Purpose is not a destination, suggests research, but a journey and a practice.
Purpose is the stuff of inspirational posters and motivational speeches. When we find our purpose, they say, we’ll know what we are meant to do in life. The path will be laid out before us, and our job will be to keep following that vision with unwavering commitment.
But is this really what purpose looks like?
Alongside the self-help hype is a body of research on purpose across the lifespan, reaching back more than 30 years. Following people as they grapple with their identity as teens, settle into the responsibilities of adulthood, and make the shift to retirement, this research paints a more complicated picture of purpose—but a hopeful one, too.
Here’s the upshot: We don’t have to worry about finding our one true purpose; we can find purpose in different areas of life. In fact, purpose isn’t something we find at all. It’s something we can cultivate through deliberate action and reflection, and it will naturally wax and wane throughout our lives.
Like happiness, purpose is not a destination, but a journey and a practice. That means it’s accessible at any age, if we’re willing to explore what matters to us and what kind of person we want to be—and act to become that person.
This “is a project that endures across the lifespan,” as purpose expert Kendall Bronk and her colleagues write in a 2009 paper. If we’re able to revisit and renew our sense of purpose as we navigate milestones and transitions, suggests this research, then we can look forward to more satisfying, meaningful lives.
Teens: Seeking purpose
We might find purpose in fighting poverty, creating art, or making people’s lives better through technology.
A purpose in life is not just any big goal that we pursue. According to researchers, purpose is a long-term aim that is meaningful to the self—but goes beyond the self, aiming to make a difference to the broader world. We might find purpose in fighting poverty, creating art, or making people’s lives better through technology. That process begins when we’re teens, as we explore who we are, what we value, and what we want out of life, says Bronk, an associate professor at Claremont Graduate University. As they try different interests and activities, like music or volunteering, some teens start to discover paths they want to pursue. Other teens have challenging life experiences, like a parent being diagnosed with cancer or a shooting in their hometown, that spur them to work on particular causes. Others are inspired by role models who are leading purposeful lives, from parents to coaches.
Mariah Jordan from Cleveland, one of the winners of the GGSC Purpose Challenge Scholarship Contest, often accompanied her grandmother to doctor’s appointments as a child. Over time, witnessing her grandmother’s experiences, she began to see the racial inequalities that existed in health care. She went on to volunteer in a medical setting and conduct research on cancer in African Americans, working to eliminate health disparities and bring more cultural sensitivity to the field of medicine.
William Damon, author of The Path to Purpose and a professor at Stanford, has spent nearly 20 years studying how people develop purpose in work, family, and civic life. As he describes it, purpose is something of a chemical reaction that takes place when our skills meet the needs of the world. Young people must identify something in their environment that could be improved, whether it’s politics or modern jazz music, and recognize something in themselves that they can bring to bear on that problem—leadership skills, say, or creativity.
Knowing your skills and your interests—and in a larger sense, your identity—seems to be key to pursuing purpose.
In a 2011 study, high school and college students answered surveys about their sense of purpose, as well as their sense of identity—how clear they were on the kinds of jobs, values, friendships, politics, religion, and sex roles they would have in life. Researchers found that the more solid their sense of identity, the more purposeful they were. In turn, they were also happier and more hopeful for the future.
A 2012 study by the same researchers had a similar finding, but in the opposite direction—with young people who felt purposeful building a more solid sense of identity over time. “Identity and purpose development are intertwined processes,” write Patrick Hill of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Anthony Burrow of Cornell University. At this age, though, only about 20 percent of teens have a strong sense of purpose in life, at least according to Damon’s work. Others have pie-in-the-sky dreams, or fun hobbies, or they’re just trying to get through high school. More often, childhood and adolescence seem to be the time when the building blocks of purpose are established, but we’re still exploring what we want out of life.
Adults: Busy with purpose
According to Damon, most people who find purpose do so in their 20s and 30s. This is when we tend to start building a career and a family—both of which are major sources of purpose during adulthood, along with religion and volunteering.
In the family realm, we may find a deep sense of purpose from raising children, as well as taking care of aging parents. At work, we might feel fulfilled in supporting our coworkers, making a difference in the organization, or contributing to society, Damon writes.
When education professional Paul LeBuffe found out that he was raising a special-needs child, it was a turning point for his family and his career—and his sense of purpose. Since then, he has been working to promote resilience in children and adults, and within his own family. Working in that field means he’s always learning things he can apply to his own life, which helps give him a sense of balance.
While finding purpose can feel like an exciting adventure for young people, who might take gap years or try interesting electives in college, purpose becomes more urgent for adults.
In a 2009 study, Bronk and her colleagues surveyed people of different age groups, including nearly 400 young people (in their teens and early 20s) and over 400 adults (around age 35). When they were searching for purpose, young people were more satisfied with life—but this wasn’t true of adults. In fact, the more they were still actively seeking purpose, the less satisfied they were. The researchers surmise that this comes down to cultural norms and the expectations adults have for themselves.
“In our culture we expect young people to explore what matters most to them, but by midlife, we expect them to have sorted this out,” write Bronk and her colleagues. At some age, lacking in purpose becomes unpleasant—but Bronk points out that having purpose isn’t always a picnic, either. Going after a big, long-term goal can be stressful and discouraging; as anyone who has raised a child knows, things that bring us meaning don’t always bring us day-to-day fun and good cheer.