5 Ways to Find Your Purpose
Knowing what you value will help you build the most meaningful life possible.
By Psychology Today Contributors published January 3, 2023 - last reviewed on January 4, 2023
How to Connect With Your Values
Distinguish your goals from values and obtain direction, meaning, and motivation.
By Steven Hayes, Ph.D.
Once, I asked a particular client about her deepest values. She paused for a long time before finally saying: “That’s the scariest thing I’ve ever been asked.” She began to cry. “I’ve not thought about that in a long, long time.”
Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. It’s easy to get bogged down in daily chores and habits while losing sight of what matters most. Like a cog in a machine, we might function on the outside but are actually stuck inside, repeating the same old motions, unable to change or even see a different way of living.
We might have mindlessly adopted the values and goals of our friends and family, never daring to explore our own out of fear that they might deviate from our cultural upbringing. Or we might have come to doubt our ability to pursue a different path because we are not smart enough, not confident enough, not good-looking enough, or simply, not enough.
There are many reasons why we lose touch, and they all lead to suffering—because humans are not mindless machines following a programmed script but rather breathing beings with a yearning for meaning and self-direction. Without purpose, life becomes empty and dull.
What Values Can Do For You
Values are chosen qualities of being and doing, such as being a caring parent, being a dependable friend, being loving, loyal, honest, and courageous. They can be expressed with verbs and adverbs, like teaching compassionately and giving gratefully. However, they are not goals. Goals are finite; they are achievements, and once you reach them, you are finished with them. Values, on the other hand, are enduring, eternal guides to living. You cannot achieve a value; you can only manifest it by acting in accordance with it.
Your values not only tell you where to focus your efforts and energies but also provide you with a new source of motivation. The pain you have had to endure along your journey becomes much easier to bear when it’s in the service of your goals and values. And acting in line with your heart’s deepest desires brings a sense of fulfillment and vitality that no material wealth can match.
The values you choose are completely up to you. If you’re unclear what those values might be and how to implement them, here are a few steps.
Steven C. Hayes, Ph.D., a Nevada Foundation professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of Nevada, is the author of A Liberated Mind.
How “I Have To” Becomes “I Want To”
Meet your goals by making them purposeful.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D.
We generally assume that facing too many obstacles while pursuing a goal takes a toll on our motivation level. However, a study published in the Journal of Research in Personality turns this logic on its head, suggesting that it is actually our motivation that determines the number and difficulty of obstacles we face.
“When pursuing a goal and trying to change their behavior, most people have great intentions. But often those intentions don’t translate into action,” says Marina Milyavskaya of Carleton University in Canada. Any temptation that stands in the way of our attaining our goals constitutes an obstacle. For example, junk food is an obstacle when our goal is to eat healthily, and cellphones and other distractors are obstacles when our goal is to study or work.
Obstacles, and their level of difficulty, can be perceived differently by different people. Individuals’ personality, the type of goal they are trying to achieve, and the strength of their desire are all factors that play a part in determining their perception of and relationship to obstacles.
Another important factor is the type of motivation. The Carleton study distinguishes between two different kinds of motivation we experience while pursuing a goal:
Want-to motivation represents our internal motivation—doing something because it’s personally important to us, it’s interesting, or it fits well with our values.
Have-to motivation involves behaviors that we feel we should be doing—either because someone else requires or expects it of us or because we would feel guilty if we didn’t engage in those behaviors.
The researchers conducted seven studies testing participants’ motivation levels by assigning them different tasks and exposing them to various temptations, like pizza during a boardroom meeting.
They found that people who showed want-to motivation—that is, people who did the tasks with feelings of personal interest—consciously placed themselves away from obstacles, thus making goal-attainment easier on themselves. The opposite was true for people who were functioning with have-to motivation.
Goal pursuit is not about being extraordinarily strong. Instead, it’s about knowing the things that make us weak and keeping a safe distance from them.
How does this solve the motivation problem? Milyavskaya offers two suggestions to help tackle the unavoidable problem of doing things because we have to do them. Instead of groaning your way through such a task every single time, generate want-to motivation. Think about how the task fits into your values and identity. Reframe it as something that is more want-to. Maybe I value being a conscientious worker; completing that dreaded report fits in with this value. Or, I want to eventually become a veterinarian; doing my math homework is important to accomplish that goal. Make it more pleasurable in the moment. Pair it with something that is fun or enjoyable, such as listening to music.
“If you find you are pursuing a goal for have-to reasons, then you are more likely to struggle with that goal,” she says. “Perhaps it’s worth replacing that goal with a goal that is more personally meaningful or important. Or, instead, find more want-to reasons for going after that same goal.”
