3 Life Purpose Insights That Can Transform Your Life
How do we find our life purpose?
I volunteer at a major university business school in a program that leads students through deep readings of challenging texts, such as Plato, Aristotle, Chekov, and Orwell. This unique program engages the top scholars at the school in formal moral reflection once per semester.
Several years ago, three separate groups of students over the course of three consecutive semesters steered our conversation to essentially this quandary:
“We are getting a practical, skills-based education in business school, but how do we find our life’s purpose?”
I remember being blown away by the sincerity of the question the first time it came up. But by the third time, I felt like I needed to be able to offer more than anecdotal responses to this profound question.
So I started looking around for answers, first in the obvious places, and then in the less obvious places. Here are the 3 resulting insights that changed my understanding of life purpose discovery, and that are worth considering in your pursuit as well.
Insight 1: Instant gratification approaches are misleading.
My first step in researching life purpose was a Google search. The page was filled with articles promising instant gratification: “Six ways to discover your life purpose,” “3 unexpected ways to find your life purpose,” and “How To Discover Your Life Purpose In About 20 Minutes.”
Really, 20 minutes? I would have thought it took at least 30 ….
I quickly realized that you don’t Google search your way into life purpose. And next I discovered that you don’t Amazon your way there either.
I ended up reading a handful of books on life purpose, and I found that most of them had one of two orientations, either religious (whether Western or Eastern), or self-help. This made sense because life purpose has been the subject of religion in most cultures. But religious answers wouldn’t work for college students who come from a variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds.
And self-help approaches seemed inadequate because they were primarily anecdotal, the subjective or selective opinions of a single author (or the small group of people who the author interviewed).
So my initial investigation into life purpose guidance was a bit discouraging because I didn’t find the type of credible resources I hoped for. But it was also emboldening.
Once I decided that pursuing life purpose was not a ready-made or easy process, I was ironically encouraged.
The lack of a simple solution made seeking out life purpose seem more real. I actually became more engaged, realizing that it would take hard work, emotional investment, and more personal effort to both determine an approach and to enact the process of pursuing life purpose.
An authentic pursuit of life purpose is neither instant, nor ready-made. Life purpose is developed through deep self-discovery and personal growth, both of which require work, investment, and effort. But the payoff is worth it.
Insight 2: Nuances, not generalizations, lead to self-discovery and personal growth.
Life purpose is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot, and because its meaning seems pretty clear, most of us feel comfortable chiming in on what it is and how you can find it.
I certainly did.
But once I started peeling back the layers, I found that I had a lot more questions than I had originally considered:
- Is life purpose one thing, or can it be several things?
- Is it primarily about your career, or beyond it?
- Are you born with a life purpose, do you find your life purpose, or do you develop it?
- Is the purpose of life the same as the meaning of life?
- Is life purpose something you get by yourself, or are others involved?
- Does life purpose arise organically in your life, or is there a process you go through to get it?
And the list went on…
Despite the notion of life purpose seeming pretty general, there are actually important nuances that empower us in our pursuit of it when we address them head-on rather than assuming that we generally know what life purpose is.
If I had been satisfied with the 3 easy steps to life purpose, or believed that I would find life purpose in 20 minutes, then I would never have asked the harder questions that simple approaches ignore. These hard questions forced depth, and depth got beneath the expected, cliched answers that hold us back from real self-discovery and personal growth.
By not resting in a simplified approach to life purpose, but embracing the intellectual nuances and the emotional difficulties of a more authentic search, I not only discovered elements of my self that were previously unexamined, but I discovered a trove of insights that could help others in their search as well. These discoveries, both for myself and for others, created a momentum that has energized my life and my future.
So embrace the hard questions that you have in all of their nuance. The result will be a new depth of self-discovery and personal growth.
Insight 3: A new life purpose framework is emerging based on scientific discoveries.
Working through the nuances led me to discover that life purpose development has entered a new era. No longer are discussions of life purpose reliant on insights coming from religious traditions or individual author’s life experiences. Over the past 20 years, science has taken on the questions of life purpose, and the scientific investigation is producing very powerful insights, understandings, and directions.
I know this because I’ve spent the past four years reading up on the science to understand what we humans know about life purpose, how it develops, who has it and who doesn’t, and what the effects of having a life purpose, versus not having one, are on people and the societies that surround them.
The result of this investigation is an understanding that purpose is a critical element of life satisfaction, and that without a sense of purpose, life cannot be lived in an optimal way. The difference between those who have a sense of life purpose, and those who don’t, can be dramatic. It can be the difference between living a life of hope, optimism, meaning, and a sense of thriving, versus living a life characterized by boredom, apathy, depression, and even self-destructive or anti-social behaviors.
That’s not my personal opinion, that’s what academic researchers from universities like Stanford, University of California, and University of Pennsylvania have found.
And that’s not all they’ve found. They’ve also found that about 75% of us lack a full sense of life purpose (that’s 3 out of 4 people you know!).
75% of us lack a full sense of life purpose (that’s 3 out of 4 people you know!)
And while that may seem a little discouraging at first blush, the silver lining is that the other 25% of people who do have a sense of life purpose have been studied by these same researchers. Out of this research are coming the principles and frameworks that can help the rest of us in our pursuits of a more purposeful life.
So regardless of what other elements you include in your life purpose approach, know that science can now help by providing both insights and frameworks for guiding your process.
While the science of meaning and purpose is still relatively young, insights and resources arising out of it are beginning to emerge. This new body of scientific understanding is incremental to our traditional approaches, and it is identifying the foundational elements of purpose, how these elements develop, and the dynamics and conditions that can facilitate their presence in anyone’s life.
Life purpose development is neither ready-made nor easy. It takes intellectual and emotional effort, a lot of time, and a long-term commitment. But the outcomes are worth it. And science is not only proving how and why it’s worth achieving, science is also providing the insights and principles that can facilitate life purpose development for anyone who is willing to invest themselves in the process.
In terms of my own self-discovery, I got lucky because several groups of college students asked aloud the question I was quietly asking internally: what is my life purpose? This core question not only provoked me to search for answers beyond the readily available mass offerings, but it caused me to consider the nuances of the question that are best answered by science.
A big part of my own life purpose now is making this science available to others, including those students, who are seeking an intentional process of purpose development. I’ve found that when provided the guidance of science-based principles, and the freedom to deeply self-discover at their own pace, pursuers of life purpose experience remarkable insights and growth. But the few times that I’ve overstepped and pushed them to be satisfied with generalities for the sake of efficiency, their efforts have failed, and the pursuers have become frustrated by the process.
Life purpose is a long-term endeavor. There is no simple shortcut or hack. 2600 years ago Lao Tzu said, “Every journey begins with a single step,” and nowhere is that more true than with your life purpose. It’s a journey that only you can do, and the more considered, self-reflective, and nuanced you are (versus how fast you are) in your process, the better.
But it’s also not a journey that you need to take alone. Science is now studying larger populations, and these learnings can bring to your journey the deep understanding of how all of us humans experience meaning and develop senses of life purpose. By using these understandings, you can transform your solo journey into one that is not only more efficacious, but one that is in community with the rest of the world’s purpose seekers.
Want to learn more about the science of life purpose?
Download the free Purpose Primer ebook to learn more about how the science of Meaning And Purpose (MAP) relates to your personal search.