How to Navigate Life: Psychological Tools to Find Your Purpose with Dr. Belle Liang

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Dr. Belle Liang

Dr. Belle Liang, Boston College professor and mentoring researcher. Founder of Purpose Lab, APA Fellow Division 17, and Distinguished Alumni, Indiana University.

Episode Summary

Are you looking for a sense of purpose? Does it feel like you’ve lost your way? Purpose is a vital part of our spiritual health. We know we need it, but for some of us, it can be so hard to find. Psychologist Belle Liang helps us navigate and thrive holistically through an understanding of our own journey and the stories that shape us. She names four essential elements of purpose: (1) character strengths, (2) skills and expertise, (3) deeply held values, and (4) a sense of contribution to the world. Includes a real-time practical exercise for aligning with our purpose and explore how it can help us navigate the journey of life.

Show Notes

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  “We all have a story because we all have a future and a past. … And story is really about making the influences in our life explicit to ourselves. Oftentimes, when we're not living intentionally, it's like we don't know what our story is. And we're not living in a way that is aligned at all with our purpose—so that you know what your story is, and so that you can be explicit in your intentional current behavior, feelings, and decisions.” (Dr. Belle Liang) Do you know your purpose? How do you understand your own life story? The science of purpose promises many positive outcomes: mental health, psychological wellbeing, physical health, even longevity, not to mention academic engagement, career fulfillment, and even nurturing relationships. Who doesn’t want purpose? But as much as it captivates us, can be an elusive, ephemeral object dangling in front of us. We want it. We can sense it. We should have it. But we can’t quite attain it. A deep sense of purpose and vocation are central to our spiritual health. Purpose is understood as an actionable and enduring goal that is meaningful to oneself and contributes to the world beyond oneself, is crucial to our spirituality bc it serves to integrate our beliefs, values, understanding of ultimacy, and love into action. In this episode Dr. Belle Liang (Boston College, author of the bestselling book How to Navigate Life: The New Science of Finding Your Way in School, Career, and Beyond), offers research-backed practical guidance on how to identify and pursue your purpose, identifying essential elements of purpose: (1) character strengths, (2) skills and expertise, (3) deeply held values, and (4) a sense of contribution to the world. During the interview she guides listeners through a real-time practical exercise for aligning with our purpose and explore how it can help us navigate the journey of life.

In this conversation with Belle Liang, we discuss:

  1. How family history shapes us as individuals
  2. The importance of differentiation and emerging from early family dependency into a healthy sense of oneself as an individual
  3. The role of faith, spirituality, and community in our understanding of purpose
  4. A psychological definition of purpose as using strengths and skills and values to make a positive impact on the world
  5. And the practical elements of finding and living your purpose as an individual, with Belle guiding us through a practice of reflecting on our past and finding our purpose
  • “What is your life dream?” Learn more about Belle Liang’s Purpose Labs
  • “Purpose is knowing more of yourself and living in ways that are aligned and consistent with those values, strengths, beliefs, and, desires.”
  • Pam King introduces Belle Liang and this episode
  • Belle Liang’s family of origin
  • Growing up the daughter of Asian immigrant parents with very impoverished backgrounds
  • Understanding sacrifice
  • Learning how to listen to herself and identify her vocation and purpose
  • How Belle became a psychologist
  • “It was pretty tricky for me early on to make some decisions that had to do with my own interests, my own intrinsic motivations versus doing what seemed to be the most strategic pathway to success.”
  • Parker Palmer and “letting your life speak”
  • Listening to the inner voice that reveals purpose
  • How to define purpose in order to study it through psychological research
  • Purpose as “living a life that is personally meaningful and intended to contribute to the world beyond oneself.”
  • Positive outcomes of finding and living your purpose
  • Improved mental health and well being
  • Physical health and longevity
  • Better academic engagement
  • Increased career fulfillment
  • What are the elements of purpose?
  • Character strengths
  • Skills that you're motivated to learn and master
  • Values that you're willing to stand for and sacrifice for
  • Needs of the world that you want to contribute to
  • “Purpose is not like finding your one true love.”
  • Romans 12—offering our lives as “living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God”
  • Practical or Passion: they’re not mutually exclusive
  • “Purpose is not like you have to sacrifice a paycheck, in order to do the thing that you love and the thing that is aligned with your purpose.”
  • Living life to the fullest
  • Pam’s purpose: “To enable people to thrive and become who God created them to be.”
  • Belle’s purpose: “To be a blessing … translating research and spiritual language into plain language. … translating across the lines.”
  • Practical resources and tools for finding your purpose
  • Purpose defined: “Using your strengths and skills to make a positive impact in the world that's aligned with your core values.”
  • “There's a lot that we don't know about ourselves because we've never been given the space to reflect and given the scaffolding to ask those kinds of questions of ourselves.”
  • Recommended practice: Journal for 3 to 5 minutes
  • “How do you want to be remembered?”
  • Look for key words and think of them as strengths you want to be remembered for.
  • “What's one thing you can do in one minute that's going to move you one step closer to your purpose?”
  • Example: Cultivating courage
  • Creating a “moment that matters”
  • “We want to connect our envisioned future, whatever that, that aspiration is for growth and that strength or that skill with where it came from, which is reflecting on our past and what informed it with the action in the present, and to have people come alongside us as to journey with us, um, as we develop those skills and strengths.”
  • Purpose Practice: “In an ideal world, what does success look like for you.”
  • Pick out a few words that stand out, share them with trusted people.
  • Envision the future based on these strengths and successes.
  • Consider the past.
  • What are certain experiences that you've had that are formative?
  • What are certain relationships that were meaningful in your life that gave you that sense of the kind of success that you aspire to?
  • What impact did this have on you?
  • Did you learn a harsh truth about yourself or the world?
  • Did it cause you to believe or to accept or trust something or someone?
  • Did it cause you to commit to an action that altered the course of your life?
  • Craft a story based on these reflections: (1) Set the stage, (2) Something happens, (3) Impact on you, (4) Success revealed.
  • Purpose should be more like a verb than a noun—it’s a deeply relational endeavor.
  • “We’re purposing people.”
  • Living toward an envisioned future, informed by our past.
  • “You want to be able to tell your story. And it’s so helpful to have done the work of identifying what truly matters to you and putting it together in a story.”
  • Weaving our stories into other stories
  • Reclaiming our own life events and experiences and making meaning of those
  • At the end of ourselves
  • Relying on faith in God, prayer, and seeking God in seeking a life of purpose
  • The Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
  • Is purpose just for the privileged? No
  • Sometimes purpose is associated with choice, but the research shows that those who have encountered adversity and trials and trauma are more deeply connected to their purpose.
  • What is thriving to Belle Liang?
  • “Living in your joy.”
  • It's making the impact that you care about making in a way that's really aligned with your deepest core beliefs and values.
  • “Purpose is not just about an individual mindset. It's about shifting culture.”
  • Pam’s key takeaways
  • We are relational beings with deep dependencies on our families of origin, and we need to differentiate and individuate in order to thrive and find out who we are and enter into even more healthy relationships.
  • To find our purpose, we can let our lives speak. And there is transformative power in personal storytelling when we do so mindfully and intentionally.
  • Faith can be fertile ground for finding purpose, especially when practiced in communities of thriving and healthy spirituality.
  • Spiritual health includes our own awareness of our evolving sense of purpose. and an application of that to our daily lives, w ork, vocation, and all the relationships we find there.
  • Purpose is something you grow toward, and from it emerges all sorts of pro social benefits and positive personal outcomes for physical and mental health.
  • Lastly, purpose is for everyone, not just a privileged few.

About Belle Liang

Dr. Belle Liang is a professor of Counseling, Developmental, & Educational Psychology at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College. As the founder and Principal Investigator of Purpose Lab, she is committed to advancing understanding of positive youth development, including mentoring and relational health, through her research. Her expertise in purpose interventions, including those that are technologically mediated, is reflected in her current work leading the development of True North, a curriculum and web-based application aimed at helping individuals and organizations cultivate purpose with data analytics. With over 100 publications, Dr. Liang is recognized as a knowledgeable speaker and collaborator in the field of positive youth development. She is grateful for the opportunities she has had to contribute to the field and to translate research into practical application, as demonstrated by her recent co-authorship of the bestselling How to Navigate Life: The New Science of Finding Your Way in School, Career, & Beyond, published by St. Martin’s Press.

About the Thrive Center

About Dr. Pam King

Dr. Pam King is Executive Director the Thrive Center and is Peter L. Benson Professor of Applied Developmental Science at Fuller School of Psychology & Marriage and Family Therapy. Follow her @drpamking.  

About With & For

  • Host: Pam King
  • Senior Director and Producer: Jill Westbrook
  • Operations Manager: Lauren Kim
  • Social Media Graphic Designer: Wren Juergensen
  • Consulting Producer: Evan Rosa
Special thanks to the team at Fuller Studio and the Fuller School of Psychology & Marriage and Family Therapy.


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