to our fulfillment; we think that how we choose to spend our time will get us what we want. But we don’t often put enough intention into this. Being more intentional with our “bets” will increase our likelihood of becoming fulfilled.

Learning about purpose will help you become more intentional with your critical life choices.

Not only will clarifying your values and cultivating purpose increase your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing, it will increase your satisfaction with life overall. *Check out the Purpose Benefits page

Sounds pretty lovely, doesn’t it?

You are welcome to hop around the purpose section as inspiration strikes you. We recommend the following path, as some of the ideas build on each other:

  1. Purpose: The Gist
  2. Defining Purpose
  3. Benefits of Purpose
  4. How we develop a definition of purpose/Influences on purpose/How purpose has been defined for you
  5. The Forms of Purpose
  6. 7 Myths About Purpose
  7. Hindrances to Purpose
  8. How to Cultivate Purpose
    • About the Journey
    • Enablers of Purpose (Fortify/Provisions)
    • Discover Purpose (Clarify)
    • Align with Purpose
    • Take Action
    • Practice & Exercises
  9. Inspiration & Resources

You can also click around on the below image to navigate the section. The metaphor of purpose as a journey will guide you through the water cycle.

For a complete list of the MANY sections of this site related to Purpose, click here.

Purpose The Gist of Purpose Parts of Purpose Purpose Fundamentals Purpose in Context Purpose as your Work Should You Quit Your Job Purpose Myths Hindrances to Purpose Benefits of Purpose Passion The Purpose Journey Clarify your Purpose Align with your Purpose Support your Purpose Purpose Practice and Exercises Purpose Resources

Purpose Videos

Animated

Alike
In a busy life, Copi is a father who tries to teach the right way to his son, Paste. But… what is the correct path?

Inner Workings
Paul works in an office at Boring, Boring and Glum. Inside him, his brain struggles to get Paul to work, battling against his heart’s desire to break out of the dull routine and have fun instead.

El Empleo / The Employment
This satirical, award-winning animated short makes a dark statement regarding the nature of work we are not invested in.

Movie Clips

Defending Your Life
Two excerpts from “Defending Your Life” portraying a bureaucratic afterlife in which one must justify their actions and be placed for reincarnation.

Joe Vs. The Volcano
Tom Hanks plays a man who wakes up to a new life: a life free of fear. This clip from the film showcases how such a discovery transforms his behavior and the experiences and relationships he will tolerate.

Again, in case you missed it: the trailer for ‘I’m Fine Thanks’

Talks

Again, Strecher’s TEDx talk about Purpose research.

Again, Richard Leider’s stories illustrating the power of purpose.

Again, Alan Watts on the hamster wheel path of life.

Citations

  1. Sone, Toshimasa OTR, BA; Nakaya, Naoki PhD; Ohmori, Kaori MD, PhD; Shimazu, Taichi MD, PhD; Higashiguchi, Mizuka PhD; Kakizaki, Masako MS; Kikuchi, Nobutaka MD, PhD; Kuriyama, Shinichi MD, PhD; Tsuji, Ichiro MD, PhD Sense of Life Worth Living (Ikigai) and Mortality in Japan: Ohsaki Study, Psychosomatic Medicine: July 2008 – Volume 70 – Issue 6 – p 709-715. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0b013e31817e7e64
  2. Fredrickson BL, Grewen KM, Coffey KA, Algoe SB, Firestine AM, Arevalo JM, Ma J, Cole SW. A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Aug 13;110(33):13684-9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1305419110. Epub 2013 Jul 29. PMID: 23898182; PMCID: PMC3746929.
  3. Barbara L. Fredrickson, Karen M. Grewen, Kimberly A. Coffey, Sara B. Algoe, Ann M. Firestine, Jesusa M. G. Arevalo, Jeffrey Ma, Steven W. Cole. “Gene expression and well-being.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Aug 2013, 110 (33) 13684-13689; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1305419110
  4. 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 of the United States of America, 111(46), 16331–16336. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1414826111
  5. Prairie, B. A., Scheier, M. F., Matthews, K. A., Chang, C. C., & Hess, R. (2011). A higher sense of purpose in life is associated with sexual enjoyment in midlife women. Menopause (New York, N.Y.), 18(8), 839–844. https://doi.org/10.1097/gme.0b013e31820befca
  6. Heathways, Inc & Gallup, Inc. (2014). State of Global Well-Being: Results of the Gallup-Heathway Global Well-Being Index TM. http://info.healthways.com/hs-fs/hub/162029/file-1634508606-pdf/WBI2013/Gallup-Healthways_State_of_Global_Well-Being_vFINAL.pdf?t=1428689269171
  7. Leider, R., & Metlife, Inc. (2009).MEANING TRUMPS MONEY FOR THOSE SEEKING THE “GOOD LIFE,” ACCORDING TO METLIFE MATURE MARKET INSTITUTE® STUDY. https://www.metlife.com/about-us/newsroom/2009/january/meaning-trumps-money-for-those-seeking-the-good-life–according-/ 
  8. Luks, A. A. (1988). Helper’s high. Psychology Today, 22(10), 39.
  9. Post, S. G. (2005). Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It’s Good to Be Good. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 12(2), 66-77.
  10. Midlarsky, E. (1991). Helping as coping. Prosocial Behavior: Review of Personality and Social Psychology, 12, 238-264
  11. Lyubomirsky, S, Sheldon, K M, & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 111 – 131
    https://80000hours.org/
  12. Damon, William. The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life. Free Press, 2009.
  13. Pinquart, M. (2002). Creating and maintaining purpose in life in old age: A meta-analysis. Ageing International, 27(2), 90–114. doi:10.1007/s12126-002-1004-2
  14. Kobau, R., Sniezek, J., Zack, M. M., Lucas, R. E., & Burns, A. (2010). Well-Being Assessment: An Evaluation of Well-Being Scales for Public Health and Population Estimates of Well-Being among US Adults. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 2(3), 272–297. doi:10.1111/j.1758-0854.2010.01035.x