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When the Pursuit of Purpose is Overrated

Photo by Darren DeLoach

Celine is one of my best friends from college and probably one of the happiest, most contented people I know. She finds tremendous joy in spending time with her husband, cooking tasty meals for her loved ones, maintaining her exercise routine, and is perfectly happy with staying where she is in her career. Celine told me that she would give her life a 12 out of 10 if she could. If I have to come up with a purpose for Celine, I’d say it would be bringing people joy through her jokes and dinner parties. The thing is, Celine never sets out to look for her purpose. If anything, she is living her purpose without knowing what it is.

I have long been a proponent of searching for one’s purpose. A person’s purpose describes a commitment that is enduring and personally meaningful¹. One general consensus among psychologists is that purpose transcends the self¹, i.e. it drives us to make a difference in some aspect of the world beyond ourselves. It can give us direction, motivation, and can help us persevere through difficult times. I thought purpose was the ultimate ticket to a more meaningful life, until I thought of my friend Celine.

Celine’s case got me wondering: Is the search and pursuit of purpose overrated? What do we need to know if we want to have a more meaningful life?

The Three Facets of Meaning in Life

I first turned to the works of one of the most influential researchers on meaning and purpose, Michael Steger. After a broad review of different theories on meaning and purpose, Steger and his collaborator, Frank Martela, concluded in a 2016 paper that meaning in life emerges from three sources: significance, comprehension (or coherence) and purpose².

Significance reminds us that we need to recognize that our lives matter. Our lives are significant in their own right, regardless of our past, present or future, irrespective of our ability or inability to accomplish. A little baby’s life is as significant as yours and mine and no more meaningful than that of an incapacitated patient near the end of their life. To acknowledge our significance, we need self-compassion and the radical acceptance of our flaws and failures. We also need to give ourselves and others permission to celebrate our strengths and triumphs.

Purpose, generally defined to be goals that provide direction in life, can vary in the extent of nobleness and size of impact². Purpose can provide us with motivation. When going through difficult times, purpose can help us persevere. Purpose is said to be like “the anchor we throw to pull us to our future”³.

Comprehension is about contemplation over our life’s journey to make sense of what has happened. Psychologists believe that humans have an inherent need to make sense of our lives². When that “sense” gets disrupted, we have this evolutionarily adaptive ability to want to find patterns and connections to restore some kind of coherence. Sometimes it takes some negotiating, some editing, to design a narrative that serves us, one that makes us feel significant enough perhaps, so that we can move on to the next chapter.

The yin and yang of a Meaningful Life

Although Steger and Martela did not explicitly discuss the relationship between significance, comprehension, and purpose, I cannot help but notice the dynamics among these three concepts: If purpose is the “yang” with a forward-moving energy imbued with desire, significance is “yin” that we look back on, and comprehension is what creates a dynamic balance between the two.

A life fully driven by achieving one’s purpose (the “yang”) without pausing occasionally to reflect on one’s progress, to recognize one’s value, and count one’s blessings (the “yin”) can be energy depleting. While we have our eyes set on that big, “superordinate goal”, we need to remember to appreciate the seemingly ordinary but significant things in our lives: our health, meaningful relationships, sacred little moments such as people showing kindness to each other, or the magnificence of nature. Savouring the “yin” replenishes us with the life energy essential to pursuing the “yang”.

What Watching the Movie Soul Taught me about Purpose

Sometimes acknowledging the “yin” is what makes the “yang” more meaningful. It actually took watching the recent Pixar movie, Soul, for me to fully grasp this profound aspect of meaning in life.

Soul’s main character, Joe Gardner, is a middle school band teacher. To Joe, music is his raison d’être. He thinks that his life would be meaningless if he didn’t pursue his purpose of playing jazz piano full-time. After successfully playing a “gig of his life” with Dorothea Williams, a well-known saxophonist, Joe is surprised that he doesn’t feel the kind of exhilaration and satisfaction he expected. As he returns home empty-hearted, Joe recognizes a few ordinary objects lying around in his apartment: the spool of thread used to make the suit he is wearing, the outer ring of a tasty pizza he ate earlier that day, and the maple seed that spiralled to his palm while he was watching the sky…Joe realizes that he has always been pursuing, but he hasn’t been living. He is so wrapped up in the pursuit of his purpose that he dismisses others who open themselves up to simply enjoy the ordinary moments in life.

Joe’s story reminds us not to let the pursuit of our purpose define us.

Our purpose is like the North Star, which gives us direction. It should not be our destination, like the North Pole.

Is Purpose Overrated?

In my opinion, purpose is not overrated itself. It just shouldn’t be considered essential to living a meaningful life.

A meaningful life is as much of a journey as it is a state of mind.

While we all get so busy doing, remember to be. Strike a balance between the appreciative and inclusiveness of the “yin” and the action and expansiveness of the “yang”. True meaning doesn’t simply come from our accomplishments. Before we launch into discovering and pursuing our purpose, we need to recognize the significance of our lives, look back, reflect, and craft a coherent narrative that we can continue to build our life from.

Steve Jobs once said in his 2005 Stanford Commencement address, “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

Perhaps the trust that Steve Jobs talked about can come exactly from connecting the dots looking backward. Reflecting and appreciating our past and present can give us the foundation that grounds and restores us. This is the place where we can tap into for inspiration, motivation, and a truly meaningful life.

Get in touch if you’d like support on finding more meaning and purpose at work or in other areas of your life.

1. Bronk, K. C. (2011). The role of purpose in life in healthy identity formation: A grounded model. New Directions for Youth Development, 2011(132), 31–44. doi:10.1002/yd.426

2. Martela, F., & Steger, M. F. (2016). The three meanings of meaning in life: Distinguishing coherence, purpose, and significance. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 11(5), 531–545. DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2015.1137623

3. Steger, M. F., Sheline, K., Merriman, L., & Kashdan, T. B. (2013). Using the science of meaning to invigorate values-congruent, purpose-driven action. In T. B. Kashdan & J. Ciarrochi (Eds.), Mindfulness, acceptance, and positive psychology: The seven foundations of well-being (pp. 240–266). Context Press.

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Iris Cai

Iris Cai

Changemaker, storyteller, & positive psychology nerd, I write about innovative and research-backed ways to help people live more fulfilling and balanced lives.

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