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Do feelings have a purpose?

Do feelings have a purpose?



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A car has dashboard lights, like "check engine" to indicate malfunctions, etc. Do human feelings have some similar, meaningful function (x produces feeling y), or are feelings just random glitches of cognition?

I can think of feelings that are easy to define:

  • pain, localized to the injury site as serving a purpose: do not use the injured limb until it feels healed.
  • Heartburn may be a feeling associated with eating incorrect types of foods: stop chewing gum and the feeling goes away.
  • Feeling heat/cold has a purpose that may be connected to metabolism and thermoregulation.
  • Feeling of hunger is relieved by eating

For example, the feeling of hunger can be explained by the balance of hormones of leptin and ghrelin, which control appetite and the feeling of satiety.

But what about those other feelings, defined by abstract words from dictionaries? Jealous, silly, disgusted,motivated,comfortable, etc, etc. Here's a list of human feelings. One can imagine what they are, but to catch oneself in one of them is a completely different thing. I'm interested if feeling in some way has a purpose. Can we say something about the hormone/neurotransmitter levels based on how a person is feeling?


To me the question is equivalent to what is the function of consciousness itself.

Let me elaborate. There is a difference between affects/emotional circuits and feelings. The level at which for eg. Jaak Panksepp works is emotional circuits or affects that are primarily unconscious and can be conceived of in terms of instincts.

If fear circuit is activated, the organism exhibits a flight-fight-freeze response. Conscious feeling of fear may or may not be involved, but physiological changes like activation of sympathetic system happens. If the unconscious fear circuit is OK to keep us out of harm's way (predators) why do we also need to feel fearful? A related meta question is, if a zombie behaving like me, but having no qualia, can and will succeed similar to me, why have consciousness?

I'll address the questions, but first let me solidify the claim that unconscious processes are sufficient for most adaptive regulations. Consider your example of heat/cold as thermo-regulation of body temperature… but do you really need to 'feel' heat/cold for that. Consider when you are sound asleep- you still unconsciously cover with blanket or throw away blanket depending on how sweaty/ cold you are- you dont need to consciously register that. So thermo-regulation, like other adaptive actions of affects, can happen in absence of accompanying felt feelings.

So what is the purpose of consciousness/feelings? They provide flexibility to behavior and leave it to us whether we want to indulge in adaptive hardwired behavior or do differently. Taking our cold/heat analogy, instead of wiring our thermo-regulation behavior entirely, feelings provide us a way to keep remaining cold, despite feeling cold.

Similarly, consciousness/'free wont' gives the ability to suppress prepotent (adaptive in short term) response in favor of our long term view or values. By way of another example, if all we had was an unconscious fear circuit, we would always run when confronted with large challenges that are insurmountable; but when the conscious feeling of fear comes into play, although we may feel sacred as hell when confronted with larger opponents, we can still act bravely and with integrity- and that may be far adaptive in the longer run.

So the short answer is that conscious feelings like jealousy etc. exist so that we can act contra to that feeling if we wished to do so and are not doomed to always act as per what the feeling dictates!


6. Tell your story

Amber Cantorna

Reading can help you find your purpose—but so can writing,

Purpose often arises from curiosity about your own life. What obstacles have you encountered? What strengths helped you to overcome them? How did other people help you? How did your strengths help make life better for others?

“We all have the ability to make a narrative out of our own lives,” says Emily Esfahani Smith, author of the 2017 book The Power of Meaning. “It gives us clarity on our own lives, how to understand ourselves, and gives us a framework that goes beyond the day-to-day and basically helps us make sense of our experiences.”

That’s why Amber Cantorna wrote her memoir, Refocusing My Family: Coming Out, Being Cast Out, and Discovering the True Love of God. At first depressed after losing everyone she loved, Amber soon discovered new strengths in herself—and she is using her book to help build a nonprofit organization called Beyond to support gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Christians in their coming-out process.

One 2008 study found that those who see meaning and purpose in their lives are able to tell a story of change and growth, where they managed to overcome the obstacles they encountered. In other words, creating a narrative like Amber’s can help us to see our own strengths and how applying those strengths can make a difference in the world, which increases our sense of self-efficacy.

This is a valuable reflective process to all people, but Amber took it one step further, by publishing her autobiography and turning it into a tool for social change. Today, Amber’s purpose is to help people like her feel less alone.

“My sense of purpose has grown a lot with my desire to share my story—and the realization that so many other people have shared my journey.”


What are emotions, and why do we have them?

If you're ever hit in the nose hard enough to make your eyes water, you may also notice that your skin will grow hot, your mouth will go a bit dry and your pulse will become elevated. You'll find that your head begins to swim with a strong desire to hit something in return, possibly to shout while you do. Eventually, you'll find that you've overcome this sudden influx of physical and mental stimuli. What you've just experienced -- the basic emotion of anger -- has passed.

Why a slight impact to the nose leads to a series of physiological and mental changes has long been a matter of speculation, but most psychologists agree that a basic emotion like anger exists as an evolutionary trigger. We humans -- and most other animals -- appear to be equipped with a set of predictable responses to situations. We call these the basic emotions: anger, fear, surprise, disgust, joy and sadness, as described in the 1970s by anthropologist Paul Eckman [source: Changing Minds].

Over time, this list of basic emotions has been added to, subtracted from and reshaped based on the idea that human emotions are universal. This notion suggests that for any given situation, like being hit in the nose, any individual in any culture would experience something like anger. This view of emotions as largely objective is widely accepted, although there is an emerging school of thought that believes emotions to be far more subjective: Rather than six or 11 basic emotions, there is an emotion for every possible human experience [source: SCAS].

Under almost every explanation of emotions is the premise that they're a naturally-occurring response to a situation. Whether this response is the result of our own evaluation or an automatic one remains to be seen. In the field of psychology, the view of the nature of emotions can be divided into two camps: Emotions are either the result of a judgment of any current situation or a perception of changes taking place within our bodies [source: Thagard]. In other words, when we experience disgust, it could be the result of a judgment about how we feel when we see vomit. Under the other view, we experience disgust because our body undergoes physiological changes like queasiness and increased skin temperature at the sight of vomit.

Over time, research has also separated other emotions that most in the scientific community believe are only experienced by humans and some other primates. These higher or moral emotions are based on self-awareness, self-consciousness and ability to empathize with others [source: Heery, et al]. The moral emotions are pride, guilt, embarrassment and shame [source: Simons].

Like basic emotions, moral emotions have accompanying physiological changes associated with them. But they diverge from basic emotions in that they tend to emerge after self-reflection, and they support the theory that emotions are results of judgments, rather than simply involuntary reactions to a stimulus.

Whether discussing the origin or nature of basic or higher emotions, one question remains: Why do we experience them in the first place?


When You Feel Purposeless and Fear You’re Wasting Time

I wanted to know for sure that if I tried to do something, I would like it if I devoted my limited time to it, I’d end up somewhere good.

I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and I felt certain this was a phenomenal failing—because if you don’t know right now what you need to do to make your life count, life will pass you by before you’ve ever had a chance to do something meaningful or valuable. At least, that’s what I thought back then.

So I sat around thinking, analyzing, trying to identify something big enough or good enough, terrified that maybe I’d spend the rest of my days feeling purposeless, useless, on the fringe doing the same thing in my professional life as I’d always done in my personal life: feeling like I was on the outside looking in.

When you’re sitting amid a vast expanse of possibilities, in the pressure cooker of expectations and impatience, it can feel almost paralyzing.

What step do you take when you have a hunch but no solid sense of direction? If it’s only a hunch, then maybe it’s the wrong direction.

And what if you go in the wrong direction? Then you will have wasted time, and time is finite. And everyone else is so far ahead. Everyone else seems happy and successful. Everyone else is climbing the ladder, earning more money, making a difference, mattering.

What if you never matter? What if you never do anything important? And worst of all, what if you never have more than a hunch about what’s important to you?

What if you never feel a spark, a purpose, that elusive “why” that so many people write about?

What if you never care about anything so strongly that it becomes the bliss you have to follow?

Sitting in the Times Square Internet café over a decade ago, searching Craigslist for jobs and gigs, I felt a sense of panic and urgency. I needed to figure it out, and fast.

I was blinded by the fear of never finding what I was looking for, and that made the looking awfully ineffective.

I thought there was something wrong with me for being so uncertain, so resistant, so unable to identify and commit to any path.

