How to Create a Sense of Purpose, According to Science
Training your mind to find meaning in everyday life
When was the last time you felt truly fulfilled? When your life felt meaningful and rewarding, or aligned with some deeper purpose or motivation? Take a moment to really think about that and observe what comes to mind. Most of us remember specific events when we think of life’s meaningful moments: the birth of a child, a major accomplishment, a rare moment in nature when all felt right with the world. These are the peak moments of life, and it’s true that they are also often the times when we feel truly fulfilled.
But these moments are aberrations.
We remember them precisely because they are different, often worlds apart from the moments we usually have. Of course, peak moments like these are deeply nourishing. The problem comes when we start to think that feeling a sense of purpose and meaning only happens in these fleeting experiences. It can start to seem like our daily lives, by contrast, are somehow inherently devoid of meaning. That the only way to be fulfilled is to live some fantasy life that we’ll never actually have.
Social media tends to exacerbate this perspective. We see endless images that make it seem like everyone else has the perfect relationship or the perfect job, or all sorts of free time to focus on their passions. Of course, we rarely see these same people doing their laundry or waking up in the morning before their first cup of coffee. We don’t see their moments of self-doubt, or when they fight with their partners or stress over unpaid bills. All this fantasizing about the good life (while living the “hard” life) can create a massive blind spot. We can, if we’re not careful, unconsciously equate purpose and fulfillment with rare and fleeting circumstances, and miss the countless opportunities to find meaning in the small moments of everyday life.
The science of purpose
Few things are as central to our physical health and psychological well-being as a sense of purpose. In a scientific model developed at the Center for Healthy Minds (where I work), we identified purpose as one of four key pillars of well-being. Our sense of purpose shapes how we feel about ourselves and our lives, but…