This post is a modified excerpt from the purpose-focused final chapter of my new book, The Resilient Life: Manage Stress, Reduce Burnout, and Strengthen Your Mental and Physical Health.
Purpose comes in lots of shapes and sizes. Our world glamorizes things that are big and flashy, without recognizing the immensely important contributions (and purpose) of the people who quietly, faithfully, show up for their non-glamorous lives, day after day. This doesn’t mean that such individuals don’t dream of doing other things, or won’t go on to do those things. But I still believe that it’s so important to be able to find and connect to the purpose in your present circumstances. It’s there, if you know where to look.
Purpose isn’t a fluffy topic. I’ve thought a lot about it for a couple of decades, and have been delighted to see all kinds of interesting research emerge in this area.
Here are some of the benefits of being connected to purpose and meaning in your life:
People who feel a strong sense of purpose are more likely to choose healthy behaviors.
One compelling study found that people with a higher purpose can be more proactive in taking care of their health. They were more likely to use preventive health care services, and each unit increase in purpose was associated with 17 percent fewer nights spent in hospital.
Purpose and meaning can lengthen your life.
In 2019, researchers from the University of Michigan School of Public Health published a study that looked at the association between life purpose and mortality. Based on their analysis of data from a national cohort study of American adults over fifty years old, people without a strong life purpose were more than twice as likely to die than those that did. This surprising pattern was found consistently, independent of people’s financial circumstances, gender, race or education level. Sounds like an easy way to extend your life, to me!
A sense of meaning can prevent burnout.
Polish health psychologist Dariusz Krok illustrated this through a study that examined the protective relationships between meaning in life and burnout in firefighters. According to Krok, meaning may prevent or decrease the symptoms of burnout through “the fact that meaning in life enables individuals to interpret and organise their experience, identify important aspects of life, and achieve a sense of purpose and significance.” He found that firefighters with higher levels of personal meaning reported less emotional exhaustion and depersonalization, and more personal accomplishment (these are the primary symptoms of burnout).
In a powerful statement, Krok shares that the results from his study imply that “individuals who experience meaning in life and pursue significant life goals in such domains as personal achievement and engagement, relationships with others, self-acceptance, and justice in the world are characterized by less feelings of being emotionally exhausted by one’s work, impersonal and detached responses to various aspects of the job, and also by more feelings of personal accomplishment, competence, and efficiency at work.”
Here’s a tool to help you connect more with purpose.
Do you, like many people I talk to, feel frustrated by a lack of purpose or meaning in your life? There’s a tool that might serve as a starting point for you.
Paul T.P. Wong, Ph.D., a Canadian clinical psychologist, researcher, and professor, created this research tool called The Personal Meaning Profile (PMP), to measure people’s perception of personal meaning in their life. In his introduction to the questionnaire, he notes that a meaningful life typically involves a sense of purpose and personal significance. He also points out that “people often differ in what they value most”. Also, people have “different ideas as to what makes life worth living”.
This might mean that others don’t understand what matters to you. That’s okay, we’re not all the same. Thank goodness! There’s a marvelous saying I learned in Mexico: “Hay gente para todo”. Translated, it means “there are people for everything.” We have such varying roles in society, and society needs every one of us.
Wong’s PMP consists of a series of fifty-seven statements that point to where an individual might derive their meaning in life. There are seven general categories that he has identified as sources of meaning for people:
- Achievement (e.g. I engage in creative work”)
- Relationship (e.g. “I relate well to others”)
- Religion (e.g. “I believe that life has an ultimate purpose and meaning”)
- Self-transcendence (e.g. “I strive to make this world a better place”)
- Self-acceptance (e.g. “I accept my limitations”)
- Intimacy (e.g. “I have a good family life”)
- Fair treatment or perceived justice (e.g. “I am treated fairly by others”
Take time to reflect on your life.
If you, like many people I talk to, feel frustrated by a lack of purpose or meaning in your life, I encourage you to have a look at the questionnaire. It’s intended to be used for research purposes, but simply looking at the sample statements, and seeing which sources of meaning you score highest on, may be useful to help you to gain clarity on what matters most to you in life. The odds are high that it’s in your life already.
Right now, try re-reading that list of seven general categories. Which of the seven stands out to you the most? If you have a journal, get it out and write down some thoughts related to that category.
Why does it mean so much to you? How is it part of your life, right now? If it’s not something you’ve been intentionally focusing on, how could you connect more to this particular aspect of your life? How you can you deepen your connection to this important source of meaning?
Know what matters. Do what matters. In doing so, you will live a sustainable, satisfying life that has an impact.