In retrospect, I see there was nothing wrong with me, or where I was in life. And there was nothing wrong with living in the maybe, looking for new possibilities.

I wasn’t ineffective because I didn’t yet feel a strong internal pull. I was ineffective because I consistently marinated my brain in anxious, self-judging thoughts.

My biggest obstacle wasn’t that I felt lost it was that I felt I shouldn’t be. I felt I should have known, right then, not only what I wanted to do but also how I was going to do it.

Because without knowing those two things, I felt adrift and incredibly out of control. How can you let yourself ease into the moment if you can’t be sure it’s leading to a better one?

If I were to walk into that Internet café and approach my younger self, she would probably ignore me, immersed as she was in her frantic searching.

But if I somehow had the power to command her attention, I’d tell her a few things that maybe, just maybe, could relieve her constant worrying and provide both peace of mind and focus.

You’ll never be effective if you’re convinced tomorrow needs to be better than today, because this belief stems from resistance to the present—and the present is where your power lies.

If you’re looking for purpose from a place of inadequacy, you will likely be too overwhelmed by the need to do something big, that matters to the world at large, to identify what matters to you personally and start taking tiny steps toward it.

Instead of looking for a guarantee that tomorrow will be valuable, know that today is valuable—that you’re not wasting time because you don’t yet feel a sense of purpose. You’re using time well by starting (or continuing) the process of discovering it.

There’s simply no shortcut to “figuring things out”—for anyone. Instead of being hard on yourself for not having clarity, be proud of yourself for moving forward on a foggy road when you could easily find a cloudless, well-beaten path to follow…to certain dissatisfaction.

There’s no set timeframe for doing anything.

You truly can do things in your own time without having to worry about being “behind.” Sometimes it’s the things we do that feel like “stalling” or “getting off track” that end up being the most helpful for our growth.

And besides, what story will be more interesting to flash before your eyes in the end: one that unfolded in ways you never expected, with unique twists and turns or, one that followed a specific, predetermined timeline with predictable steps from milestone to milestone?

The best way to find direction is to trust your instincts instead of forcing yourself to do things because you think you “should.”

Your intuition is a powerful compass, and even if you think you aren’t making progress, if you’re following your instincts, you are.

There are always going to be opportunities that look good on paper, and that little, scared voice within may tell you that your life will only matter if you take them.

Other people may also tell you this, if not directly, indirectly or, you may assume they’re thinking this, when really, they’re too immersed in their own confusing journey to pass judgment on yours for long.

But sometimes the best opportunities are the ones you don’t take, leaving yourself open for choices that better align with your own values and priorities.

I know this may sound as impossible as growing another lung, but try not to worry so much about what other people might think. They may have expectations, but they aren’t living inside your mind, or feeling your instincts.

The only one who can make wise decisions for you is you. And even if it makes you feel anxious at times, you will eventually thank yourself for being brave enough to follow your heart, not someone else’s head.

When it comes to creating purpose, there truly is no “wrong” decision.

You may think you only have one purpose and that you need to push yourself to find it. And you can continue thinking this, if you’re okay with feeling chronically pressured and scared.

Or, instead of aiming to discover the one thing you’re supposed to do with your life, you could focus on discovering the one thing you want to try right now, knowing that you can change direction any time. And that changing direction won’t be something to be ashamed of it won’t mean you failed at discovering your purpose before. It will mean you had one purpose then, and now your purpose has evolved.

It will mean you’re brave enough to let yourself evolve, repeatedly undertaking the sometimes terrifying process of discovering what else you can do.

Maybe that in itself can be a purpose—to live life in that vulnerable, uncertain place where you’re not boxed into one way of being unencumbered by the need to define yourself and your place in the world free to roam when it would feel much safer to tether yourself to one role.

Ten years ago I thought I was a failure because I hadn’t done anything that felt important. I now know it was all important, and not just because it brought me to this site.

All those steps were important because those steps were my life. And my life is valuable and worth enjoying regardless of what I do professionally.

Ironically, adopting this mindset makes it so much easier to create meaning in life, because suddenly it’s not about what you have to do. It’s about what you want to do. It’s about where your heart’s pulling you in this moment.

And that’s what it means to find direction—to follow those pulls, without a guarantee, knowing that the goal isn’t to end up somewhere good but to learn to recognize the good in this very moment.

This moment isn’t merely the bridge to where you want to be. This moment—this crucial part of the process—is a destination in itself, and now is your only opportunity to appreciate it, and appreciate yourself for living it.

About Lori Deschene

Lori Deschene is the founder of Tiny Buddha. She’s also the author of Tiny Buddha’s Gratitude Journal and other books and co-founder of Recreate Your Life Story, an online course that helps you let go of the past and live a life you love. She recently launched a Mindfulness Kit to help reduce our stress and increase our peace and joy. For daily wisdom, join the Tiny Buddha list here. You can also follow Tiny Buddha on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


5. Letting Go of Failure Is Easier

Life becomes easier to navigate because you&rsquore living with purpose. Note, I didn&rsquot say easy because it&rsquos never easy.

That&rsquos because choosing to pursue a life aligned with your purpose will stretch you and demand more from you. You will be required to grow and commit to continuous personal development.

However, it is easier to let go of failure without letting it fester into an emotional wound because you&rsquore able approach life as an adventure rather than an &ldquoall or nothing&rdquo mindset.

It is easier to let go of failure because despite a few losses, you believe that you are on a creative, professional path that is designed just for you.


What Makes You Forget to Eat and Poop?

Look at the activities that keep you up all night, but look at the cognitive principles behind those activities that enthrall you. Because they can easily be applied elsewhere.

— Mark Manson

We’ve all had that experience where we get so wrapped up in something that minutes turn into hours and hours turn into “Holy crap, I forgot to have dinner.”

Supposedly, in his prime, Isaac Newton’s mother had to regularly come in and remind him to eat because he would spend entire days so absorbed in his work that he would forget.

I used to be like that with video games. This probably wasn’t a good thing. In fact, for many years it was kind of a problem. I would sit and play video games instead of doing more important things like studying for an exam, or showering regularly, or speaking to other humans face-to-face.

It wasn’t until I gave up the games that I realized my passion wasn’t for the games themselves (although I do love them). My passion is for improvement, being good at something and then trying to get better. The games themselves—the graphics, the stories—they were cool, but I can easily live without them. It’s the competition with others and with myself that I thrive on.

And when I applied that obsessiveness for self-improvement and competition to my own business and to my writing, well, things took off in a big way.

Maybe for you, it’s something else. Maybe it’s organizing things efficiently, or getting lost in a fantasy world, or teaching somebody something, or solving technical problems. Whatever it is, don’t just look at the activities that keep you up all night, but look at the cognitive principles behind those activities that enthrall you. Because they can easily be applied elsewhere.

The Answer to This Question Will Tell You:

  • What you truly enjoy doing
  • What other activities to check out that you might also enjoy

Do Humans Have A Need For Meaning and Life Purpose?

Over the past several years I’ve been developing a new sort of psychology that I call “natural psychology,” which focuses on our very human need for meaning and life purpose. I want to present you with a pared-down but hopefully clear vision of natural psychology’s views with respect to meaning and life purpose.

No life purposes can even exist until you step back and identify, embrace, and implement ones of your own choosing. There is no one meaning of life but rather a multitude of subjective life meanings, and there is no one purpose to life but rather a multitude of subjective life purposes.

Each person must sort out her life purposes and life meanings, realize that she is the arbiter of these purposes and meanings, and proceed to make value-based meaning — meaning that takes into account her values and principles.

How Can You Make Meaning of Your Life?

There are many ways to garner the psychological experience of meaning. You might have that experience just by gazing up at the night sky. But we make ourselves proudest when we strive for meaning that is rooted in our values and principles. Therefore, we are confronted not only by the task of making meaning but also by the higher, harder task of making value-based meaning. In this way we achieve a life at once meaningful and principled. Living this way is a decision.

We might wish that the situation were otherwise. We might wish that life had a single meaning and a single purpose rather than being this self-determined affair full of multiplicities and contradictions. But the part of us that knows best realizes that we have evolved into exactly the sort of creature who finds himself in exactly these circumstances. There is no universal agenda that, if we were able to discern it, would provide us with guidelines for living and reasons for living.

