What is having a purpose?

Victor Frankl, via his book Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote about how important it is in living a good life to have a purpose. When we have a purpose we can weather any storm and look back over our life and know our life mattered. It helps answer the question: why are we here?

Purpose and a long life

Having a sense of purpose has a number of associated health benefits. In Japan, having a sense of purpose is expressed through the term ikigai. It means “life worth living.”  A longitudinal study named the Ohsaki Study included over 40,000 Japanese women and men aged between 40 to 79 years and asked a simple question: “Do you have ikigai in your life?” Researchers found those without a clear ikigai had an increased risk of mortality.

Having a sense of purpose is not something that comes overnight and it is certainly possible to live out a life without one but to have a long life that matters and is worth living is no doubt enriched and enabled by having a sense of purpose.

But what exactly does it mean to have a purpose?

Purpose defined

Dr William Damon of Harvard University defines purpose as having three characteristics:

  1. Long term – Purpose is not delivered through an immediate, quick or momentary thing; it’s not about winning an ebay auction. It is a long term goal such as wanting to become a Dr in order to help people.
  2. Meaningful and personal – Purpose has to be owned and bought into by the individual. There is absolutely no point in assigning a purpose to others, it just doesn’t work.
  3. Not all about me – Purpose is not about self happiness/self advancement alone but something beyond themselves and often about service to others.

When all 3 things are working in tandem a person is seen to be purposeful.

Individual purpose and work

There are benefits to having a sense of purpose in work as author and researchers Todd Kashdan and Patrick McKnight identified:

  1. Greater focus – Having a sense of purpose means individuals can engage more actively in their life’s work. As individuals engage more actively in their work they progress which creates a virtuous circle.
  2. Better clarity – When individuals have a sense of purpose, they are more likely to know and name their core values. It is easier to align interests with a personal “Why.” Combined, values and interests help to identify goals. What’s more, purpose enables individuals to develop meaningful goals. Kashdan and McKnight warn, however, that it is faulty logic to assume a sense of purpose means goal clarity and attainment.
  3. Resilience – In the face of obstacles and setbacks, purpose driven people find a way to keep moving forward. Clarity of purpose helps individuals stay focused on what they need to do when they encounter a problem. Purpose, in this case, is like the north star. It helps guide you when you don’t have all the means necessary to navigate back to where you want to be.

In any case if you’re looking for inspiration to come up with your purpose in life, here’s a lovely, if rather ancient, clip from Victor Frankl himself.