Are you sure about your purpose in life? is it fixed? Do you know purpose changes across lifetime?
Purpose is the stuff of inspirational posters and motivational speeches. When we find our purpose, they say, we’ll know what we are meant to do in life. The path will be laid out before us, and our job will be to keep following that vision with unwavering commitment.
But is this really what purpose looks like?
Alongside the self-help hype is a body of research on purpose across the lifespan, reaching back more than 30 years. Following people as they grapple with their identity as teens, settle into the responsibilities of adulthood, and make the shift to retirement, this research paints a more complicated picture of purpose—but a hopeful one, too.
Here’s the upshot: We don’t have to worry about finding our one true purpose; we can find purpose in different areas of life. In fact, the purpose isn’t something we find at all. It’s something we can cultivate through deliberate action and reflection, and it will naturally wax and wane throughout our lives.
Like happiness, the purpose is not a destination, but a journey and a practice. That means it’s accessible at any age if we’re willing to explore what matters to us and what kind of person we want to be—and act to become that person.
As you explore purpose changes across lifetime.
Related: Who am I? What is My Purpose
This “is a project that endures across the lifespan,” as purpose expert Kendall Bronk and her colleagues write in a 2009 paper. If we’re able to revisit and renew our sense of purpose as we navigate milestones and transitions, suggests this research, then we can look forward to more satisfying, meaningful lives.
Teens: Seeking purpose
A purpose in life is not just any big goal that we pursue. According to researchers, the purpose is a long-term aim that is meaningful to the self—but goes beyond the self, aiming to make a difference to the broader world. We might find purpose in fighting poverty, creating art, or making people’s lives better through technology.
That process begins when we’re teens, as we explore who we are, what we value, and what we want out of life, says Bronk, an associate professor at Claremont Graduate University. As they try different interests and activities, like music or volunteering, some teens start to discover paths they want to pursue. Other teens have challenging life experiences, like a parent being diagnosed with cancer or shooting in their hometown, that spur them to work on particular causes. Others are inspired by role models who are leading purposeful lives, from parents to coaches.
Mariah Jordan from Cleveland, one of the winners of the GGSC Purpose Challenge Scholarship Contest, often accompanied her grandmother to doctor’s appointments as a child. Over time, witnessing her grandmother’s experiences, she began to see the racial inequalities that existed in health care. She went on to volunteer in a medical setting and conduct research on cancer in African Americans, working to eliminate health disparities and bring more cultural sensitivity to the field of medicine.
William Damon, author of The Path to Purpose and a professor at Stanford, has spent nearly 20 years studying how people develop purpose in work, family, and civic life. As he describes it, purpose is something of a chemical reaction that takes place when our skills meet the needs of the world. Young people must identify something in their environment that could be improved, whether it’s politics or modern jazz music, and recognize something in themselves that they can bring to bear on that problem—leadership skills, say, or creativity.
Knowing your skills and your interests—and in a larger sense, your identity—seems to be key to pursuing purpose. In a 2011 study, high school and college students answered surveys about their sense of purpose, as well as their sense of identity—how clear they were on the kinds of jobs, values, friendships, politics, religion, and sex roles they would have in life. Researchers found that the more solid their sense of identity, the more purposeful they were. In turn, they were also happier and more hopeful for the future.