Predictable Challenges With Respect To Life Purpose

What are some of these predictable challenges with respect to life purpose? Consider a few simple examples. Let’s say you construe it to be your life purpose to build bridges. However, you find it’s impossible to contrive opportunities to build the bridges you want to erect. No one will hire you to build bridges building small bridges over creeks is not what you had in mind life refuses to provide you with a meaningful way to build bridges.

Your life purpose and the facts of existence seem completely out of alignment. How could this situation produce anything but pain, distress, and a terrible taste in the mouth? The same kind of scenario might pertain to becoming a concert pianist, playing professional basketball, or flying jets. You form a life purpose — and then life doesn’t allow it.

Or say that you see your life purposes as getting some satisfaction out of life, living ethically, and doing a little good. At the same time, you deeply want writing poetry to be your life’s work. Over time you realize that writing poetry doesn’t actually bring you that much satisfaction, that you aren’t sure how it amounts to ethical action, and that you can’t see how it is doing any real good.

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In this example your life purposes make complete sense to you, and your feeling for poetry is entirely genuine, and yet those two realities fail to mesh. Which is supposed to give way to the other?

The Concept vs. The Reality of Life Purpose

These two simple examples help us to understand why human beings have such trouble with both the concept and the reality of life purpose. On the concept level, we suppose that having a life purpose must amount to a sort of blessing and a blueprint for living. In reality, possessing a life purpose, or multiple life purposes, may amount only to added difficulty.

Many people grow up receiving messages about meaning and life purpose that are very different from the ones I’m articulating here and as a result find it difficult to adopt this new way of thinking. Whether your orientation is secular, as mine is, or spiritual/religious, you are still obliged to name and frame your life purposes and incorporate them into your daily life. Many people with a spiritual orientation have found life purpose boot camp valuable in helping them clarify their life purposes and organize their life around them.

Existential Maturity: You Don't Change, You Mature

Phil Jackson, the famous basketball coach, was fond of remarking that while people never change, they do mature. That’s an interesting distinction, isn’t it? Apparently you must remain you, but you can become a mature version of you. You can grow into a mature understanding of meaning and life purpose and as a result become an existentially adult version of yourself.

Having life purposes makes no one a saint. But deciding on your life purposes and trying to live them are signs of maturity. Living our life purposes on an angry day, when it would be so easy to lash out, may help us do the right thing instead of the wrong thing. Remembering on a bleak day that the experience of meaning can and will return helps us to opt for hope rather than despair.

Our Life Purposes Help Us With Daily Choices

Living our life purposes may help us love a little more than is actually in our heart to love and hate a little less than is actually in our heart to hate. Our life purposes are reminders that we’ve made decisions, that we have options, that we can get a grip, and that we can make ourselves proud.

Who doesn’t have shadows to deal with? Who isn’t embroiled in the reality of circumstances? Who isn’t unequal to the idea of “life as project”? Yet every participant in my online boot camp wanted to try and knew why it was important to do so. Like them, you know what you have in you: both a taste for carelessness and a taste for heroism.

I am not a futurist, I have no crystal ball, and I have no clue whatsoever where our species may go. But I do know where we are. Don’t you?

I’m selling the idea of value-based meaning-making as a useful, even elegant approximate answer to the central question with which life presents us: Why do this and not that? Why wake up and stretch and get on with life and not turn over and pout? Why speak truth to power and not just pad our bank account? Why hug our child rather than berating and belittling him? Why sing, why dance, why stay sober, why foment a revolution? Why anything? The central answer is that we can conceive of a life, our life, resting firmly on the pillars of the life purposes that we ourselves name and live.

Making Value-Based Meaning

The central mechanism for living is making value-based meaning. Then you can answer each and every “why” question, from the most trivial to the most momentous, by saying to the world and by saying to yourself:

“I have my life purposes, I’ve named them for myself and I understand them pretty darn well, and I will choose in light of them.”

This way of answering helps prevent you from answering from those other places that also reside within you: the place that doesn’t care, the place that has no energy, the place of anxiety and fear, the place just marking time, the place of custom and conformity, the place that’s concluded that life is a cheat.

Your life purpose work, from which flow your life purpose statement, your life purpose icon, your life purpose mantra, and your complete life purpose vision, may save you. It may save you from losing years to habit and to carelessness. It may save you from hiding out or giving yourself away. It may save you from your own doubts, your own fears, and your own resistance. It may save you from yourself. To employ a last military analogy: your life purposes armor you. They protect you from distractions, from infatuations, and from returning to a life of doubting and seeking.

Deciding Who We Will Attempt To Be

Barbarity, generosity, and everything human will exist until we are some other kind of creature. Everything that makes us human and that affects us as humans will continue. Waves will continue to crash against us, threatening to throw us off course. Life is like that. Right here, right now, you get to decide who you will attempt to be.

Remember Sisyphus, a king in Greek mythology and the subject of Albert Camus’s essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”? Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to forever roll a rock to the top of a mountain, whereupon the rock rolls back down again. Camus allows that Sisyphus — that any human being — can still experience freedom, meaning, and happiness even in dreadful circumstances like those.

I wonder if that is literally true. I wonder if dreadful circumstances can’t defeat even the most steadfast existentialist. But few of us are quite as condemned as Sisyphus. We have more freedom than he did — and we must use it. Nothing in the universe will condemn us for not making use of our available freedom — nothing, that is, except our own conscience.

©2014 by Eric Maisel. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.
www.newworldlibrary.com or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.

Article Source

Life Purpose Boot Camp: The 8-Week Breakthrough Plan for Creating a Meaningful Life
by Eric Maisel, Ph.D.

As life gets busier and more complicated we crave something larger and more meaningful than just ticking another item off our to-do list. In the past, we’ve looked to religion or outside guidance for that sense of purpose, but today fewer people are fulfilled by traditional approaches to meaning. Bestselling author, psychotherapist, and creativity coach Eric Maisel offers an alternative: an eight-week intensive that breaks through barriers and offers insights for living each day with purpose. This program will develop self-awareness and self-confidence and give you what you need to fully live the best possible life.

About the Author

Eric Maisel, PhD, is the author of more than forty works of fiction and nonfiction. His nonfiction titles include Coaching the Artist Within, Fearless Creating, The Van Gogh Blues, The Creativity Book, Performance Anxiety, and Ten Zen Seconds. He writes the "Rethinking Psychology" column for Psychology Today and contributes pieces on mental health to the Huffington Post. He is a creativity coach and creativity coach trainer who presents keynote addresses and life purpose boot camp workshops nationally and internationally. Visit www.ericmaisel.com to learn more about Dr. Maisel.


The Psychology of Purpose

Modern scientific research on human purpose has its origins in, of all places, a Holocaust survivor’s experiences in a series of Nazi concentration camps. While a prisoner at Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and two satellite camps of Dachau, Viennese psychologist Viktor Frankl noticed that fellow prisoners who had a sense of purpose showed greater resilience to the torture, slave labor, and starvation rations to which they were subjected. Writing of his experience later, he found a partial explanation in a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear almost any ‘how.’” Frankl’s 1959 book Man’s Search for Meaning , a book which proved to be seminal in the field, crystallized his convictions about the crucial role of meaning and purpose. A decade later, Frankl would assist in the development of the first and most widely used standardized survey of purpose, the 21-item “Purpose in Life” test.

As part of its ongoing interest in increasing understanding of character and virtue, the John Templeton Foundation commissioned a review of more than six decades of the literature surrounding the nature of human purpose. Covering more than 120 publications tracing back to Frankl’s work, the review examines six core questions relating to the definition, measurement, benefits, and development of purpose.

Psychology of Purpose: What Is Purpose and How Do You Measure It?

In psychological terms, a consensus definition for purpose has emerged in the literature according to which purpose is a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once personally meaningful and at the same time leads to productive engagement with some aspect of the world beyond the self. Not all goals or personally meaningful experiences contribute to purpose, but in the intersection of goal orientation, personal meaningfulness, and a focus beyond the self, a distinct conception of purpose emerges.

Studies and surveys investigating individual sources of purpose in life cite examples ranging from personal experience (being inspired by a caring teacher) to concerns affairs far removed from our current circumstance (becoming an activist after learning about sweatshop conditions in another country). Most world religions, as well as many secular systems of thought, also offer their adherents well-developed guidelines for developing purpose in life. Love of friends and family, and desire for meaningful work are common sources of purpose.

