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3 Steps to Feeling a Greater Sense of Purpose

How challenges faced can become motivators for finding purpose.

Key points

  • A sense of purpose can transform a major life challenge into an opportunity to learn and grow.
  • Purpose can be a developed and learned skill by focusing on mindset, finding meaningful value in something, and shifting one's perspective.
  • Post-traumatic growth is when a challenging event leads to positive growth and transformation; some report life is more meaningful as a result.

by Dr. Cortland Dahl

Suppose you think about all the challenges you’ve faced this year, lacking a sense of purpose probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. It might not even crack your top 20. But if you dig deeper, you might be surprised at just how vital a sense of purpose can be for your mental health and emotional well-being.

Sitting through long, boring meetings and working through endless to-do lists can feel unbearable if what we are doing does not feel meaningful and worthwhile. Sometimes just getting out of bed can feel like a burden. On the other hand, monotonous routines and even challenging situations can feel tolerable, even fulfilling, when a more profound purpose is involved. Think about the heroic work done by nurses and doctors throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Burnout is common in these caring professions, and endlessly facing the needs of these patients without a sense of personal purpose just isn’t sustainable.

In some cases, a sense of purpose can transform a major life challenge into an opportunity to learn and grow.

When we consider our most meaningful moments, we often think about major life milestones, like the birth of a child, a personal achievement, and special moments with the people we care about. Yet research suggests that it is not our peak moments that define who we are. It is how we deal with life’s challenges, and how we carry ourselves when no one is watching, in the small moments no one will remember.

The reality is that peak moments are few and far between. Challenges are much more common, and far beyond that are the mundane moments of our daily routines. How can we bring a sense of purpose and fulfillment into all the ups and downs of life? Into the highs and the lows, and everything in between?

Scientific research suggests that we can equip ourselves to feel a greater sense of purpose and meaning by focusing on our mindset and learning to see the challenges we face as opportunities for self-discovery. One example of this is “Post-Traumatic Growth.”

What is Post-Traumatic Growth?

Scientists have shown that human beings respond to major traumas in a few different ways. On one end of the spectrum is PTSD–Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD develops when a major challenge knocks the nervous system out of balance. It triggers a stress response that keeps playing out long after the situation has passed.

On the other end of the spectrum is what scientists call “Post Traumatic Growth.” This is when struggling through a challenging event results in positive growth and transformation. People who experience post-traumatic growth often report finding life more meaningful. They focus their energy on their most deeply held values, for instance, spending more time with loved ones. In some cases, this personal transformation can be quite profound and enduring.

How does this work in real life? It’s about your perspective and mindset.

Focus on Your Mindset

One of the keys to post-traumatic growth is our mindset. When we face a major life challenge, we often focus on factors that are out of our control. With the pandemic, for instance, there have been many factors over which we have little or no control. We can’t control what other people are doing to protect themselves or us. We have little direct influence over public policy. And we certainly can’t control how the virus spreads around the world.

When we focus on things that are out of our control, the result is hopelessness. We feel powerless and overwhelmed, which puts us at risk for depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.

 Center for Healthy Minds
Dr. Cortland Dahl, Chief Contemplative Officer, Healthy Minds Innovations
Source: Photo: Center for Healthy Minds

Post-traumatic growth, on the other hand, is associated with positive coping styles. Instead of focusing on everything that is out of our control, we focus on things we can influence. We can focus on how we treat other people, for example, and do our best to treat them with kindness and respect. We might practice self-compassion by doing things that make us feel hopeful and inspired instead of fearful and pessimistic. We can learn to meditate or take other positive steps to manage our thoughts and emotions healthily.

Purpose is a Skill

One of the most powerful steps we can take is to use the challenges we face to strengthen our sense of purpose. Few things are as central to our physical health and psychological well-being as purpose. Purpose is one of four key pillars of well-being in a scientific model at the Center for Healthy Minds. Our sense of purpose influences how we feel about ourselves and how we respond to stressful situations. Still, it is also linked to memory and cognitive functioning, a lower risk for heart problems, stroke, other major health issues, and even higher income.

Our research also suggests that purpose is a skill. It’s something we can learn, practice, and apply in our daily lives. If you want to use purpose to weather the ups and downs of life, you just need to train this skill.

Practicing this skill is easier than you might think. Here are two simple steps to get started.

Step 1: Take a Mindful Pause

Mindfulness is a powerful tool to reconnect with the present moment. A straightforward way to practice mindfulness in daily life is to pause throughout your day and bring awareness to your breath. Notice the sensations in your body as you take a few slow deep breaths. This will help you be more aware of your mental and emotional state and give you the space to respond rather than react.

Here’s a guided meditation if you’d like to give this a try.

Step 2: Reconnect With Your Purpose

Once you have a little space in your mind, ask yourself, “How can I be the very best version of myself here? How can I link this moment to a greater sense of purpose?” Maybe you simply want to leave the world a little better than you found it. Perhaps you want to bring more kindness into the world or more creativity or integrity. The skill here is to link what you are facing at the moment to something inspiring and meaningful. Treat this as a light, playful exploration, not a heavy, soul-searching exercise. Explore and see what you notice.

Photo by Yingchou Han on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Yingchou Han on Unsplash

Step 3: Carry it Forward

Once you’ve uncovered a deeper motivation, a meaningful personal value, or a core principle that inspires you, shift your perspective, so you see the situation as an opportunity to practice and embody it. Then carry it forward. View each situation - even the smallest of your daily routines - as opportunities. Make washing the dishes an act of generosity. Deal with a challenging coworker as a way to practice patience. Use everything you do to make a small, positive impact on the world around you. If it helps, you can keep a journal as you start to practice and note your experiences and insights.

The key insight here is that purpose is not determined by our biology nor by the circumstances of life. Purpose is something we can learn. So when you find yourself amid a challenging situation or struggling with the monotony of daily life, bring to mind what matters to you. Allow your deeper purpose to help get you through.

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