To approach a task with an intrinsic sense of purpose gives you the best shot at truly, and happily, accomplishing it.
Mark Travers, Ph.D., is a psychologist with degrees from Cornell University and the University of Colorado Boulder.
How to Make an Impact in 30 Seconds
A single, small act of kindness can be meaningful to everyone touched by it.
By Beth Kurland, Ph.D.
On the day of my mother’s funeral, I remember sitting in the back seat of our car and seeing two old friends of mine from elementary school arriving. I was 15 at the time. It had never occurred to me that they would miss school to be there for me. This simple act of support meant more to me than they will ever know.
Fast-forward about two decades to the day my daughter was sent home from school with head lice. My friend showed up unexpectedly at my door and spent hours with me, helping to wash all the sheets and clothing, and keeping me tethered in my frantic state. These acts of kindness are indelible in my mind, and their power is immeasurable.
The Power of Kindness
The value of small and random acts of kindness is greatly underestimated by the one engaging in the kind act; the person receiving the kindness is far more positively affected than the altruist imagines. In a series of studies that appeared in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, participants at an ice-skating rink who were given hot chocolate had the opportunity to give away their cups to a stranger. When they were asked to rate the impact of this on the recipients, their estimates were far lower than what the recipients actually reported.
In another study involving some participants receiving cupcakes for being part of the research, those given the opportunity to give away their cupcake again far underestimated the positive effect this would have on the recipient. Interestingly, recipients of the cupcake who knew it was coming from a stranger as a random act of kindness felt a stronger positive impact than those who simply received the cupcake as a thank-you gesture for being part of the study. The researchers suggest that there may be many missed opportunities for kindness because people undervalue the positive effect of their behavior.
How 30 Seconds Can Change Lives
When I was anxious about a medical procedure I was preparing for, it made a huge difference when my doctor sat down with me, looked me in the eyes with kindness and presence, and said, “Tell me all the questions you have and let me see if I can answer them.” Feeling confident that this doctor cared helped me tone down my fight-or-flight response during and after the procedure. When our autonomic nervous system is in a state of calm, safety, and connection, our bodies can better restore, heal, and repair.
Small expressions of kindness and compassion can make a profound difference in people’s lives, no matter what we do for a living or what our relationship is with that person. And we don’t need a lot of time to do it. All we need to do is take action.
1. Think about a time you were the recipient of an act of kindness. It could be something small, such as a stranger in the grocery store saying a kind word to you. Whatever you are thinking about, make this moment as vivid in your mind as possible. Remember what it felt like to receive this kindness.
How does this feel in your body right now? Be curious about the area around the center of your chest, note any openness, warmth, or expansion.
2. Think about one kind thing that you could do for someone in the next day or so. It could be simple and small, something that takes just 30 seconds, such as scrawling a kind note to your restaurant server on the receipt you sign or telling one of your employees or coworkers how much you appreciate them. As you think of doing this, picture the positivity that the recipient will feel. Now double or triple this because you are likely underestimating the impact.
3. Don’t hold back. Engage in an activity of your choice or anything that presents itself. Here is my list:
- Text my neighbor that I have extra room in my recycling bin this week if she has overflow.
- Reach out to a friend who recently had surgery and ask how he is doing.
- Tell my kids how proud I am of them.
- Offer heartfelt thanks to the store cashier.
- Send a note to the creator of an online course I’m taking; tell them how much I’m learning.
Don’t underestimate the value of these small moments. They may seem minor to you, but you never know how much they boost a person and make a difference in their life.
Beth Kurland, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and the author of Dancing on the Tightrope.
The Moments That Give You Meaning
Finding meaning makes us healthier and more fulfilled.
By Andrea Bonior, Ph.D.
How do you find meaning in a world that offers no shortage of stress, in a life that is filled with the worries of getting through the responsibilities of the day? Unfortunately, many people struggle to connect with that deeper sense of meaning. If you want to begin to think more deeply about this, there are some simple questions to ask yourself.
1. When are you in flow?
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has studied the concept of “flow,” a pillar of positive psychology research that he pointed out in the 1970s. 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. It is 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 the task to be over. What types of activities bring you to this state? 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? These clues can help fine-tune what resonates with you most deeply.
2. Whose faces do you see when you think about love?
Not everyone’s sense of meaning or purpose is intrinsically tied to other people, but for many, relationships with others are the foundation of it. Or perhaps it’s not necessarily people but certain animals with which you have the most profound connection. 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 life comes not from professional pursuits, but from other people. Or perhaps it is both professional and personal: the organization you work for, 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 of your 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. Think about when you actually enjoy hard work. Paradoxically, of course, those activities likely don’t feel like work—at least not in the same way completing work you don’t enjoy does. This old saying is true: “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 OK. 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 you have worked hard for—and have wanted to work hard for—this will help you determine what types of pursuit are most worthy of your time and of your heart and soul.