Over the past few decades, psychologists and sociologists have developed a host of assessments that touch on people’s senses of purpose including the Life Regard Index, the Purpose in Life subscale of the Psychological Scales of Well-being, the Meaning in Life questionnaire, the Existence Subscale of the Purpose in Life Test, the Revised Youth Purpose Survey, the Claremont Purpose Scale and the Life Purpose Questionnaire, among others.

The conclusion that emerges from work these tests and surveys, interviews, definitions, and meta-analyses is, roughly, that Frankl’s observation was correct — having a purpose in life is associated with a tremendous number of benefits, ranging from a subjective sense of happiness to lower levels of stress hormones. A 2004 study found that highly purposeful older women had lower cholesterol, were less likely to be overweight, and had lower levels of inflammatory response, while another from 2010 found that individuals who reported higher purpose scores were less likely to be diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment and even Alzheimer’s Disease. The vast majority of those noted benefits, however, are currently only correlations — in many cases it is not clear whether having a strong sense of purpose in life causes the benefits or whether people experiencing the benefits are simply better positioned to develop a sense of purpose.

Psychology of Purpose: Interventions

Potential interventions to increase purpose and its benefits have focused on the formative years of late youth, where studies have looked at the benefits of supportive mentors and of practices such as gratitude journaling on purpose in life. A 2009 study followed 89 children and adolescents who were assigned to write and deliver gratitude letters to people they felt had blessed them. Participants who had lower initial levels of positive affect and gratitude, compared to a control group, had significantly higher gratitude and positive affect after delivering the letter for as long as two months later.

This result becomes even more promising in light of a series of four studies in 2014 which concluded that even inducing a temporary purpose-mindset improved academic outcomes, including self-regulation, persistence, grade point average, and the amount of time students were willing to spend studying for tests and completing homework.

Psychology of Purpose: The Arc of Purpose

About one in five high school students and one in three college students report having a clear purpose in life. Those rates drop slightly into midlife and more precipitously into later adulthood. Some of these changes make sense in light of the future-oriented nature of purpose. For young people from late childhood onward, a sense of searching for a purpose is associated with a sense of life satisfaction — but only until middle age, when unending purpose-seeking may carry connotations of immaturity. One study, however, explored an interesting exception to the general decline of purpose-seeking: compared to other adults, “9-enders” (individuals ending a decade of life, at ages 29, 39, 49, etc.) tend to focus more on aging and meaning, and consequently, they are more likely to report searching for purpose or experiencing a crisis of meaning.

In mid-life, parenting and other forms of caregiving become a clear source of purpose and meaning for many. Interestingly, studies in 2006 and 1989 showed that, although parents had a stronger sense of meaning in their lives than non-parents, they reported feeling less happy — a reflection of the ways that pursuing one’s purpose, especially in highly demanding seasons, can still be difficult, discouraging, and stressful.

A sense of purpose in one’s career is correlated with both greater satisfaction at work as well as better work-related outputs. In a 2001 study of service workers, researchers indicated that some hospital cleaning staff considered themselves “mere janitors” while others thought of themselves as part of the overall team that brought healing to patients. These groups of individuals performed the same basic tasks, but they thought very differently about their sense of purpose in the organizations where they worked. Not surprisingly, the workers who viewed their role as having a healing function were more satisfied with their jobs, spent more time with patients, worked more closely with doctors and nurses, and found more meaning in their jobs.

In the later stages of life, common adult sources of purpose like fulfillment in one’s career or caregiving for others are less accessible — but maintaining a strong sense of purpose is associated with a host of positive attributes at these ages. Compared to others, older adults with purpose are more likely to be employed, have better health, have a higher level of education, and be married.

Psychology of Purpose Around the Globe

Although the majority of sociological work on purpose in life has focused on people in western, affluent societies, the literature contains a few interesting cross-cultural results that hint at how approaches to and benefits from purpose in life might differ around the world. In Korea, for instance, youth were shown to view purpose as less an individual pursuit and more as a collective matter, while explorations of Chinese concepts of purpose indicates that one’s sense of purpose is divided into senses of professional, moral, and social purpose.

Research in the psychology of purpose among people of different socioeconomic backgrounds suggests that those in challenging circumstances are likely to have a difficult time discovering and pursuing personally meaningful aims. This finding fit well with psychologist A.H. Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, which suggests that people must meet basic needs for things like food, shelter, and safety before they are easily motivated to pursue aims like self-actualization.

However several studies also suggest that purpose can emerge in difficult circumstances and that it may serve as an important form of protection, as in a study that showed that having a sense of life purpose buffered African-American youth from the negative experiences associated with growing up in more challenging environments.

Indeed, as Viktor Frankl argued — based in part on what he had observed first-hand — experiencing adversity might actually contribute to the development of a purpose in life.

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Download the full research review on the psychology of purpose.

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Stanford research: The meaningful life is a road worth traveling

A Stanford research project explored the key differences between lives of happiness and meaningfulness. While the two are similar, dramatic differences exist – and one should not underestimate the power of meaningfulness. "The quest for meaning is a key part of what makes us human," the researchers concluded.

Social psychologist Jennifer Aaker studies happiness and meaningfulness in life.

While lives of meaningfulness and happiness overlap, they are distinctly different, according to Stanford research.

In a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Jennifer Aaker of Stanford Graduate School of Business, along with colleagues, found answers about life in how people spend their time and what experiences they cultivate.

"Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker," Aaker said.

The researchers surveyed 397 people over a month-long period, examining whether people thought their lives were meaningful or happy, as well as their choices, beliefs and values. They found five key differences between meaningfulness and happiness:

• Getting what you want and need: While satisfying desires was a reliable source of happiness, it had nothing to do with a sense of meaning. For example, healthy people are happier than sick people, but the lives of sick people do not lack meaning.

• Past, present and future: Happiness is about the present, and meaning is about linking the past, present and future. When people spend time thinking about the future or past, the more meaningful, and less happy, their lives become. On the other hand, if people think about the here and now, they are happier.

• Social life: Connections to other people are important both for meaning and happiness. But the nature of those relationships is how they differ. Deep relationships – such as family – increase meaning, while spending time with friends may increase happiness but had little effect on meaning. Time with loved ones involves hashing out problems or challenges, while time with friends may simply foster good feelings without much responsibility.

• Struggles and stresses: Highly meaningful lives encounter lots of negative events and issues, which can result in unhappiness. Raising children can be joyful but it is also connected to high stress – thus meaningfulness – and not always happiness. While the lack of stress may make one happier – like when people retire and no longer have the pressure of work demands – meaningfulness drops.

• Self and personal identity: If happiness is about getting what you want, then meaningfulness is about expressing and defining yourself. A life of meaning is more deeply tied to a valued sense of self and one's purpose in the larger context of life and community.

One can find meaning in life and be unhappy at the same time.

Aaker points out that this type of life has received less attention in the media, which has recently focused on how to cultivate the happy life.  Examples of highly meaningful, but not necessarily happy, lives may include nursing, social work or even activism.

The unhappy but meaningful life involves difficult undertakings and can be characterized by stress, struggle and challenges. However, while sometimes unhappy in the moment, these people – connected to a larger sense of purpose and value – make positive contributions to society.

Happiness without meaning is characterized by a relatively shallow and often self-oriented life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided, the report noted.

And so, the meaningful life guides actions from the past through the present to the future, giving one a sense of direction. It offers ways to value good and bad alike, and gives us justifications for our aspirations. From achieving our goals to regarding ourselves in a positive light, a life of meaningfulness is considerably different than mere happiness.

"People have strong inner desires that shape their lives with purpose and focus – qualities that ultimately make for a uniquely human experience," said Aaker.

The research team included Roy Baumeister at Florida State University, Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota and Stanford doctoral student Emily Garbinsky.


I feel I have no purpose in life

I’m overwhelmed by a sense of meaninglessness. I’m 45 and have a good life. I like my job and have great friends, but sometimes I feel I have no purpose. Is this all there is? I don’t think I’m depressed, but sometimes I feel that if I died tomorrow, it would be a relief. I like my life, so I don’t know what to do about this underlying feeling of ‘what’s the point?’ Help. Alice

I love the fact that you are asking: ‘Is that all there is?’ just like that classic song sung by Peggy Lee. It’s a fantastic question, and takes courage to voice. It could be called a spiritual quest, a philosophical enquiry or a mid-life turning-point. I think it is worth consulting your GP before dismissing depression, because it does not just mean sadness it can also be the woolly greyness you describe. The reason for checking is that untreated depression might affect your ability to assess your other options.

