A Purposeful Summer

Photo by: Ishmael Paramo on Unsplash


How do you want to leave your mark on this world? What matters most to you? What would you want to be different in the world? These are just a few of the questions that help lead a person to uncovering what their purpose is in life.1 Of course, discovering your purpose in life sounds like a lofty goal—a real Big Deal! However, it might be simpler than you think. Specifically, for many, a purpose in life is being a good parent, healing other people, or making the world a better place. Any aim can be a purpose, as long as it includes three key elements: (1) you are working toward long-term goals that coincide with your purpose, (2) the goals you’re working on (and reasons for doing them) are meaningful to you, and (3) your purpose influences someone or something in the world beyond just you.2

Purpose as Beyond the Self

While self-care goals are also important, a purpose is something that influences other people, animals, or even plants. Thus, it makes a difference in the world beyond just ourselves. For instance, if my purpose was to make the world a better place, I could pursue that in many ways, such as becoming a scientist who develops vaccines against viruses like COVID-19. Another way might be becoming an environmental advocate who works to protect our lands and seas. In addition, other approaches include creating beautiful music that uplift or bring peace to my community, or being an excellent elementary school teacher who helps nurture today’s youth. Whatever your purpose may be, it can help you thrive.

The Associated Benefits

Having a purpose in life can help you feel more resilient3 to the world around you—something we could all use after a global pandemic. Moreover, it can help you feel less anxiety and depression,4-5 improve your physical health,6 and even help you live longer.7 It may also naturally strengthen our identity.8

Purpose is also linked with feeling more satisfied with our lives5 and having more grit.9—or having passion and perseverance for our goals. For example, a study showed that students who have purposeful goals report finding more meaning in their schoolwork.10 Researchers think of purpose as a “north star,” or a guiding light that helps us walk down a meaningful path—which consequently, makes it easier for us to find mentors and friends who are walking along or nearby our same path.

Discovering Our Purpose Post-COVID

With summer in full swing and much of the world opening its doors again following a very shut down year of pandemic, many of us are emerging anew. We are not the same people we were in February 2020. We are undeniably changed from a year at home or on the front lines as we’ve fought to keep our essential societal functions in place. As a result, as we step out with shaky legs into this new world, many of us are asking ourselves: Who am I now? What do I want now?

Many of us have discovered that we like our lives a little less busy. Some of us might have discovered the flexibility of working from home works for us (at least some of the time), especially when it gives us the chance to really get our sourdough loaves on point. Others might feel different. Whoever you were, whatever you endured this past year and a half—my guess is that you are a different person today than in early 2020. Experiences like these often spur a new life purpose or renew the one we might not have realized we had before. Perhaps COVID-19 has made you finally realize your penchant for social justice, dedication to medical science, or devotion to building up your family and surrounding community.

Purposeful Activities

Identifying and aligning your purpose to meaningful goals that positively influence the world can help you thrive. Therefore, to help you do just that, I have compiled a few of my favorite, research-backed activities for understanding your purpose in life. Here are three activities, designed and tested by Kendall Cotton Bronk (a key leader in purpose in life research) and her lab, to foster purpose.11-12

Activity 1: What’s a Purpose?

Timing:

~10 minutes

How To:

This is a really great starter activity for purpose! Watch the video clip of Jimmy Fallon offered in this activity, and then answer the following short questions about life. Click here to begin.

Activity 2: My Future Purpose

Timing:

~10-20 minutes

How To:

This is a writing exercise that will ask you to imagine your life 20 years from now. Dive in now to see how that might help you understand your purpose! Click here to start this activity.

Activity 3: Gratitude Letter

Timing:

~10-20 minutes

How To:

Research indicates that sometimes it can be just as helpful to approach understanding our purpose by first reflecting on what we are grateful for and why. This activity has you watch two video clips and then write a short letter. Jump in to get started on your purpose and gratitude journey here.

Finding a purpose in life on your own isn’t easy. In fact, only about one in four adults have a true sense of what their purpose can be.13 However, trying out activities like these might help you be that one. Also (and as always), I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that everyone is different. Some activities will work for you; however, others won’t be up your alley. Think of it like finding your favorite physical exercise—some of us like a nice walk, while others like yoga or weight training. What works for you will be different from what works for others. With this in mind, give each activity a try, and see which one lights up your purpose!


References

1. Bundick, M. J. (2011). The benefits of reflecting on and discussing purpose in life in emerging adulthood. New directions for youth development2011(132), 89-103.

2. Damon, W., Menon, J., & Cotton Bronk, K. (2003). The development of purpose during adolescence. Applied developmental science7(3), 119-128.

3. Min, J. A., Jung, Y. E., Kim, D. J., Yim, H. W., Kim, J. J., Kim, T. S., … & Chae, J. H. (2013). Characteristics associated with low resilience in patients with depression and/or anxiety disorders. Quality of Life Research22(2), 231-241.

4. Pearson, M. R., Brown, D. B., Bravo, A. J., & Witkiewitz, K. (2015). Staying in the moment and finding purpose: The associations of trait mindfulness, decentering, and purpose in life with depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, and alcohol-related problems. Mindfulness6(3), 645-653.

5. Chen, H. Y., & Cheng, C. L. (2020). Developmental trajectory of purpose identification during adolescence: Links to life satisfaction and depressive symptoms. Journal of adolescence80, 10-18.

6. Musich, S., Wang, S. S., Kraemer, S., Hawkins, K., & Wicker, E. (2018). Purpose in life and positive health outcomes among older adults. Population Health Management21(2), 139-147.

7. Hill, P. L., & Turiano, N. A. (2014). Purpose in life as a predictor of mortality across adulthood. Psychological science25(7), 1482-1486.

8. Bronk, K. C. (2011). The role of purpose in life in healthy identity formation: A grounded model. New directions for youth development2011(132), 31-44.

9. Hill, P. L., Burrow, A. L., & Bronk, K. C. (2016). Persevering with positivity and purpose: An examination of purpose commitment and positive affect as predictors of grit. Journal of Happiness Studies17(1), 257-269.

10. Yeager, D. S., & Bundick, M. J. (2009). The role of purposeful work goals in promoting meaning in life and in schoolwork during adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Research24(4), 423-452.

11. Bronk, K. C., Baumsteiger, R., Mangan, S., Riches, B., Dubon, V., Benavides, C., & Bono, G. (2019). Fostering purpose among young adults: Effective online interventions. Journal of Character Education15(2), 21-38.

12. Learn more about Kendall Bronk’s research on fostering purpose here.

13. Bronk, K. C., Holmes Finch, W., & Talib, T. L. (2010). Purpose in life among high ability adolescents. High Ability Studies21(2), 133-145.

About the Author

Susan Mangan

Susan Mangan

Susan Mangan, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Thrive Center. As a Positive Developmental Psychologist, Dr. Mangan is interested in how we, as individuals and as a society, can lead happier and more fulfilling lives. As a scholar more broadly, her research focuses on positive psychology interventions, well-being, and emerging adulthood. She also has a strong background in evaluation, statistics, and community program development.

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