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5 Questions to Help You Find Your Sense of Purpose

Finding meaning makes us healthier and more fulfilled. Here's how to look.

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Sometimes it feels like our culture has reached a saturation point in its focus on the pursuit of happiness: Thousands of books, blogs, and websites purport to help us get there, with techniques ranging from the empirically validated (exercise, mindfulness, gratitude) to the rather murky (which often involve paying someone something). But more and more research is starting to delineate between happiness in terms of pleasure versus happiness in terms of a sense of purpose and meaning.

The former often focuses on hedonic experiences—"happiness" in the two-dimensional sense, feeling joy or pleasure that can be fleeting, but undeniably feels positive in the moment. Of course, sometimes we search for this pleasure in ways that ultimately make us feel worse—impulsive spending, irresponsible sexual interactions, unhealthy food choices, or substance abuse. The latter research focus, however, looks more at experiences that might not be purely pleasurable, but increase our sense of connectedness to deeper values. These activities and connections may not always be easy, but they feel to us like reasons for living. Such experiences often involve a greater satisfaction with one's life on a deeper level, and may just be more valuable than superficial "happiness" when it comes to overall emotional well-being and also physical health.

What's trickier, though, is actually cultivating a sense of purpose. How do you find meaning in a world that offers no shortage of stress, in a life that can all too easily be filled with the worries of getting through the responsibilities of the day? Unfortunately, it seems that many Americans are indeed struggling to connect with that deeper sense of meaning (and we're not doing so great in the happiness measures, either). If you want to begin to think more deeply about these issues, there are some simple questions you can start with. How might you find your sense of meaning? Read on.

1. When are you in flow?

For more than four decades, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has studied the concept he named "flow," which has become a pillar of positive psychology research. When you are in flow, you are so fully engaged and immersed in an activity that you feel relaxed, but also challenged, interested but not stressed. I like to describe it to clients as doing something where you lose your sense of time, and you focus only on the task at hand, in a positive way: It is the opposite of clock-watching (where you want so much for a task to be over). So, what types of activities bring you to this place? Are there parts of your job that you love, and that you feel make the time speed by? Are there hobbies that seem to make a Saturday afternoon disappear, in a good way? Are there people you spend time with who help you forget your worries, get rid of past baggage and future concerns, and just be? These clues can help fine-tune what resonates with you most deeply in life.

2. Whose faces do you see when you think about love?

Though not everyone's sense of meaning or purpose is intrinsically tied to other people, for many, relationships with others are the foundation of it. Or perhaps it's not necessarily people, but certain animals that you feel a most profound connection with. What does "love" mean to you? When you imagine the faces that embody it, who comes to mind? It is not uncommon for someone to believe that the true meaning of their lives comes not from professional pursuits, but from the people they spend their time with. Or perhaps it is professional and personal both: the organization you work for, or the people you volunteer to help, or the community or cause you have come to believe in. Love can mean many things to many people, but when you imagine what it means to you, it can often point you in the right direction in a sense of purpose: thinking about the reason that you are on this Earth, and the legacy you want to leave behind.

3. What are you most willing to put effort into?

We all have different levels of motivation for different tasks, and some activities feel almost effortless because we like doing them so much. So, think about when you actually enjoy hard work. Paradoxically, of course, those activities likely don't feel much like work—at least not in the same way as do activities that you don't enjoy doing. It brings to mind the old saying, "Find something you love to do, and you'll never work a day in your life." Of course, many of us will never truly love our jobs, and that's okay. And even those of us who have been able to feel passionate about our work may go through many periods of feeling taxed, stressed, and overworked by those same careers. But if you can examine your patterns about what in your life you have worked hard for, and have wanted to, it will help you determine what type of pursuits are most worthy of your time—and your heart and soul.

4. If you were to write your own obituary, what would be most important to include?

As much as this can feel like a morbid exercise, or even a silly one ("Andrea Bonior died Monday, as the first 107-year-old to win a basketball championship in space"), imagining what you want your life's legacy to be can be helpful in a search for your purpose. Thinking about looking back on your life as it nears its ending can truly be useful in helping determine what you want to devote your most precious of time—in moments, months, years, and decades—to doing. Those who work with people at the end of their lives say that they tend to see the same regrets over and over again, often involving worrying too much about the things that shouldn't have mattered much, at the expense of those that have come to matter most of all. What do you want to leave behind—tangibly, emotionally, and socially? And how would you have wanted someone to be able to summarize the years you spent on this planet?

5. If you had a bonus day—free of all responsibilities, appointments, and commitments, and you were fully rested and recharged and could do anything you wanted for 12 hours—what would you do?

I know, I know. In this age of being "busy" as a status symbol, no one can even imagine a day with no responsibilities at all, when they were already fully rested and able to use the time however they wanted. But just try, for a moment, to picture a completely blank slate—free of concerns to be addressed about what happened yesterday and plans to make about what happens tomorrow. Of course, you could have the instinct just to relax—to repair yourself with extra sleep, a long Netflix binge, or a massage. Attempt instead to think about if you were already recharged, with your energies and talents ready to be spent on anything of your choosing. What would you devote those energies to? Often, if you can remove the "to-do" checklists that follow us around constantly—weighing down our days, months, and years through inertia and occupying large parts of our time and thoughts—you can get a better sense of what you would choose to do in life, rather than what you feel you have no choice but to do. And in doing so, you can have a clearer focus on how to spend your time. After all, the choice is ultimately yours.

Do you feel like you have found a sense of your overall purpose? How so, and is it what you would have expected? Let me know in the comments!

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