Where might we start when you are medically clear? I talked to a friend who is involved in Buddhist chaplaincy. He recommends a book by the Dalai Lama called Beyond Religion: Ethics For A Whole World, which explores spirituality outside a specific religious tradition. However, I would also ask whether there is a church in your own cultural heritage that calls to you on any level. I’m not suggesting that you make a radical conversion, but perhaps start with something that’s connected with people or places you love.

You will find a distillation of the latest scientific research about mental wellbeing at Action for Happiness. AfH runs eight-week courses, and you can search online for a local group on Meetup. I went to my local Action for Happiness group last night, feeling exhausted and anxious about my mother in hospital on the other side of the world. Talking to a bunch of strangers helped – who knew? Actually I already knew, but I needed to experience it again.) And take a look at Psychologies’ Happiness Clubs.

Finally, please let me urge you not to just read about this, but to do something. Your happiness, which includes a sense of meaning, is definitely worth it for you, your family and your impact in this world.

Mary Fenwick is a business coach, journalist, fundraiser, mother, divorcée and widow. Follow Mary on Twitter @MJFenwick. Got a question for Mary? Email [email protected] , with ‘MARY’ in the subject line


5. Letting Go of Failure Is Easier

Life becomes easier to navigate because you&rsquore living with purpose. Note, I didn&rsquot say easy because it&rsquos never easy.

That&rsquos because choosing to pursue a life aligned with your purpose will stretch you and demand more from you. You will be required to grow and commit to continuous personal development.

However, it is easier to let go of failure without letting it fester into an emotional wound because you&rsquore able approach life as an adventure rather than an &ldquoall or nothing&rdquo mindset.

It is easier to let go of failure because despite a few losses, you believe that you are on a creative, professional path that is designed just for you.


What Makes You Forget to Eat and Poop?

Look at the activities that keep you up all night, but look at the cognitive principles behind those activities that enthrall you. Because they can easily be applied elsewhere.

— Mark Manson

We’ve all had that experience where we get so wrapped up in something that minutes turn into hours and hours turn into “Holy crap, I forgot to have dinner.”

Supposedly, in his prime, Isaac Newton’s mother had to regularly come in and remind him to eat because he would spend entire days so absorbed in his work that he would forget.

I used to be like that with video games. This probably wasn’t a good thing. In fact, for many years it was kind of a problem. I would sit and play video games instead of doing more important things like studying for an exam, or showering regularly, or speaking to other humans face-to-face.

It wasn’t until I gave up the games that I realized my passion wasn’t for the games themselves (although I do love them). My passion is for improvement, being good at something and then trying to get better. The games themselves—the graphics, the stories—they were cool, but I can easily live without them. It’s the competition with others and with myself that I thrive on.

And when I applied that obsessiveness for self-improvement and competition to my own business and to my writing, well, things took off in a big way.

Maybe for you, it’s something else. Maybe it’s organizing things efficiently, or getting lost in a fantasy world, or teaching somebody something, or solving technical problems. Whatever it is, don’t just look at the activities that keep you up all night, but look at the cognitive principles behind those activities that enthrall you. Because they can easily be applied elsewhere.

The Answer to This Question Will Tell You:

  • What you truly enjoy doing
  • What other activities to check out that you might also enjoy

Stanford research: The meaningful life is a road worth traveling

A Stanford research project explored the key differences between lives of happiness and meaningfulness. While the two are similar, dramatic differences exist – and one should not underestimate the power of meaningfulness. "The quest for meaning is a key part of what makes us human," the researchers concluded.

Social psychologist Jennifer Aaker studies happiness and meaningfulness in life.

While lives of meaningfulness and happiness overlap, they are distinctly different, according to Stanford research.

In a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Jennifer Aaker of Stanford Graduate School of Business, along with colleagues, found answers about life in how people spend their time and what experiences they cultivate.

"Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker," Aaker said.

The researchers surveyed 397 people over a month-long period, examining whether people thought their lives were meaningful or happy, as well as their choices, beliefs and values. They found five key differences between meaningfulness and happiness:

• Getting what you want and need: While satisfying desires was a reliable source of happiness, it had nothing to do with a sense of meaning. For example, healthy people are happier than sick people, but the lives of sick people do not lack meaning.

• Past, present and future: Happiness is about the present, and meaning is about linking the past, present and future. When people spend time thinking about the future or past, the more meaningful, and less happy, their lives become. On the other hand, if people think about the here and now, they are happier.

• Social life: Connections to other people are important both for meaning and happiness. But the nature of those relationships is how they differ. Deep relationships – such as family – increase meaning, while spending time with friends may increase happiness but had little effect on meaning. Time with loved ones involves hashing out problems or challenges, while time with friends may simply foster good feelings without much responsibility.

• Struggles and stresses: Highly meaningful lives encounter lots of negative events and issues, which can result in unhappiness. Raising children can be joyful but it is also connected to high stress – thus meaningfulness – and not always happiness. While the lack of stress may make one happier – like when people retire and no longer have the pressure of work demands – meaningfulness drops.

• Self and personal identity: If happiness is about getting what you want, then meaningfulness is about expressing and defining yourself. A life of meaning is more deeply tied to a valued sense of self and one's purpose in the larger context of life and community.

One can find meaning in life and be unhappy at the same time.

Aaker points out that this type of life has received less attention in the media, which has recently focused on how to cultivate the happy life.  Examples of highly meaningful, but not necessarily happy, lives may include nursing, social work or even activism.

The unhappy but meaningful life involves difficult undertakings and can be characterized by stress, struggle and challenges. However, while sometimes unhappy in the moment, these people – connected to a larger sense of purpose and value – make positive contributions to society.

Happiness without meaning is characterized by a relatively shallow and often self-oriented life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided, the report noted.

And so, the meaningful life guides actions from the past through the present to the future, giving one a sense of direction. It offers ways to value good and bad alike, and gives us justifications for our aspirations. From achieving our goals to regarding ourselves in a positive light, a life of meaningfulness is considerably different than mere happiness.

"People have strong inner desires that shape their lives with purpose and focus – qualities that ultimately make for a uniquely human experience," said Aaker.

The research team included Roy Baumeister at Florida State University, Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota and Stanford doctoral student Emily Garbinsky.


I feel I have no purpose in life

I’m overwhelmed by a sense of meaninglessness. I’m 45 and have a good life. I like my job and have great friends, but sometimes I feel I have no purpose. Is this all there is? I don’t think I’m depressed, but sometimes I feel that if I died tomorrow, it would be a relief. I like my life, so I don’t know what to do about this underlying feeling of ‘what’s the point?’ Help. Alice

I love the fact that you are asking: ‘Is that all there is?’ just like that classic song sung by Peggy Lee. It’s a fantastic question, and takes courage to voice. It could be called a spiritual quest, a philosophical enquiry or a mid-life turning-point. I think it is worth consulting your GP before dismissing depression, because it does not just mean sadness it can also be the woolly greyness you describe. The reason for checking is that untreated depression might affect your ability to assess your other options.

Where might we start when you are medically clear? I talked to a friend who is involved in Buddhist chaplaincy. He recommends a book by the Dalai Lama called Beyond Religion: Ethics For A Whole World, which explores spirituality outside a specific religious tradition. However, I would also ask whether there is a church in your own cultural heritage that calls to you on any level. I’m not suggesting that you make a radical conversion, but perhaps start with something that’s connected with people or places you love.

You will find a distillation of the latest scientific research about mental wellbeing at Action for Happiness. AfH runs eight-week courses, and you can search online for a local group on Meetup. I went to my local Action for Happiness group last night, feeling exhausted and anxious about my mother in hospital on the other side of the world. Talking to a bunch of strangers helped – who knew? Actually I already knew, but I needed to experience it again.) And take a look at Psychologies’ Happiness Clubs.

Finally, please let me urge you not to just read about this, but to do something. Your happiness, which includes a sense of meaning, is definitely worth it for you, your family and your impact in this world.

Mary Fenwick is a business coach, journalist, fundraiser, mother, divorcée and widow. Follow Mary on Twitter @MJFenwick. Got a question for Mary? Email [email protected] , with ‘MARY’ in the subject line


Do Humans Have A Need For Meaning and Life Purpose?

