The Road to Purpose

The rigorous cycle of making ends meet sometimes leaves no time to
follow our true passions. Yet making the effort to discover and pursue our life
purpose doesn’t have to be a chore and can yield rich rewards—
and health benefits.

By Allan Richter

January 2009

Kelly O’Mahony’s parents planted the seeds when they encouraged their daughters to join a church youth group. Instead of taking vacations to theme parks and beach resorts, the girls traveled with the group to help communities in Mexican slums, East African refugee camps and to other developing countries struck by hurricanes or steeped in poverty.

Then, on a trip to Guatemala 14 years ago, O’Mahony found herself captivated by a medical team working with orphans. “The number of people whose needs were met wouldn’t have been helped without that team,” she recounts. “It made me want to do that so much more.” O’Mahony became a registered nurse. Today, she works in a New York physical and occupational therapy rehab center. When the center has extra medicine and supplies, O’Mahony, 31, coordinates their distribution to a clinic in Belize.

“I’m very happy,” she says. “It’s beyond joyful. This is something that grabs hold of your heart so strongly and just keeps pulling you back to do more.” O’Mahony endured a stroke four years ago but is certain she has added years to her life by doing the work that stirs her passions.

She may be right. Science says O’Mahony and others who live meaningful, purposeful lives may be enjoying physiological as well as mental health advantages.

People who have a sense of purpose can benefit, one study showed, particularly if they are surrounded by tumultuous change, such as in societies undergoing political and economic transition. The study of 12,640 Hungarians showed that people who felt their lives had meaning had lower rates of cancer and heart disease than those who did not share that outlook (International Journal of Behavioral Medicine 6/05).

Getting There
There is no shortage of strategies and exercises for finding and pursuing your life’s purpose. Some approaches, like that of O’Mahony and advocated by Richard Nelson Bolles, author of the best-selling career guide What Color Is Your Parachute? (Ten Speed Press), combine altruism with self-fulfillment.

Basing his exercise for finding purpose on ancient psychology, Bolles suggests that people reflect on their goals by mentally dividing themselves into mind, body, spirit and will. Goals should emerge from questions about what truth one wants to leave behind (mind), for example, or how to promote good health (body). “The spirit, of course, is ‘I want to leave more faith and belief in God behind me,’” Bolles says. “The will is the symbol of people’s choosing and conscience, so that would be asking how to leave behind more justice because you’ve been here on earth.”

Bolles extends the exercise to the senses. “With respect to the eyes, do I want to leave more beauty behind?” he says. “That refers to any kind of beauty: art, music, flowers, photography, painting, crafts.”

Teri-E Belf, MA, CAGS, MCC, a life coach and coach trainer who directs Success Unlimited Network in Reston, Virginia, suggests reflecting on the words or phrases that capture the essence of your life purpose, then rating them in a simple grid against several career choices or other endeavor you are considering.

For instance, Belf says “guide” and “inspire” are among her personal words. They would rank low if she were to choose, say, a plumbing career but high in her chosen field. Make the same grid, Belf adds, comparing your values against each of your life choices. “The higher the number, the more you would have the possibility of being on purpose,” she says. “That is one way to navigate your daily life.”

Belf recommends finding a symbol that reminds you to stay on course. “Mine is the color yellow,” Belf says. “Whenever I see yellow, I think purpose. Someone else might have grass or a bird. It should be something very general and accessible during the day.” Another approach is to identify antonyms of your purpose words and phrases.

That helps you more quickly find a remedy when you are off purpose. “My word is ‘inspire,’ so for me the opposite is ‘boredom,’” Belf says. “Then I look at each area of my life and see where boredom shows up.”

Bolles likens the search for purpose to a car trip; you have to know where you’re going before you can map out a route. Once you get a sense of the kind of footprint you want to leave, he says, you can understand what career, job or other endeavor to pursue.

Harnessing Self-Image
One strategy for pursuing meaning and purpose—boosting self-image—has sparked debate. On one side were psychologists Shelley E. Taylor and Jonathan D. Brown, who 20 years ago took traditional reality-based psychology to task. They concluded that, in the face of obstacles and challenges, people with a positive self-image—even if inaccurate—could be happier, more caring and more productive than someone whose more negative self-image is accurate and integrated into his or her behavior (Psychological Bulletin 3/88). “These illusions help make each individual’s world a warmer and more active and beneficent place in which to live,” they wrote then.

But some critics didn’t buy the idea that removing self-doubt and fear can help people reach ordinarily unattainable heights. “You can turn that around and say if you lack fear you are missing out on information that can save your life,” says C. Randall Colvin, associate psychology professor at Northeastern University, one of the psychologists who resisted Taylor and Brown’s thesis.