4. If you were to write your own obituary, what would it say?
As much as this can feel like a morbid exercise, or even a silly one, imagining what you want your life’s legacy to be can help in the search for purpose (Andrea Bonior died Monday, as the first 107-year-old to win a basketball championship in space). Looking back on your life as it nears its end can truly be useful in determining what you want to devote your most precious time to. Those who work with people who are at the end of their lives say that they tend to see the same regrets over and over again, often involving too much worry about the things that shouldn’t have mattered at the expense of those who have come to matter most of all. What do you want to leave behind—tangibly, emotionally, and socially?
5. If you had a day free of responsibilities and commitments, what would you do?
Try, for a moment, to picture a completely blank slate, free of concerns about what happened yesterday and what will happen tomorrow. Of course, you could have the instinct just to relax—to repair yourself with extra sleep, a long Netflix binge, or a massage. Instead, you have already recharged, with your energies and talents ready to be spent on anything of your choosing. What would you devote time to? Remove the to-do checklist that weighs you down and 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. In doing so, you can have a clearer focus on how to spend your time. After all, the choice is ultimately yours.
Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and lecturer on the faculty of Georgetown University, is the author of Detox Your Thoughts.
Make Peace With Yourself
Life is uncertain, and we don’t always get what we want.
By Toni Bernhard, J.D.
We need to be honest with ourselves about the human condition: Everyone is subject to injury and illness; it’s a part of being alive. For me, being alive is a gift, even if a mysterious one. That means I want to find ways to live a rich and fulfilling life. But there’s no way around it: My chronic illness has drastically limited what I can do.
Make peace with your circumstances. If we had control over our lives, we’d make sure that all our experiences were pleasant ones. But we don’t get what we want, or we get what we don’t want. This may sound like a dark view. It isn’t. I’d rather know what to expect than live in ignorance and be continually disappointed when things don’t turn out as I had wished. Accepting that life is uncertain and unpredictable and that we don’t always get our way opens the door to living with equanimity–a calm and balanced state of mind that accepts with grace whatever comes. This is a tall order, but it’s also the path to peace.
Learn to be happy for others. If the idea of feeling happy for others who are out and about, having a good time, sounds foreign to you, it’s not a surprise: The English language doesn’t even have a word to describe this feeling. If you try this, it may help you feel better about your limitations. Start by bringing to mind someone who’s happy about something that you don’t crave yourself, such as winning a sporting event or an Academy Award. As you think about that person’s joy, try to feel happy for that person. Once you’re able to do that, move on to feeling happy when a loved one is joyful about something.
Self-compassion is your priority. We forget that we should be kind to ourselves. This is the best way to ease mental suffering. Many people find it easy to be compassionate toward others but are their own harshest critics. They don’t think they’re deserving of their own kindness. But there’s never a valid reason to be unkind or harsh with yourself. Of course, you can learn from your mistakes. But learn and move on. Don’t get stuck in negative self-judgment over what you said or did. It’s hard enough to struggle with your health every day; don’t force yourself to struggle with self-criticism, too.
Toni Bernhard, J.D., a former law professor at the University of California, Davis, is the author of How to Be Sick.
Know Your Heart’s Deepest Desires
1. Rate Your Life Domains
The following exercise is based on the Valued Living Questionnaire by Kelly G. Wilson.
Take a look at the following life areas, and rate their importance on a scale of 1 to 10
(1 = less important; 10 = highly important). This is for you and nobody else. There are no right or wrong answers.
- Family (other than marriage or parenting)
- Marriage, couples, intimate relations
- Friends, social life
- Education, training
- Recreation, fun
- Citizenship, community life
- Physical self-care (diet, exercise, sleep)
- Environmental concerns
- Art, creative expression, and aesthetics
2. Rate Your Consistency
Look at the life areas above once more, but this time rate yourself on how consistent your actions have been with your values.
3. Write Down Your Values
Take a look at your answers from the previous exercises and identify the domains that have a high score in importance, 9 or 10, and a low score, 6 or less, in actions. These are areas that need your attention.
Write down your values in one of your previously identified domains. Ask yourself: “What do I care about in this area?” “What do I want to do in this area that reflects that caring?” ”What can I do to manifest this value more in my life?”
Writing about your values has a measurable effect on your health and behavior, and this is only the beginning. There are many ways to connect deeply with your purpose and live in alignment with your goals and values.
Living in line with your values is not just about knowing what matters but also about acting according to these principles. It’s not a one-time choice but a lifelong journey of choosing and committing. Again and again.
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