Over the past several years I’ve been developing a new sort of psychology that I call “natural psychology,” which focuses on our very human need for meaning and life purpose. I want to present you with a pared-down but hopefully clear vision of natural psychology’s views with respect to meaning and life purpose.

No life purposes can even exist until you step back and identify, embrace, and implement ones of your own choosing. There is no one meaning of life but rather a multitude of subjective life meanings, and there is no one purpose to life but rather a multitude of subjective life purposes.

Each person must sort out her life purposes and life meanings, realize that she is the arbiter of these purposes and meanings, and proceed to make value-based meaning — meaning that takes into account her values and principles.

How Can You Make Meaning of Your Life?

There are many ways to garner the psychological experience of meaning. You might have that experience just by gazing up at the night sky. But we make ourselves proudest when we strive for meaning that is rooted in our values and principles. Therefore, we are confronted not only by the task of making meaning but also by the higher, harder task of making value-based meaning. In this way we achieve a life at once meaningful and principled. Living this way is a decision.

We might wish that the situation were otherwise. We might wish that life had a single meaning and a single purpose rather than being this self-determined affair full of multiplicities and contradictions. But the part of us that knows best realizes that we have evolved into exactly the sort of creature who finds himself in exactly these circumstances. There is no universal agenda that, if we were able to discern it, would provide us with guidelines for living and reasons for living.

Predictable Challenges With Respect To Life Purpose

What are some of these predictable challenges with respect to life purpose? Consider a few simple examples. Let’s say you construe it to be your life purpose to build bridges. However, you find it’s impossible to contrive opportunities to build the bridges you want to erect. No one will hire you to build bridges building small bridges over creeks is not what you had in mind life refuses to provide you with a meaningful way to build bridges.

Your life purpose and the facts of existence seem completely out of alignment. How could this situation produce anything but pain, distress, and a terrible taste in the mouth? The same kind of scenario might pertain to becoming a concert pianist, playing professional basketball, or flying jets. You form a life purpose — and then life doesn’t allow it.

Or say that you see your life purposes as getting some satisfaction out of life, living ethically, and doing a little good. At the same time, you deeply want writing poetry to be your life’s work. Over time you realize that writing poetry doesn’t actually bring you that much satisfaction, that you aren’t sure how it amounts to ethical action, and that you can’t see how it is doing any real good.

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In this example your life purposes make complete sense to you, and your feeling for poetry is entirely genuine, and yet those two realities fail to mesh. Which is supposed to give way to the other?

The Concept vs. The Reality of Life Purpose

These two simple examples help us to understand why human beings have such trouble with both the concept and the reality of life purpose. On the concept level, we suppose that having a life purpose must amount to a sort of blessing and a blueprint for living. In reality, possessing a life purpose, or multiple life purposes, may amount only to added difficulty.

Many people grow up receiving messages about meaning and life purpose that are very different from the ones I’m articulating here and as a result find it difficult to adopt this new way of thinking. Whether your orientation is secular, as mine is, or spiritual/religious, you are still obliged to name and frame your life purposes and incorporate them into your daily life. Many people with a spiritual orientation have found life purpose boot camp valuable in helping them clarify their life purposes and organize their life around them.

Existential Maturity: You Don't Change, You Mature

Phil Jackson, the famous basketball coach, was fond of remarking that while people never change, they do mature. That’s an interesting distinction, isn’t it? Apparently you must remain you, but you can become a mature version of you. You can grow into a mature understanding of meaning and life purpose and as a result become an existentially adult version of yourself.

Having life purposes makes no one a saint. But deciding on your life purposes and trying to live them are signs of maturity. Living our life purposes on an angry day, when it would be so easy to lash out, may help us do the right thing instead of the wrong thing. Remembering on a bleak day that the experience of meaning can and will return helps us to opt for hope rather than despair.

Our Life Purposes Help Us With Daily Choices

Living our life purposes may help us love a little more than is actually in our heart to love and hate a little less than is actually in our heart to hate. Our life purposes are reminders that we’ve made decisions, that we have options, that we can get a grip, and that we can make ourselves proud.

Who doesn’t have shadows to deal with? Who isn’t embroiled in the reality of circumstances? Who isn’t unequal to the idea of “life as project”? Yet every participant in my online boot camp wanted to try and knew why it was important to do so. Like them, you know what you have in you: both a taste for carelessness and a taste for heroism.

I am not a futurist, I have no crystal ball, and I have no clue whatsoever where our species may go. But I do know where we are. Don’t you?

I’m selling the idea of value-based meaning-making as a useful, even elegant approximate answer to the central question with which life presents us: Why do this and not that? Why wake up and stretch and get on with life and not turn over and pout? Why speak truth to power and not just pad our bank account? Why hug our child rather than berating and belittling him? Why sing, why dance, why stay sober, why foment a revolution? Why anything? The central answer is that we can conceive of a life, our life, resting firmly on the pillars of the life purposes that we ourselves name and live.

Making Value-Based Meaning

The central mechanism for living is making value-based meaning. Then you can answer each and every “why” question, from the most trivial to the most momentous, by saying to the world and by saying to yourself:

“I have my life purposes, I’ve named them for myself and I understand them pretty darn well, and I will choose in light of them.”

This way of answering helps prevent you from answering from those other places that also reside within you: the place that doesn’t care, the place that has no energy, the place of anxiety and fear, the place just marking time, the place of custom and conformity, the place that’s concluded that life is a cheat.

Your life purpose work, from which flow your life purpose statement, your life purpose icon, your life purpose mantra, and your complete life purpose vision, may save you. It may save you from losing years to habit and to carelessness. It may save you from hiding out or giving yourself away. It may save you from your own doubts, your own fears, and your own resistance. It may save you from yourself. To employ a last military analogy: your life purposes armor you. They protect you from distractions, from infatuations, and from returning to a life of doubting and seeking.

Deciding Who We Will Attempt To Be

Barbarity, generosity, and everything human will exist until we are some other kind of creature. Everything that makes us human and that affects us as humans will continue. Waves will continue to crash against us, threatening to throw us off course. Life is like that. Right here, right now, you get to decide who you will attempt to be.

Remember Sisyphus, a king in Greek mythology and the subject of Albert Camus’s essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”? Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to forever roll a rock to the top of a mountain, whereupon the rock rolls back down again. Camus allows that Sisyphus — that any human being — can still experience freedom, meaning, and happiness even in dreadful circumstances like those.

I wonder if that is literally true. I wonder if dreadful circumstances can’t defeat even the most steadfast existentialist. But few of us are quite as condemned as Sisyphus. We have more freedom than he did — and we must use it. Nothing in the universe will condemn us for not making use of our available freedom — nothing, that is, except our own conscience.

©2014 by Eric Maisel. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.
www.newworldlibrary.com or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.

Article Source

Life Purpose Boot Camp: The 8-Week Breakthrough Plan for Creating a Meaningful Life
by Eric Maisel, Ph.D.

As life gets busier and more complicated we crave something larger and more meaningful than just ticking another item off our to-do list. In the past, we’ve looked to religion or outside guidance for that sense of purpose, but today fewer people are fulfilled by traditional approaches to meaning. Bestselling author, psychotherapist, and creativity coach Eric Maisel offers an alternative: an eight-week intensive that breaks through barriers and offers insights for living each day with purpose. This program will develop self-awareness and self-confidence and give you what you need to fully live the best possible life.

About the Author

Eric Maisel, PhD, is the author of more than forty works of fiction and nonfiction. His nonfiction titles include Coaching the Artist Within, Fearless Creating, The Van Gogh Blues, The Creativity Book, Performance Anxiety, and Ten Zen Seconds. He writes the "Rethinking Psychology" column for Psychology Today and contributes pieces on mental health to the Huffington Post. He is a creativity coach and creativity coach trainer who presents keynote addresses and life purpose boot camp workshops nationally and internationally. Visit www.ericmaisel.com to learn more about Dr. Maisel.


