I’ve already discussed how important meaningful work is. It makes us more engaged at work, happier in the long-term, and even wealthier. But having a sense of purpose in your life can also improve your health.
An experiment by the nonprofit organisation Experience Corps paired adults 55 years-old or older with students in kindergarten for literacy help. While the students’ test scores and morale went up, the effects on the adults were even more interesting.
The physical health of the adult participants improved in a variety of ways: depression rates dropped, physical mobility and stamina increased, flexibility increased, and memory was improved. The sense of purpose that came from helping students with their literacy had a ripple effect in the lives of the tutors.
Other research has shown similar effects. Researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that a greater sense of life purpose correlated to a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s. And previous research has found that an increased sense of purpose predicts fewer subsequent strokes and heart attacks.
So you’re out in search of your purpose. Where do you start?
Start with what you’ve already done. Start looking at how you spend your time now—what you enjoy, what you don’t, what you care about. The clues to your purpose are all hidden in your existing experiences.
1. Find the reasons you lose track of time
You’ve probably heard this one before. Think of the activities you get lost in; the activities that make you forget to eat or lose track of time. This is fairly common advice for anyone looking for their passion or purpose in life.
But writer Mark Manson offers an interesting twist on this common approach: rather than stopping at what activities you enjoy, Manson suggests looking deeper.
Look for the principles underlying those activities, says Manson. The principles that all those activities have in common is what you really enjoy. The activities could be anything so long as they provide the same underlying principles that make you lose track of time.
Manson offers a personal example based on his love for video games:
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, but especially with myself — that I thrive on.
Manson was able to apply his improvement and self-competition to his writing and business, and found that his love for video games translated to his work because he’d applied the same underlying principles that made him lose track of time.
2. Find the “suck” you’re willing to live with
Another suggestion from Mark Manson starts with admitting that pretty much everything in life sucks most of the time. Most jobs have boring, frustrating, or hard parts. In fact, most jobs are boring, frustrating, or hard most of the time, says Manson.
But once you’ve agreed that everything sucks most of the time, you’ve given yourself an advantage in finding your purpose. You can now decide what kind of sucking you’re willing to put up with.
As Manson says, there’s no point pursuing a life purpose that comes with bad parts you’re not willing to do:
If you want to be a brilliant tech entrepreneur, but you can’t handle failure, then you’re not going to make it far. If you want to be a professional artist, but you aren’t willing to see your work rejected hundreds, if not thousands of times, then you’re done before you start. If you want to be a hotshot court lawyer, but can’t stand the 80-hour workweeks, then I’ve got bad news for you.
The trick, says Manson, is to figure out what kind of boring, hard, and frustrating work you’re willing to put up with. Because putting up with the sucky parts will make sure you’re there for the best parts, too.
What unpleasant experiences are you able to handle? Are you able to stay up all night coding? Are you able to put off starting a family for 10 years? Are you able to have people laugh you off the stage over and over again until you get it right?
3. Choose a project, then do it
Here’s a refreshing approach to finding your purpose: stop looking for it.
Writer Alexandra Franzen says she always thought (as did I) that everything starts with your purpose. Once you’ve found your purpose you’ll know what work to do, what projects to start, what skills to build.
But what if we’ve got it all wrong, asks Franzen.
Finding your purpose is overwhelming, and it can be hard to pin down. Many of us are left frustrated and confused when our purpose doesn’t appear as if by magic.
Franzen suggests we start with projects instead, and let purpose follow.
This is her three-step process to finding projects to work on that will lead to purpose:
- Think about something that bothers you
- Think of a cool project you can do to fix that problem
- Complete that project no matter what
Things that bother you, says Franzen, can be as varied as boring dinner parties, online bullying, animal cruelty, or even poorly-designed websites. It doesn’t matter what it is, so long as it’s something you care about.
And when you’re done with the project? Rinse and repeat. Keep completing projects that aim to fix things that bother you, says Franzen. Rather than waiting for your purpose to show up, or struggling to choose a purpose, just start working. Purpose will come, as you complete more projects and home in on what you care about most.
What’s helped you find your life purpose? Share your tips in the comments.