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What Does It Mean To Have Purpose In life?

The dictionary tells us that purpose is the reason something exists, an intended end; aim; or goal. Purpose creates meaning, offers a sense of direction and helps guide our paths, behaviour and our goals when applied to our lives.


Meaning is integral to our experience and fundamental in everything we do. It is only through meanings that we understand our existence. In life, we find meaning through a sense of purpose which makes life worthwhile. A firm sense of meaning is essential for optimal human development. Meaning in life is not just a theoretical or philosophical construct, it has a bearing on human health and wellbeing and to live without meaning, goals, or values can provoke distress (Yalom,1980, Existential Psychotherapy).


Psychologist Douglas LaBier argues that just as all forms of life have a purpose, each of us as human beings also feel a drive to define a purpose for our lives. He uses the analogy that all natural phenomena are moving towards some type of outcome. Whether it is a plant producing fruit or clouds producing rain, everything is constantly moving and evolving towards an intended fulfilment.


If we all have an underlying drive to define a purpose, why is it sometimes so difficult? As we grow into adulthood, there are many ways that our unique life purpose can become elusive.

In childhood, we can often be encouraged to follow a certain path and discouraged from following a path of our choosing. Overtime these messages can grow into self-limiting beliefs which can stop us from living according to our purpose. We can become consumed in our day-to-day life, become stuck in a comfortable pattern of existing, without much thought or awareness of why we are doing the things we do or behaving the way we are.


For some of us purpose is connected to a vocation, for others, purpose lies in our responsibilities to our family or friends. Others seek meaning through spirituality or religious beliefs. Our purpose is unique and can change throughout life in response to our evolving priorities and life experience.


It is a common struggle trying to identify our purpose or vision for the world. Studies show that most of us want to live a purposeful, fulfilling life, for the sake of both personal edification and giving back to others; the majority of us, however, neither have a clear sense of purpose in life nor feel our career paths further it. Living purposefully means combining what makes us happy, what we naturally excel at, and things that captivate us to fulfil a larger goal than personal pleasure. Christine Whelan, a professor in the school of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, writes in her book The Big Picture, “research suggests that getting into a purpose mindset––identifying how your specific talents and values intersect with the needs of others––is the first step toward living a purposeful life". She believed that living purposefully is key, young adults who lack a clear sense of purpose or a purpose mindset merely exist, while those with a clear picture of what they want and should do thrive - Psychology Today.


Living purposefully doesn't mean that you won't struggle, or experience periods of feeling dissatisfied or unfulfilled. Adversity is a natural part of life and helps build resilience. Knowing our purpose, however, helps us to live with integrity. People who know their purpose in life know who they are, what they are, and why they are. And when you know yourself, it becomes easier to live a life that's true to your core values.


Our life purpose is something that resides inside each of us. It is something we nurture and coax through self-exploration and understanding what we value most. Why not begin that process of exploration by reflecting on the following questions, your answers may help you to understand your purpose and make choices that allow you to live life with more intention:

  • What are my strengths and weaknesses?

  • What am I passionate about?

  • If I had unlimited potential what would I pursue?

  • What accomplishments am I most proud of?

  • What have my past failures and successes taught me?

  • Where can I provide the most value to others?

Remember, you don’t have to know where you are going at this moment. Just trust that each step you take, if aligned with your values, is moving you forward.



Steve Race

Manager - Student Wellbeing Service

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