The Psychology of Purpose

Modern scientific research on human purpose has its origins in, of all places, a Holocaust survivor’s experiences in a series of Nazi concentration camps. While a prisoner at Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and two satellite camps of Dachau, Viennese psychologist Viktor Frankl noticed that fellow prisoners who had a sense of purpose showed greater resilience to the torture, slave labor, and starvation rations to which they were subjected. Writing of his experience later, he found a partial explanation in a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear almost any ‘how.’” Frankl’s 1959 book Man’s Search for Meaning , a book which proved to be seminal in the field, crystallized his convictions about the crucial role of meaning and purpose. A decade later, Frankl would assist in the development of the first and most widely used standardized survey of purpose, the 21-item “Purpose in Life” test.

As part of its ongoing interest in increasing understanding of character and virtue, the John Templeton Foundation commissioned a review of more than six decades of the literature surrounding the nature of human purpose. Covering more than 120 publications tracing back to Frankl’s work, the review examines six core questions relating to the definition, measurement, benefits, and development of purpose.

Psychology of Purpose: What Is Purpose and How Do You Measure It?

In psychological terms, a consensus definition for purpose has emerged in the literature according to which purpose is a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once personally meaningful and at the same time leads to productive engagement with some aspect of the world beyond the self. Not all goals or personally meaningful experiences contribute to purpose, but in the intersection of goal orientation, personal meaningfulness, and a focus beyond the self, a distinct conception of purpose emerges.

Studies and surveys investigating individual sources of purpose in life cite examples ranging from personal experience (being inspired by a caring teacher) to concerns affairs far removed from our current circumstance (becoming an activist after learning about sweatshop conditions in another country). Most world religions, as well as many secular systems of thought, also offer their adherents well-developed guidelines for developing purpose in life. Love of friends and family, and desire for meaningful work are common sources of purpose.

Over the past few decades, psychologists and sociologists have developed a host of assessments that touch on people’s senses of purpose including the Life Regard Index, the Purpose in Life subscale of the Psychological Scales of Well-being, the Meaning in Life questionnaire, the Existence Subscale of the Purpose in Life Test, the Revised Youth Purpose Survey, the Claremont Purpose Scale and the Life Purpose Questionnaire, among others.

The conclusion that emerges from work these tests and surveys, interviews, definitions, and meta-analyses is, roughly, that Frankl’s observation was correct — having a purpose in life is associated with a tremendous number of benefits, ranging from a subjective sense of happiness to lower levels of stress hormones. A 2004 study found that highly purposeful older women had lower cholesterol, were less likely to be overweight, and had lower levels of inflammatory response, while another from 2010 found that individuals who reported higher purpose scores were less likely to be diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment and even Alzheimer’s Disease. The vast majority of those noted benefits, however, are currently only correlations — in many cases it is not clear whether having a strong sense of purpose in life causes the benefits or whether people experiencing the benefits are simply better positioned to develop a sense of purpose.

Psychology of Purpose: Interventions

Potential interventions to increase purpose and its benefits have focused on the formative years of late youth, where studies have looked at the benefits of supportive mentors and of practices such as gratitude journaling on purpose in life. A 2009 study followed 89 children and adolescents who were assigned to write and deliver gratitude letters to people they felt had blessed them. Participants who had lower initial levels of positive affect and gratitude, compared to a control group, had significantly higher gratitude and positive affect after delivering the letter for as long as two months later.

This result becomes even more promising in light of a series of four studies in 2014 which concluded that even inducing a temporary purpose-mindset improved academic outcomes, including self-regulation, persistence, grade point average, and the amount of time students were willing to spend studying for tests and completing homework.

Psychology of Purpose: The Arc of Purpose

About one in five high school students and one in three college students report having a clear purpose in life. Those rates drop slightly into midlife and more precipitously into later adulthood. Some of these changes make sense in light of the future-oriented nature of purpose. For young people from late childhood onward, a sense of searching for a purpose is associated with a sense of life satisfaction — but only until middle age, when unending purpose-seeking may carry connotations of immaturity. One study, however, explored an interesting exception to the general decline of purpose-seeking: compared to other adults, “9-enders” (individuals ending a decade of life, at ages 29, 39, 49, etc.) tend to focus more on aging and meaning, and consequently, they are more likely to report searching for purpose or experiencing a crisis of meaning.

In mid-life, parenting and other forms of caregiving become a clear source of purpose and meaning for many. Interestingly, studies in 2006 and 1989 showed that, although parents had a stronger sense of meaning in their lives than non-parents, they reported feeling less happy — a reflection of the ways that pursuing one’s purpose, especially in highly demanding seasons, can still be difficult, discouraging, and stressful.

A sense of purpose in one’s career is correlated with both greater satisfaction at work as well as better work-related outputs. In a 2001 study of service workers, researchers indicated that some hospital cleaning staff considered themselves “mere janitors” while others thought of themselves as part of the overall team that brought healing to patients. These groups of individuals performed the same basic tasks, but they thought very differently about their sense of purpose in the organizations where they worked. Not surprisingly, the workers who viewed their role as having a healing function were more satisfied with their jobs, spent more time with patients, worked more closely with doctors and nurses, and found more meaning in their jobs.

In the later stages of life, common adult sources of purpose like fulfillment in one’s career or caregiving for others are less accessible — but maintaining a strong sense of purpose is associated with a host of positive attributes at these ages. Compared to others, older adults with purpose are more likely to be employed, have better health, have a higher level of education, and be married.

Psychology of Purpose Around the Globe

Although the majority of sociological work on purpose in life has focused on people in western, affluent societies, the literature contains a few interesting cross-cultural results that hint at how approaches to and benefits from purpose in life might differ around the world. In Korea, for instance, youth were shown to view purpose as less an individual pursuit and more as a collective matter, while explorations of Chinese concepts of purpose indicates that one’s sense of purpose is divided into senses of professional, moral, and social purpose.

Research in the psychology of purpose among people of different socioeconomic backgrounds suggests that those in challenging circumstances are likely to have a difficult time discovering and pursuing personally meaningful aims. This finding fit well with psychologist A.H. Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, which suggests that people must meet basic needs for things like food, shelter, and safety before they are easily motivated to pursue aims like self-actualization.

However several studies also suggest that purpose can emerge in difficult circumstances and that it may serve as an important form of protection, as in a study that showed that having a sense of life purpose buffered African-American youth from the negative experiences associated with growing up in more challenging environments.

Indeed, as Viktor Frankl argued — based in part on what he had observed first-hand — experiencing adversity might actually contribute to the development of a purpose in life.

STILL CURIOUS?

Download the full research review on the psychology of purpose.

Discover our other research papers on discoveries. Explore topics such as:


What are emotions, and why do we have them?

If you're ever hit in the nose hard enough to make your eyes water, you may also notice that your skin will grow hot, your mouth will go a bit dry and your pulse will become elevated. You'll find that your head begins to swim with a strong desire to hit something in return, possibly to shout while you do. Eventually, you'll find that you've overcome this sudden influx of physical and mental stimuli. What you've just experienced -- the basic emotion of anger -- has passed.

Why a slight impact to the nose leads to a series of physiological and mental changes has long been a matter of speculation, but most psychologists agree that a basic emotion like anger exists as an evolutionary trigger. We humans -- and most other animals -- appear to be equipped with a set of predictable responses to situations. We call these the basic emotions: anger, fear, surprise, disgust, joy and sadness, as described in the 1970s by anthropologist Paul Eckman [source: Changing Minds].

Over time, this list of basic emotions has been added to, subtracted from and reshaped based on the idea that human emotions are universal. This notion suggests that for any given situation, like being hit in the nose, any individual in any culture would experience something like anger. This view of emotions as largely objective is widely accepted, although there is an emerging school of thought that believes emotions to be far more subjective: Rather than six or 11 basic emotions, there is an emotion for every possible human experience [source: SCAS].

Under almost every explanation of emotions is the premise that they're a naturally-occurring response to a situation. Whether this response is the result of our own evaluation or an automatic one remains to be seen. In the field of psychology, the view of the nature of emotions can be divided into two camps: Emotions are either the result of a judgment of any current situation or a perception of changes taking place within our bodies [source: Thagard]. In other words, when we experience disgust, it could be the result of a judgment about how we feel when we see vomit. Under the other view, we experience disgust because our body undergoes physiological changes like queasiness and increased skin temperature at the sight of vomit.

Over time, research has also separated other emotions that most in the scientific community believe are only experienced by humans and some other primates. These higher or moral emotions are based on self-awareness, self-consciousness and ability to empathize with others [source: Heery, et al]. The moral emotions are pride, guilt, embarrassment and shame [source: Simons].

