Finding Your Purpose in Life

A silhouette of a person against the stars and milky way at night.

Do you struggle with the sense that your life is not meaningful enough?

I recently read The Sunny Nihilist: A Declaration of the Pleasure of Pointlessness, by Wendy Syfret. As she states on page 16:

Then it hit me….“Who cares, one day, I’ll be dead, and no one will remember me anyway.” The sense of relief was immediate. Straightening up I looked at the sky and thought, I’m just a chunk of meat hurtling through space on a rock. Futile and meaningless. My chest relaxed, my lungs inflated, for the first time in years the mist cleared… in 100 years, no one would give a shit about my job. No one would give a shit about me.

By the end of the book the message is more hopeful (pg. 178)

When you turn the same attention to what in reality does make you happy – loved ones, nature, a quiet afternoon – they retain all their luster without having myths of purpose mapped over them.

The book prompted enough thinking on my part that I decided to write about it. I reached similar conclusions to the author, by a different route. Nihilism, as I understand it, is the view that any meaning in life will need to come from inside us, because there is no outside source or authority (such as a higher power or a philosophy) that we can definitively rely on.  Of course, if you experience a sufficient sense of meaning from a source outside you (even if you experience the effect of that source from inside you), then nihilism will almost automatically not be of interest.

If there is no meaning from outside that seems compelling to you, then you are free to discover or create any meaning you choose. If many people have an internally generated meaning, they may have trouble uniting with others on many issues. Potentially society could become substantially fragmented. The following ideas may be helpful for yourself, and keeping us together as human beings.

I propose an alternative approach to “finding meaning in life” by focusing on purpose rather than meaning. The concepts of meaning and purpose overlap, but purpose seems clearer. Purpose is the reason we do something. For instance, my purpose in eating is to nourish myself and satisfy hunger (not necessarily in that order). Purposes can be built upon one another. For instance, my purpose in studying for a test is to get a good grade, to graduate, to establish an occupation or career, to have money to support myself, and perhaps on to additional purposes.

I suggest that there are three immediate sources of purpose in life: our bodies, our connections with others, and our curiosity. Imagine that you are sitting quietly, comfortably, and alone in a room. Over minutes to hours, you will experience bodily demands, loneliness, and boredom. Let’s look at each of these experiences in turn.

Our bodies

As to our bodies, if we are sitting quietly and comfortably, and sit there long enough, we will experience various needs. We might get hungry or tired, hot or cold, or sexually aroused. We might get uncomfortable because we need to use a restroom. We might move around because we are getting stiff. When any of these bodily changes occur, we may not have a sense of meaning, but we do experience purpose. We will act to address the unpleasant change we have experienced and attempt to move ourselves back to comfort.

Addressing the needs of the body occupies a substantial portion of our economic activity. We produce food, construct shelters with heating and plumbing systems, and socialize to find sexual mates. In support of these major activities, we establish transportation and communication systems, mine the earth, raise armies, etc.

Connections with others

As to connections with others, we have them even before we realize we have them. We are connected to our mothers in utero, and to our caregivers (often primarily our mothers) thereafter. We might attempt to end these connections, but it is hard to imagine life without connections. If there are any true hermits, we don’t know about them. If we do know about partial hermits, they have some connection with others.

We do not begin to realize we are separate beings from mother and others until months after we are born. The rest of our lives are spent both connecting and being (increasingly) independent. As children we depend on others, as older children and teens we take more care of ourselves, and as adults we increasingly take care of others (perhaps our own children). A recent blog mentioned the concept of expanding polarities. Connecting and individuating is an expanding polarity. We simultaneously move in opposite directions: connecting with others in more intimate ways and becoming ourselves as distinct and unique human beings.

Addressing our social needs also occupies a substantial portion of our economic activity, although much of this activity is blended into other economic activity as well. We go to a restaurant to eat, but also to socialize.

I suspect that for many of us our bodies and our connections provide more than enough purpose (and meaning) in life. As many authors have suggested, connections are the primary source of well-being, so perhaps we could end this discussion here.

Satisfying curiosity

Let’s go back to that room you are sitting quietly and comfortably in. You will also get bored. There is an optimal level of stimulation we like to have. Unless you are a skilled meditator, sitting quietly for long periods of time is not satisfying. We want to experience, and to learn.

The additional purpose I suggest, acting on curiosity, can be considered by bringing to mind anyone you consider a great artist, scientist, or thinker, someone who seems to live for the pure joy of discovery and creation. They still need to attend to the needs of their body, and their connections, but a significant portion of their lives involves this third component. I’ll call it engagement and exploration, motivated by curiosity.

I suspect everyone has moments of engagement and exploration, big and small. For instance, when you solve a small problem, gain a useful insight, learn an interesting fact, or watch an enjoyable, “meaningful,” movie, it is satisfying. If you happen to compose what could be considered Beethoven’s 10th symphony (he only composed 9), that would count too! Even if you have great artists, scientists, and thinkers as role models, you engage in those areas too!

There are substantial portions of our economy devoted to allowing people to have fun, and many overlap with satisfying curiosity. In some cases, satisfying curiosity is the primary purpose, and fun secondary.

If you are struggling with having a “meaningful life” you might consider these three areas (bodily needs, connections, satisfying curiosity) as guides to how to spend your time. Perhaps by pursuing purpose rather than meaning, you could end up with more of both.


About the Author

A. Tom Horvath, PhD, ABPP, is a psychologist specializing in addictive problems. He owns and operates Practical Recovery in San Diego, and is author of Sex, Drugs, Gambling, & Chocolate: A Workbook for Overcoming Addictions, past president of the American Psychological Association’s Society of Addiction Psychology (Division 50), and past president of SMART Recovery.

Are you interested in doing some work around meaning and purpose in your life? Since 1985, Practical Recovery has helped individuals identify and pursue purpose in life. From individual therapy sessions to our intensive outpatient program, we have a broad range of services to meet you where you’re at.

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