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Living a Good Life Without Purpose

How to be happy even if you cannot identify your life's purpose.

Have you ever felt guilty, restless, disappointed, or lost because you couldn’t define your life purpose? Everywhere I turn, I read or am told I must find my purpose. I have colluded with this dogma and told thousands of people the same thing — you need to find your purpose to be happy.

What if you can’t find your purpose? Or maybe you had to give up pursuing what you thought was your purpose to survive. Are you a failure?

For decades, children have been raised with the message that they are special and self-help books decry the need for finding your True North. Instead of helping us realize our best self, could this push us to feeling that our lives are never good enough or worse, we are never good enough? Are those of us who haven’t heard our calling doomed to an incessant pursuit of unrealized potential?

Can you focus your life without pinpointing a specific purpose or defining a vision of personal success?

To start, let me clarify what I mean by “life purpose.” I am talking about defining a specific action that you can dedicate your entire life to. Therefore, purpose is not a goal that you will achieve, an intention to do your best in your role as a parent, partner or teacher, or a desire to feel a certain way every day. Purpose means doing something that has a positive effect on others, giving or sharing something that has a strong emotional outcome on yourself and others, or working to change a social structure that might not completely happen in your lifetime.

You should have goals you will achieve, an intention to do your best in a role, and a desire to feel a certain way every day. In fact, these aims might be better to focus on than looking to define your one life purpose if you can’t seem to find it.

But goals, intentions and good feelings may not be enough. Most humans have a need for assigning meaning, value, and importance to their lives. We are socially-motivated by nature so this valuation tends to relate to the impact on we have on others.

Mark de Rond wrote about the need to change your focus from what “I” need to what I do for “us” in an HBR blog, Are You Busy at Work, but Still Bored? I agree with de Rond’s observation that people need to feel as if the work they are doing is worthwhile, but I don’t think shifting focus from “I” to “us” requires taking sabbaticals or changing careers. Elevating the desire to be of service to others in even small ways every day requires a change of heart and mind, not location.

Yes, this change in perspective from “I” to “us” can be difficult to do. It is hard to rewire your brain after years of being told to focus on your special self, achieve your goals, and find your purpose. To say you want to dedicate yourself passionately and lovingly to helping others with little self-interest could lead you to feeling more let down than fulfilled.

However, you can balance, not substitute, your sense of “I” with your sense of “us” with self-awareness, self-acceptance and choice. What will it take to make this shift? First, let go of your attachment to having a life purpose and a clear vision of your future if you don't have one now.

Consider changing the imperative pursuit of finding your life purpose to making it more important to discover “what gives meaning to my life today.”

In the new edition of Repacking Your Bags: Lighten your load for the good life, the authors talk about their vision of a good life as, “Living in the place you belong, with people you love, doing the right work, on purpose.” Although they talk about having a life purpose, I believe living “on purpose” means something else.

Living “on purpose” means you live intentionally. You can look at your life and feel “all is well.”

Consider these questions:

  • What do I feel I should have done by this time in my life? Can I create a similar impact with what I can do now or with the wisdom I have accumulated?
  • What do I want to feel more often in my life? What gives me these feelings now?
  • How can I ensure my commitment to living a life where I feel good about the impact I have on others every day?

It is good to question the value of your path. I believe that is what we are experiencing in the stage of life we call midlife. But ask the questions with curiosity, not full of anxiety because you fear you won’t ever find the right path.

Do you still feel there should be more to your life? Then be willing to look at your past. What sparks sadness, regret, and even anger when you look back? These events could give you clues about how you want to shape your future.

Then work on being aware of what you celebrate, are grateful for, and what makes you smile and laugh in the present. Setting goals to repeat these events could be more significant than setting your sites on an elusive purpose.

Finally, accept your life will be a roller coaster journey as dreams are both achieved and course-corrected. What gives you resilience may be more important than the specific ups and downs.

Quit weighing yourself down with the need for purpose and your fear of feeling unfulfilled at life’s end. Instead of seeking to have it all, seek to feel as if you have it all already. Your life will unfold with more ease and grace.

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