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Alex Lickerman M.D.

The Importance Of Having A Mission

The pragmatic benefit of identifying your calling in life

We're all meaning-seeking creatures, rousing ourselves up out of bed on different days for different reasons—one day to pass a test, the next to help a troubled friend, the next to run errands—but always motivated to participate in each day by some kind of purpose. But if we plumb deeply enough into our hearts, excavating down to the most elemental parts of ourselves, invariably we'll find only one purpose—a mission, if you will—sitting firmly embedded there, a mission against which we measure the value of everything we do.

Whether we've consciously assigned this mission to ourselves or we've unconsciously accepted someone else's assignment to us, exactly what it is matters more than almost anything in life. It may have many subsidiary branches and leaves, our mission, but only one trunk. And that trunk has perhaps more influence on our ability to be happy than almost anything else.


Self-knowledge is a tricky business. You might think the nature of your core mission in life would lie within easy reach for ready viewing, and sometimes it is. But often it lies buried under a pile of expectations we have for ourselves interwoven with those others have for us that make our mission appear to us to be one thing when in reality it's something else entirely—sometimes something we don't even want to admit, not just to others, but to ourselves.

One way to discover the real reason you get out of bed in the morning (as opposed to the reason you want it to be or tell yourself it is) requires first imagining that you could give up the pursuit of any goal, anything you do, or anything you are without anyone else knowing it (that is, somehow they would still think you were pursuing, doing, or being those things). Which things wouldn't you jettison from your life? Somewhere on that list lies the real answer. To continue the thought experiment, now peel away what's left one item at a time and pause to evaluate how its loss makes you feel. It requires a strong imagination to effectively visualize life without the things on your list, and you might not be able to do it powerfully enough to generate an emotional reaction you can evaluate. But in the same way discontinuing a medication and seeing if you feel worse is sometimes the best way to tell that it was actually helping you in the first place, being without a goal or activity can often bring you the most clarity about its importance.

So start with your goals. Which, if you never achieved, would leave you feeling the most devastated? Then move to the things you enjoy in life now. Which if you could never do again would drain the most joy out of your life? Do you live to experience pleasure? To become famous? To become rich? To amass power? To raise happy children? To help others? Core missions often change as people pass through different life stages, but what is it right now?


In no way do I mean to judge any of the purposes listed above. None of them represents an intrinsically worthy or unworthy pursuit. But I would argue that the missions most likely to create joy share the following attributes:

  1. They benefit you and others simultaneously.
  2. They involve the removal of suffering and the bringing of joy to others as well as yourself.
  3. They require you to engage in an area you find intrinsically interesting and have mastery over.

I don't think the only way to have a happy life is to choose a mission that has these qualities. But I do believe the meaning we meaning-seeking creatures find most sustaining invariably comes from the value we create for others as well as ourselves. It doesn't matter what form this value takes or even how much of an impact it may have on those to whom we deliver it. Even knowing a smile we gave a stranger made them feel good can add significantly to our own happiness.


Having a mission to which you're committed will make you strong. By keeping your eye focused on the long-term ball of your life's purpose (which of course more often than not doesn't occur as a single life event but rather as a series of events or even more commonly as a set of continual life functions), short-term set backs will have far less impact on your life-condition. But this requires you to have a long-term ball, one you believe in your heart is more important than anything else. This is why picking a great mission (as opposed to a mission of minor import) is so crucial. You must become aware of yours so you can either confirm it's what you think it should be or change it to something better. That way during tough times you can draw on your conscious commitment to it to sustain you.

Anyone can commit to a great mission. It doesn't have to involve impacting large groups of people to be value-creating and therefore happiness-generating. But once you've committed to it, finding yourself having to make great sacrifices or face down enormous obstacles may come to seem like small things as your commitment causes you to rise above your smaller self and embrace and manifest your larger self, providing you access to power, courage, and strength you never knew you had.

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to explore Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

About the Author

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.