3 Ways Finding Your Purpose Makes You Happier
In six months I will be returning to the United States after spending four years living and working in a country and culture very different from my own. I will have to re-adjust to life as an American, which might be as foreign to me as I am to Japan. The anxiety of many future unknowns weighs upon me like the world upon Atlas’ shoulders. Swiftly being carried away by a river of ambiguity flowing towards the future’s horizon, I have been searching desperately for something to ground me.
There is a fact of life which becomes far more pronounced as a sojourner, and it is that everyone leaves. Some may return, but throughout our lives people will come and go. However when you are an expatriate, this fact of life is experienced often in short periods of time, and the emotions associated with it build quickly and seem magnified tenfold. As a result, you become accustomed to change. In some ways though, you also seem to dread it. It is also human nature to hold desperately onto comfort until we are bloody and scarred. I have realized in my time here that change is inevitable, and this is the true nature of life. In an existence defined by change, life becomes one long, ambiguous transition. And in the swirling miasma of confusion and anxiety that comes with not knowing, purpose has the incredible power to ground us, leading us through the fog.
Dr. Steve Taylor, senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK, provides us with the following three ways having purpose in our life can help make us happier:
- When we have a strong sense of purpose, or something meaningful to work towards, our focus narrows. We can filter out our unease and be less immersed in the chatter of our minds. The more engaged in our purpose we are, the less vulnerable we are to anxiety and depression. When we focus our attention externally on our purpose, we are less overcome by boredom as well as negative thoughts and feelings.
- Purpose helps build self-esteem. When we recognize we are moving closer to our authentic goals our confidence increases, we are better able to deal with the difficulties of life, and in turn our belief we can do so is strengthened. Purpose has the power to ignite a perpetuating cycle of confidence and self-efficacy, and ultimately makes us stronger and more resilient to change.
- Purpose gives hope. When we can focus on achieving attainable goals, it suggests we feel hopeful about our ability to change our lives and the lives of others for the better. High levels of hope can increase our ability to cope with challenges in life and recover quicker.
Evidence from research on meaning in life and its connection to health also suggests that having a sense of purpose is critical for healthy living. Not only are people who feel they have a strong sense of purpose less vulnerable to mental illness and more resilient, they are also inspired to live healthy. When we feel as if we have something to live for, we feel a stronger desire to care for ourselves. Evidence even suggests that having purpose may lead to a longer life!
With the many positive impacts that a sense of purpose and meaning in life can have, it makes sense to find out what our purpose is. In my anxiety regarding my transition, I realize I have been lacking a strong sense of purpose. I’ve had vague ideas of what might make my life meaningful in the year to come, but I haven’t settled on what is most important to me right now.
That’s where the work comes in. Contrary to popular belief, purpose is not inborn. It is not lightning that strikes us from the heavens one day while we wait. It is not static, having only a single definition. It is not always realistic or pragmatic. So, we have to dedicate ourselves to the effort of continual and evolving discovery. The effort itself gives my life meaning, and that gives me hope for the future.
1. Steve Taylor, PhD "The Power of Purpose" - https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/out-the-darkness/201307/the-power-purpose
2. Clay Routledge, PhD "A Meaningful Life Leads to a Longer Life - https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/more-mortal/201404/meaningful-life-leads-longer-life