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How to Cultivate a Sense of Purpose

Here's how a sense of purpose drives mood and improves your life.

Key points

  • Having a sense of purpose boosts physical and mental health.
  • Research shows that one's sense of purpose can fluctuate daily, similar to changes in mood.
  • Despite daily variations, cultivating a sense of purpose is good for people.
Source: Tuzemka/Shutterstock

The evidence clearly shows that having a sense of purpose—no matter what that is—is good for us. Research shows that having a sense of purpose leads to better health outcomes for older adults, improves our daily mood and physical well-being, and is even associated with increased financial earnings.

Now researchers are delving more into how having a sense of purpose plays out in the lives of individual people.

Gabrielle N. Pfund, a postdoctoral researcher at Northwestern University, recently teamed up with Anthony Burrow, a developmental psychologist at Cornell University, and Patrick Hill, an aging researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, on a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Research in Personality that asks some key questions about the value of purpose in our daily lives and looks for an evidence-based way to cultivate purpose.

“First, we wanted to better understand whether feeling purposeful was synonymous with feeling positive emotions and not feeling negative ones,” explained Pfund, whose research focuses on the intersection of personality and health.

patpitchaya/Adobe Stock
Source: patpitchaya/Adobe Stock

For the study, more than 350 participants filled out surveys on their phones in the evening for 10 days. Researchers asked questions about how much drive or purpose they felt each day, such as, “Were you engaged in worthwhile activities?” and “Did you make progress toward your goals?” They also asked participants to describe to what extent they felt specific emotions on a given day, including irritableness, peacefulness, sadness, and calm. Their goal was to determine how much an individual’s sense of purpose and mood varied from day to day.

They found that individual participants’ sense of purpose or drive varied greatly from day to day; despite these fluctuations, individuals tended to consistently feel purposeful in general or that they were making progress toward their life goals, even when they didn’t feel purposeful on any given day. On the whole, people’s daily sense of purpose tended to vary about as much as their daily moods.

“In this case, we found that purpose was more strongly tied to experiences of positive emotions, but it was more weakly associated with negative emotions,” Pfund said. “This was a fascinating finding because it communicates that there are times where we'll feel purposeful and also might experience negative feelings, as pursuing the things in our life goals and aims can sometimes require stress and challenge. Recognizing that purpose can help us feel good, but also may mean sometimes feeling bad, can assure people that experiencing negative emotions does not mean they are on the wrong track. The best things in life don't come easily.”

The study is important because it helps researchers better understand how to cultivate a sense of purpose in our daily lives, Pfund said.

“This data helps illustrate the benefits of simply focusing on, ‘How do I feel today? Did I make progress toward my goals? Did I feel like I was engaged in worthwhile activities?’” she said. “By tuning into your responses to those questions from one day to the next, you will be better able to figure out over time what gives you a sense of purpose, getting you one step closer to understanding what your purpose in life may be.”

The data in the study also illustrates that daily fluctuations in both mood and purpose are completely normal, Pfund said.

“In my mind, the other exciting aspect of our findings is being able to embrace the phrase of ‘this too shall pass,’” she said. “Just because someone doesn't feel purposeful today, tomorrow, or the day after that, does not mean they are bound to a life without purpose. Purposefulness waxes and wanes. Empirically, we are not bound to always feeling purposeful or never feeling purposeful. There will be good days and bad days, so too will there be purposeful ones versus not.”

The take-home message: It’s normal for your sense of purpose and your mood to vary from day-to-day; despite these oscillations, the best way to cultivate a sense of purpose in your life is to focus on your daily actions and whether they align with your long-term goals.

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