Psychologists say a sense of purpose can mean specific life goals or just a feeling of motivation to go about your daily to-dos.
Kate Ellis, a former English professor who taught at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, for more than 40 years, says she started teaching as a way to have a positive impact on others. In her younger years, she knew this was important to her. And it still is for her now, at 86.
“When I began thinking about retiring, I knew I would not want to stop doing something I loved,” Ellis says, “so I began volunteering and teaching memoir-writing classes at the Harlem Vet Center.” She figured that writing would be therapeutic for the veterans in her class, just as it may have helped her former college students.
Ellis will soon start teaching another class, too, at Inspīr, a senior living community in New York City where she now lives. She’s incredibly happy to continue doing what gave her a sense of purpose for many decades — even if the job title and classrooms have changed.
Ellis’s awareness of what gives her a sense of direction, and the steps she’s taking to seek out ways to maintain it (even through life changes), is what mental health experts define as purpose.
“Purpose in life is finding meaning in and having goals for your life,” says Stacey M. Schaefer, PhD, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Wisconsin in Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds.
A sense of purpose — and the ability to adapt it throughout different phases of your life — has a positive effect on health and well-being, including your physical health and how you respond to stress.
Studies suggest it may even help people live longer.
If you’re not sure you’ve figured out what gives you a sense of direction, you’re not alone, says Patrick Hill, PhD, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis who studies purpose. Many people, he emphasizes, struggle to find it.
His and others’ work provides ideas for seeking out a sense of purpose. It doesn’t all have to tie in with a big life goal like Ellis’s of helping others. In fact, mental health experts say, purpose can be found in small daily tasks, too.
How Psychologists Define Purpose
Dr. Hill, who conducts research at Washington University in St. Louis’s Purpose, Aging, Transitions, and Health Lab, says that even among those who study the concept, defining it can be tricky.
Purpose can be defined in two ways, Hill says. One is the content or character of your goals for life. According to this first definition, you might realize, for example, “my purpose in life is to help those in need” or “my purpose in life is to promote science.”
The American Psychological Association defines purpose in a similar way: “a mental goal or aim that directs a person’s actions or behavior.”
But the second way Hill and his colleagues define the concept is a little more nebulous: You can feel a sense of purpose, whether or not you tie it to a big aim.
A sense of purpose without a large life goal, Hill says, means you still wake up in the morning feeling motivated. But unlike those who have a life goal directing them (“I’m feeling pumped to teach biology tonight because my purpose in life is to promote science”), someone may attribute their sense of motivation to a smaller reason (“I’m feeling pumped to teach biology tonight because I did a good job planning this week’s lesson”) — or, even, to nothing at all (“I’m feeling pumped to teach biology — I just feel motivated”).
Whether purpose is of the life-goal variety, just a feeling someone has, or somewhere in between, it can be good for health and well-being.
In his studies, Hill uses a questionnaire to capture people’s thoughts and feelings in this area. It’s common, he says, for people to report feeling a sense of purpose without being able to give specifics. People also sometimes know that their sense of purpose comes from a particular domain — home, social life, or work — even if they can’t narrow it down beyond that.
Dr. Schaefer agrees that a sense of purpose can come from something relatively small.
“It doesn’t have to be a grand purpose. You don’t have to be necessarily saving the world,” Schaefer says. Day-to-day tasks like cleaning the house and cooking dinner can feel meaningful. Purpose can come from simply waking up in the morning and having something you want to accomplish for an hour that day, Schaefer says.
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