Like basic emotions, moral emotions have accompanying physiological changes associated with them. But they diverge from basic emotions in that they tend to emerge after self-reflection, and they support the theory that emotions are results of judgments, rather than simply involuntary reactions to a stimulus.

Whether discussing the origin or nature of basic or higher emotions, one question remains: Why do we experience them in the first place?


When You Feel Purposeless and Fear You’re Wasting Time

I wanted to know for sure that if I tried to do something, I would like it if I devoted my limited time to it, I’d end up somewhere good.

I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and I felt certain this was a phenomenal failing—because if you don’t know right now what you need to do to make your life count, life will pass you by before you’ve ever had a chance to do something meaningful or valuable. At least, that’s what I thought back then.

So I sat around thinking, analyzing, trying to identify something big enough or good enough, terrified that maybe I’d spend the rest of my days feeling purposeless, useless, on the fringe doing the same thing in my professional life as I’d always done in my personal life: feeling like I was on the outside looking in.

When you’re sitting amid a vast expanse of possibilities, in the pressure cooker of expectations and impatience, it can feel almost paralyzing.

What step do you take when you have a hunch but no solid sense of direction? If it’s only a hunch, then maybe it’s the wrong direction.

And what if you go in the wrong direction? Then you will have wasted time, and time is finite. And everyone else is so far ahead. Everyone else seems happy and successful. Everyone else is climbing the ladder, earning more money, making a difference, mattering.

What if you never matter? What if you never do anything important? And worst of all, what if you never have more than a hunch about what’s important to you?

What if you never feel a spark, a purpose, that elusive “why” that so many people write about?

What if you never care about anything so strongly that it becomes the bliss you have to follow?

Sitting in the Times Square Internet café over a decade ago, searching Craigslist for jobs and gigs, I felt a sense of panic and urgency. I needed to figure it out, and fast.

I was blinded by the fear of never finding what I was looking for, and that made the looking awfully ineffective.

I thought there was something wrong with me for being so uncertain, so resistant, so unable to identify and commit to any path.

In retrospect, I see there was nothing wrong with me, or where I was in life. And there was nothing wrong with living in the maybe, looking for new possibilities.

I wasn’t ineffective because I didn’t yet feel a strong internal pull. I was ineffective because I consistently marinated my brain in anxious, self-judging thoughts.

My biggest obstacle wasn’t that I felt lost it was that I felt I shouldn’t be. I felt I should have known, right then, not only what I wanted to do but also how I was going to do it.

Because without knowing those two things, I felt adrift and incredibly out of control. How can you let yourself ease into the moment if you can’t be sure it’s leading to a better one?

If I were to walk into that Internet café and approach my younger self, she would probably ignore me, immersed as she was in her frantic searching.

But if I somehow had the power to command her attention, I’d tell her a few things that maybe, just maybe, could relieve her constant worrying and provide both peace of mind and focus.

You’ll never be effective if you’re convinced tomorrow needs to be better than today, because this belief stems from resistance to the present—and the present is where your power lies.

If you’re looking for purpose from a place of inadequacy, you will likely be too overwhelmed by the need to do something big, that matters to the world at large, to identify what matters to you personally and start taking tiny steps toward it.

Instead of looking for a guarantee that tomorrow will be valuable, know that today is valuable—that you’re not wasting time because you don’t yet feel a sense of purpose. You’re using time well by starting (or continuing) the process of discovering it.

There’s simply no shortcut to “figuring things out”—for anyone. Instead of being hard on yourself for not having clarity, be proud of yourself for moving forward on a foggy road when you could easily find a cloudless, well-beaten path to follow…to certain dissatisfaction.

There’s no set timeframe for doing anything.

You truly can do things in your own time without having to worry about being “behind.” Sometimes it’s the things we do that feel like “stalling” or “getting off track” that end up being the most helpful for our growth.

And besides, what story will be more interesting to flash before your eyes in the end: one that unfolded in ways you never expected, with unique twists and turns or, one that followed a specific, predetermined timeline with predictable steps from milestone to milestone?

The best way to find direction is to trust your instincts instead of forcing yourself to do things because you think you “should.”

Your intuition is a powerful compass, and even if you think you aren’t making progress, if you’re following your instincts, you are.

There are always going to be opportunities that look good on paper, and that little, scared voice within may tell you that your life will only matter if you take them.

Other people may also tell you this, if not directly, indirectly or, you may assume they’re thinking this, when really, they’re too immersed in their own confusing journey to pass judgment on yours for long.

But sometimes the best opportunities are the ones you don’t take, leaving yourself open for choices that better align with your own values and priorities.

I know this may sound as impossible as growing another lung, but try not to worry so much about what other people might think. They may have expectations, but they aren’t living inside your mind, or feeling your instincts.

The only one who can make wise decisions for you is you. And even if it makes you feel anxious at times, you will eventually thank yourself for being brave enough to follow your heart, not someone else’s head.

When it comes to creating purpose, there truly is no “wrong” decision.

You may think you only have one purpose and that you need to push yourself to find it. And you can continue thinking this, if you’re okay with feeling chronically pressured and scared.

Or, instead of aiming to discover the one thing you’re supposed to do with your life, you could focus on discovering the one thing you want to try right now, knowing that you can change direction any time. And that changing direction won’t be something to be ashamed of it won’t mean you failed at discovering your purpose before. It will mean you had one purpose then, and now your purpose has evolved.

It will mean you’re brave enough to let yourself evolve, repeatedly undertaking the sometimes terrifying process of discovering what else you can do.

Maybe that in itself can be a purpose—to live life in that vulnerable, uncertain place where you’re not boxed into one way of being unencumbered by the need to define yourself and your place in the world free to roam when it would feel much safer to tether yourself to one role.

Ten years ago I thought I was a failure because I hadn’t done anything that felt important. I now know it was all important, and not just because it brought me to this site.

All those steps were important because those steps were my life. And my life is valuable and worth enjoying regardless of what I do professionally.

Ironically, adopting this mindset makes it so much easier to create meaning in life, because suddenly it’s not about what you have to do. It’s about what you want to do. It’s about where your heart’s pulling you in this moment.

And that’s what it means to find direction—to follow those pulls, without a guarantee, knowing that the goal isn’t to end up somewhere good but to learn to recognize the good in this very moment.

This moment isn’t merely the bridge to where you want to be. This moment—this crucial part of the process—is a destination in itself, and now is your only opportunity to appreciate it, and appreciate yourself for living it.

About Lori Deschene

Lori Deschene is the founder of Tiny Buddha. She’s also the author of Tiny Buddha’s Gratitude Journal and other books and co-founder of Recreate Your Life Story, an online course that helps you let go of the past and live a life you love. She recently launched a Mindfulness Kit to help reduce our stress and increase our peace and joy. For daily wisdom, join the Tiny Buddha list here. You can also follow Tiny Buddha on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


6. Tell your story

Amber Cantorna

Reading can help you find your purpose—but so can writing,

Purpose often arises from curiosity about your own life. What obstacles have you encountered? What strengths helped you to overcome them? How did other people help you? How did your strengths help make life better for others?

“We all have the ability to make a narrative out of our own lives,” says Emily Esfahani Smith, author of the 2017 book The Power of Meaning. “It gives us clarity on our own lives, how to understand ourselves, and gives us a framework that goes beyond the day-to-day and basically helps us make sense of our experiences.”

That’s why Amber Cantorna wrote her memoir, Refocusing My Family: Coming Out, Being Cast Out, and Discovering the True Love of God. At first depressed after losing everyone she loved, Amber soon discovered new strengths in herself—and she is using her book to help build a nonprofit organization called Beyond to support gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Christians in their coming-out process.

One 2008 study found that those who see meaning and purpose in their lives are able to tell a story of change and growth, where they managed to overcome the obstacles they encountered. In other words, creating a narrative like Amber’s can help us to see our own strengths and how applying those strengths can make a difference in the world, which increases our sense of self-efficacy.

This is a valuable reflective process to all people, but Amber took it one step further, by publishing her autobiography and turning it into a tool for social change. Today, Amber’s purpose is to help people like her feel less alone.

“My sense of purpose has grown a lot with my desire to share my story—and the realization that so many other people have shared my journey.”


Watch the video: Βασίλης Σκουλάς - Τα Αντίθετα από την τηλεοπτική σειρά Σασμός - Official Music Video (August 2022).