The 3 Things that Keep Us from Finding Purpose.

January 6, 2024

The 3 Things that Keep Us from Finding Purpose.

May 29, 2023

Chip’s Editorial Comment: I learn so much from Christine as an author, academic, coach, and human. I look forward to having her as a neighbor in Baja and she’ll be teaching her inaugural MEA workshop (taking much of what she researched at the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center in a couple of months).

A definition of “come into one's own” is “to become fulfilled.” When we come into our own, we’re expressing a maturity and an authenticity that comes from acting in integrity with our purpose, with who we really are. But how do we know who we are? And how do we know what our purpose truly is? 

Our purpose isn’t something we find or discover — it’s something we create. In my work as a coach, I’ve seen three things that keep people from cultivating a deep sense of purpose that motivates and animates their lives. If you are struggling to find your unique purpose, consider if one of the following things is holding you back.

Your sense of self hasn't evolved
Everything around us is constantly changing. This means that the good we do in the world — and how we do it — also must change for us to feel a sense of purpose. Research shows that our sense of purpose shifts and changes as we grow.

So our purpose is not a fixed destination — or something we find. It’s a journey and a practice we must undertake throughout our lifespan. When our identity or sense of self is too fixed, we often feel pretty stuck. Consider this an invitation to let go of aspects of yourself (like an opinion or a role you’ve played in an organization or other people’s lives) that no longer serve you. Instead, try on the idea that you are a flexible and changing being and that your purpose in the world is also changing.

You’re unwilling to forgo pleasure for meaning

Purpose and happiness typically overlap: only a tiny percentage of people experience one without the other. But it’s fascinating when researchers peer into the lives of unhappy people who have meaning and happy people who lack purpose. 

Psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues famously showed that when people’s lives are filled with happiness but are low in purpose and meaning, they are often, as the researchers note, “shallow,” “self-absorbed,” and “selfish.” These folks feel good and don’t worry about much. They tend to get what they want in life but give little, if anything, to others. Conflicts with others are rare, as is adversity. They don’t think much about the past or the future, and they don’t tend to think deeply.

By contrast, when researchers look at unhappy people leading meaningful lives, they observe that often difficult things have happened to them. Unhappy but fulfilled people tend to do a lot of deep thinking. They spend time reflecting on their challenges, and that reflection generates rich rewards: unhappiness doesn’t usually last in the presence of meaning (think Mandela or Gandhi). 

The truth is that even for normal, non-world-leader-type people, purpose often brings challenges. It requires reflection and deep thinking about the past and future. It often requires making hard choices, having difficult conversations, and putting others before ourselves. Being unwilling to endure this difficulty or discomfort in the short term blocks us from finding purpose in the long run.

Fortunately, happiness tends to follow purpose. Purposeful activities generate positive emotions and deepen social connections, both of which increase our satisfaction with life. 

You feel overwhelmed by the thought of finding your purpose

At a recent speaking engagement, I mentioned the importance of pursuing purpose rather than happiness or pleasure if we want to feel fulfilled.

It pissed one woman off. “What if I don’t have ‘a purpose’ with a capital P? What if I’ve just been a homemaker, and I’m not doing anything important with my life?”

For starters, no one is saying that a homemaker is unimportant. Unpaid work is the backbone of our society, for better or worse. It can also be incredibly meaningful and highly fulfilling, which matters.

Your purpose doesn’t have to be important with a capital I. In other words, it doesn’t need to be perceived as important in our culture or to other people. It doesn’t have to come from a career at a non-profit organization curing cancer or helping marginalized people. It doesn’t have to come from a career at all.

If you are afraid that you don’t have a unique purpose in life, please put that fear down for a minute. We all have unique attributes, and you do, too. You have things that make you you, and some of those things can give you a sense of purpose. Allow yourself to focus on the unique gifts you bring to the world or the things that light you up. Consider your quirks, like having a passion for a particular movie, activity, or book. It might not be “important,” but it energizes you. Consider the value you bring to the world when you engage with those passions or quirks. Those are the kinds of things that give our lives meaning and purpose.

Ultimately, the way to our purpose is simply to open ourselves to the truth that at any given point in time, our lives have purpose, and we understand what it is when we are willing to look. It’s this investigation, this journey inward, that matters. 

Please join me in Baja for an interactive and life-changing journey March 18-23: Coming Into Your Own: Reconnecting with Who You Are and What You Want.

-Christine

Christine Carter, Ph.D.
is an author, speaker, and coach dedicated to redesigning the way we work. She is a leader at BetterUp, designing coaching experiences that drive transformation and a sociologist and Senior Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center (GGSC).

Go deeper with a workshop, in person or online.

wo-sfe-24-004

From Conventional to Intentional: Attune to Your Purpose with Zee Clarke

August 5, 2024
 to 
August 10, 2024
Santa Fe, USA
wo-sfe-24-020

Cultivating Purpose with Jeff Hamaoui & Lori Schwanbeck

August 5, 2024
 to 
August 10, 2024
Santa Fe, USA
wo-sfe-24-022

The Bonus Round: Crafting a Meaningful Post-Work Chapter

September 17, 2024
 to 
September 22, 2024
Santa Fe, USA

Still Coming Out: Our Evolving Identity as Older LGBTQ+ People

June 17, 2024
 to 
June 22, 2024
Santa Fe, USA

Blue Zones: Optimizing Your Longevity

Jun 17, 2024
 to 
Jun 22, 2024
Baja, Mexico
Jun 17, 2024
 to 
Jun 22, 2024
Baja, Mexico

Blue Zones: Optimizing Your Longevity

June 17, 2024
 to 
June 22, 2024
Baja, Mexico
Jun 17, 2024
 to 
Jun 22, 2024
Baja, Mexico

A Lifetime of Women’s Wellness: Thriving through Transitions with Dr. Suzanne Gilberg-Lenz

June 24, 2024
 to 
June 29, 2024
Santa Fe, USA