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How to Seek Purpose with Less Anxiety

New studies clarify what purpose is so we can pursue it with less fret.

Photo by Freddy Marschall on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Freddy Marschall on Unsplash

Many entrepreneurs, creatives, and employees strive for a purpose-driven life. Considerable research points to the correlation between having a sense of purpose and being more focused, creative, resilient, healthier, and productive. How do you find that kind of work? And what happens when while seeking purpose you find more anxiety than meaning?

Finding meaningful work requires more than setting goals, optimizing morning routines, and being uber-productive. Possibly your very attitude toward challenges themselves might heighten your chances of ultimately finding a sense of purpose in your life and work.

Who Wants Meaningful Work?

The company Imperative partnered with LinkedIn recently to research what generations of U.S. employees wanted in work and how purpose-driven companies performed.

Here are some interesting statistics from that report:

85 percent of purpose-led companies showed positive revenue growth

42 percent of non-purpose led companies showed a drop in revenue

As much as media outlets report that Millennials uniquely want purposeful work, the survey pointed to an interesting trend: The older a generation, the more those people prioritized purpose overpay or prestige:

48 percent of baby boomers (those aged 51+)

38 percent of Gen Xers (aged 36-51)

30 percent of Millennials

It's not that Millennials don't prioritize purpose, but their life situation might make money naturally a greater priority.

So, if so many people want it, what should we expect in pursuing it?

What are We Seeking?

It's helpful to know what we're seeking so we'll know it when we find it. Psychologists Todd Kashdan and Patrick McKnight define purpose as "a central, self-organizing life aim." Central in the sense that purpose is at a person's – or an organization's – core. It's the innermost circle of what drives you – and it's what organizations should start with, according to ethnographer and speaker Simon Sinek. Self-organizing refers to the idea that all goals and decisions are organized around that core – or to use another metaphor they are all filtered through the lens of that purpose.

But let's make purpose more concrete so we can consider how to find it if we can. Purpose is a part of what gives our lives meaning. Emily Esfahani Smith, editor at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, traveled around the world to study and pull together what she calls the four pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence.

Smith's studies also point to the element of contribution. Ultimately, what gives most people a sense of purpose is the feeling that their talents are contributing to the well being of others – that their efforts are making a meaningful difference in other people's or animals' lives.

The Peril That Comes with Pursuing Purpose

Some purpose-driven people actually have never consciously articulated what their purpose is. Instead, they have been driven innately by an organizing principle or questions that guide them on a path to seek and live with purpose. It’s part of their DNA.

But for many of us, purpose is more evasive. According to a study out of the University of Pennsylvania, as we seek purpose there are indicators that show pursuing purpose induces more anxiety. Of course, the more anxious you are the more difficult it becomes to achieve your goals, which directly correlates with having a sense of purpose.

Perhaps the anxiety for some people stems from misconceptions of what purpose is or should be. I've identified what are two anxiety-inducing myths or misconceptions of purpose.

Misconception #1: Purpose is fixed or attainable.

Similar to Kashdan and McKnight, Smith cites the definition of Stanford developmental psychologist William Damon as something we never attain but instead as a "goal toward which we are always working. It is the forward-pointing arrow that motivates our behavior and serves as the organizing principle of our lives."

The belief that purpose is out there to be found could anxiety-inducing because we think that if we haven’t found it we’re doing something wrong. Then, we expect that something external to us should give us a sense of purpose – a job, an employer, a marriage, a spouse.

Some people's sense of purpose changes and evolves over time and with both more experience and more perspective. It's in that exploration and discovery of new purpose that we can feel anxious.

Misconception #2: Purpose is big and grandiose.

Some people hear the word "purpose" and think "grand calling." As Smith notes, "Purpose sounds big – ending world hunger or eliminating nuclear weapons big. But it doesn't have to be. You can also find purpose in being a good parent to your children, creating a more cheerful environment at your office, or making a giraffe's life more pleasant."

A New Purpose Mindset and Action Set

A different mindset and set of actions could reduce the anxiety, amplify curiosity, and boost the chances of living and working with purpose.

The Mindset: Purpose comes from self-knowledge and contributing. In a recent roundtable conversation I had with Katie Dalebout (Let It Out author and Let It Out podcast host) and Caroline Adams Miller (Getting Grit author and high-performance coach), both Dalebout and Miller emphasized the importance of self-awareness.

The Actions:

  • Journal. “To figure out what I was an enthusiast of," Dalebout says, "I had to get to know myself a bit better. Eventually, I started journaling. Simply writing out my unfiltered authentic thoughts and feelings heightened self-awareness and therefore helped me become more myself.” Her book Let It Out: A Journey Through Journaling offers a guide. Considerable research corroborates the value of regular journaling for increased self-awareness and goal attainment.
  • Contribute. Miller's definition of "authentic grit" differs from most definitions of grit: "the passionate pursuit of hard goals that awes and inspires others to become better people, flourish emotionally, take positive risks, and live their best lives." Look around you right now and see how you're bringing your talents to add value to other people's lives. Purpose might be right in front of you. Miller's book Getting Grit also lays out a practical, evidence-based guide to attaining goals, pursuing passion, and living with purpose.

The Mindset: Purpose is something to be tested and fashioned instead of found and given.

The Actions:

  • Test to find purpose with deliberate actions. This is why apprenticeships, internships, or life experiments can be so important. They allow us to get our footing to see if one path is the right path for a sustained period of time if this line of work is what we feel called to do.

The Mindset: Purpose comes in part from how we handle challenges.

The Actions: Some of our most meaningful experiences come from dealing with and finding our way out of serious challenges.

Entrepreneurs and creatives need to take "life into their own hands" in this regard. People new to entrepreneurship must get accustomed to making their own purpose. Employees, on the other hand, are tasked often with fashioning purpose with their work especially when their managers, supervisors, or CEOs may seem slow to realize the need to center an organization around a meaningful purpose. ​


Eric S. Kim, Victor J. Strecher, and Carol D. Ryff. Purpose in life and use of preventive health care services. PNAS 2014 111 (46) 16331-16336

Todd B. Kashdan and Patrick E. McKnight. Origins of Purpose in Life: Refining our Understanding of a Life Well Lived. Psychological Topics 18 (2009), 2, 303-316