“My argument at that time was that distorting the view of oneself is not helpful because to continue to grow as a person you need to be both aware of your strengths as well as your weaknesses so your weaknesses can be corrected,” says Colvin, who has since softened his warts-and-all stance. “There are certainly times when you’re confronted with difficult situations that engaging with some self-enhancement can be very beneficial. I would like to think of it as a quick fix or needed boost to one’s self-esteem that you use sparingly.”

Colvin’s call for also accounting for your weaknesses harkens back to Abraham Maslow, the father of humanistic psychology. Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” is often illustrated as a pyramid. Basic survival requirements like the need for food, water and sleep are at the bottom. As basic needs are met, they give way higher up to more psychological and social needs, like love and friendship. At the pinnacle is self-actualization: self-awareness, concern with personal growth and fulfilling one’s potential.

Beating Back Stereotypes
A sense of strong self-worth, meaning and purpose can help you break through the stereotypes that others ascribe to you. Those negative labels, research has shown, can pigeonhole people and keep them from succeeding.

For example, in a study led by Sian L. Beilock, PhD, associate psychology professor at the University of Chicago, women performed poorly on a math test after they were reminded of the stereotype that women are weaker than men when it comes to crunching numbers (Journal of Experimental Psychology General 5/07).

The research “suggests that performance is not based on innate ability,” Beilock says, “but on a situation where the stereotype is not activated or highlighted.”
Stereotype threat, the name for the phenomenon, appears to rear its head most among skilled people who care about performing well, Beilock says. In contrast, a woman who doesn’t care about math would find the stereotype about females and math irrelevant and may not be affected by it.

“Being aware that the stereotype is out there, we’ve argued, adds a pressure. You don’t want to confirm the stereotype,” Beilock says. “Women in these situations start worrying about it and try not to confirm it, and that takes away attendant brain power that could otherwise be used to perform well.”

The stereotype about math and women helps explain the gender imbalance and “female brain drain” in science and engineering, from undergraduate studies through teaching positions. “One of the arguments that has been made is that the phenomenon of being aware of these stereotypes and how they impact performance is enough to derail those with potential from going on,” she says.

So how do you overcome so many years of ingrained bias and typecasting? For one thing, practice. “We’ve shown that having people practice the kinds of things they’re going to do, getting used to the test or pressure, can be helpful,” Beilock says.

Other studies have shown that teaching people how stereotype threats undermine abilities offsets some of their ill effects. In other research, minorities who wrote about self-affirming qualities and their positive attributes undercut stereotype threats.

Positive stereotypes also shape performance. In one Harvard University study, Asian women performed better on a math test when they focused on their ethnicity rather than their gender (Psychological Science 1/99).

From the Cradle
Identifying and pursuing meaning and purpose begins at a young age, says William Damon, psychology professor at Stanford University and director of the school’s Center on Adolescence. Unfortunately, Damon says, young people are too often sidetracked by the pursuit of short-term, less grounded goals—status, glory, wealth and celebrity. “When they don’t achieve these kinds of romanticized high-status goals,” Damon says, “they get discouraged and think there’s no meaning in life.”

But Damon, author of The Path to Purpose (Free Press), is encouraged that younger generations are placing increasing importance on family life—and that bodes well for purposeful living.

Damon says his research shows that about 40% of people in their twenties who said they had found purpose in their lives associated it with building or supporting a family. “That’s one of the positive features of today’s younger generation,” Damon says. “You don’t see a generation gap.”

In college and beyond, young people are calling their parents to seek advice on many of their big life choices, Damon says. Life’s breakneck pace and economic uncertainty have helped push the generations together. “There’s been a kind of turning inward,” he says.

But he says parents who try to write the script for the lives of their children can add to the confusion and contribute to their unhappiness. Instead, he says, parents should help children discover their own path by listening and letting children express their interests.

“Every young person has a spark,” says Damon. “The parent can’t tell the kid what your spark should be, but the parent can help the kid discover it and then provide a lot of social capital in the form of information and resources on how to pursue that so it’s realistic and actually materializes. The kids that are successful in finding a track in life—that’s what the parent is doing.”

Meaningful living isn’t just for the young. The benefits of living purposefully are attainable throughout life, Damon adds. “When someone finds something to believe in that really is larger than these more selfish kind of goals, they really have a way of getting energized, they become more resilient. That’s something that people keep looking for throughout life,” he says.

“People pretty late in life can find something that draws them out of themselves,” he says, “and make them feel that they matter and make a difference.”

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