What Does It Mean to Have a Purpose?

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor who assists those struggling with substance abuse, gambling, gaming, and internet addiction.

Do you ever feel lost in life?

Or are you bored to death by a soul-destroying repetitive job requiring little to no creativity?

At moments like these, you may feel like your life lacks purpose. But what does it mean to have a sense of purpose?

A sense of purpose means dedicating yourself to a cause beyond yourself. It’s a goal that fuels your motivation in life, giving your life meaning and direction, inspiring you to make a significant contribution to the world.

Let’s unpack some of this.

Purpose Gives Life Meaning

The psychologist Victor Frankl states that humans are driven by the necessity to seek meaning in their lives by committing to a cause or purpose outside themselves.

If an individual is unable to find a meaningful commitment, the suffering they experience leads to despair. If they are able to find a meaningful commitment, any suffering they experience will be met with resilience and the strength to preserver toward their goals.

Frankl is a living example of this philosophy since he survived two concentration camps in Nazi Germany through his commitment to the goal of rewriting and publishing his book that was nearly finished before being taken away when he entered the camp. His book can be found here: Mans Search for Meaning.

Since this drive to find meaning is essential for human beings, according to Frankl, a lack of meaning leaves an “existential vacuum” whereby one is susceptible to a state of despair.

We often ineffectively cope with this form of suffering by conforming to others, seeking simple fleeting pleasures, or by demonstrating superiority over others. All of these routes lead to unconscious suffering since they simply repress the existential vacuum produced by the lack of meaning. They do not actually fill the vacuum by creating meaning.

In other words, rather than feeling the pain, it is numbed by the temporary pleasure of stimulants, depressants, or the feeling of superiority. This is the root of addiction.

Working toward a meaningful goal is replaced by drugs, alcohol, excessive television-watching, internet games, or on the other hand, an obsession focused on success or acquiring power over others.

Purpose Gives You Direction

I often hear people accuse others of being lazy. This is especially true regarding the baby-boomers attitude toward millennials who are perceived as self-entitled brats who don’t know the value of hard work and can’t put their phones down.

“Kids today…” they say; “…they are not willing to work hard as we did.”

Is there an epidemic of laziness among today’s youth? Or is this another case of an older generation in misalignment with values, beliefs, and norms of a younger generation.

I don’t believe there an epidemic of laziness. Today’s youth are not lazy, they are lost. Unlike the baby boomers, millennials can’t rely on a standard life-course involving smooth and predictable transitions between each stage.

Baby boomers are right when they say, “the world was simpler then.” Social structures were much more stable, bound by stronger cultural norms regarding gender, sexuality, as well as the meaning of adulthood and family.

If you didn’t fit into normal gender ideals, sexual orientations, or take on normal adult responsibilities, you were probably marginalized and considered weird.

Now, everything is becoming weird. Actually, weird is the new cool. Millennials are freer to experiment with the way they present their gender, who they engage with sexually, and how they make their money.

Although we’ve seen progress regarding tolerance, millennials are now tasked with navigating a highly fluid, highly complex social milieu where there are fewer clear signposts directing them along their life-course.

Today’s youth see a multitude of paths but don’t know which way to go. Simply finishing high-school no longer guarantees a long line of employers offering you a position. Even finishing a post-secondary degree can’t guarantee that! Personally, I’ve finished three post-secondary degrees and still wonder if I’ll ever have stable employment.

There has been an explosion of both opportunity and uncertainty. Today’s youth are not lazier than the last generation’s, they are just more lost.

Human beings function best with a clear sense of direction and purpose. Remember those essay assignments in school when the teacher told you to just write whoever you want? They were always the hardest.

When the regulations are clear, students thrive. When they are vague, students flounder, put it off, or take much longer to complete the assignment. Loosely structured assignments do not cause students to become lazy; the lack of regulation makes them feel lost.

We need to look at how our social environments may be doing the same thing.

Nietzsche tells us that when we have a “why” we can overcome almost any “how”. Rather than berating millennials, calling them lazy and unmotivated, we need to consider whether or not they have something to be motivated to move toward.

In a world with so many options, we need to offer forms of institutional support that can provide direction for youth who are coming of age in this complicated age.

This may come in the form of updated career counseling classes in schools, peer-support groups for young entrepreneurs, or community programs that give young people a chance to apply and build on their unique skills.

What is the Meaning of Life Purpose?

A sense of purpose is key to living a meaningful life. It is the heart of passion and it can bring us to deeper levels of long-term happiness, providing resilience amidst great hardships.

A sense of purpose is something we often talk about wanting, seeking, or having, but it is somewhat elusive in our world of ongoing life-projects, characterized by multiple careers in a highly fluid world.

So what does purpose actually mean?

The concept of “purpose” comes from the Anglo-French “purpos” referring to an intention, aim, or goal. Broadly speaking, it can refer to purposely getting drunk on the weekend, purposely caring for your loved ones, or even purposely putting the toilet seat down; therefore, purpose is goal-oriented action.

In order to talk about the specific type of purpose I alluded to in the intro, we will need to refine the concept. But before we can refine the concept, we need to figure out the role of purpose in one’s life. This means defining the purpose of life-purpose.

In other words, the purpose of life-purpose can be called the end-goal of life-end-goals, the end of all other ends, or the ultimate end. In regular English, this simply translates to the question: why do we do what we do?

Luckily, Aristotle is a handy tool that can be used to fix this particular type of philosophical entanglement. Aristotle states that happiness is the ultimate end, meaning that all other goals are in some way directed toward the goal of happiness.

Therefore, the purpose of life-purpose is happiness. But before moving further, we need to look at what Aristotle means by happiness.

Distinct from hedonistic fleeting pleasures, Aristotle conceptualizes happiness as “eudemonia” which translates to “good spirit,” or in other words, “living well.” For Aristotle, living well/ living a good life means living virtuously in accordance with one’s reason, based on his ethics of moderation laid out in the Nicomachean Ethics.

To summarize the conceptual progress thus far, we can say that the purpose of life-purpose is to direct one toward living a good life. Therefore, a sense of purpose in life is distinct from the sense of purpose one feels during everyday goal-oriented tasks like grocery shopping because it acts as an overarching meta-purpose.

What this means is that it is a purpose that shapes all other purposes in alignment with an idea of the good. For example, if one’s life-purpose is heavily governed by a commitment to the flourishing of one’s children, one’s goals while grocery-shopping may be shaped by this overarching goal, moderating the type of foods one chooses to buy.

Therefore, the function of life-purpose is regulative. It curbs our short term desires/ hedonic purposes in order to align our actions in accordance with a conception of the good.

To again recap, I first established that the purpose of life-purpose is to direct one toward a conception of a good life. I then established that life-purpose has a regulatory function. Since both its purpose and function are morally regulative, life-purpose can also be called, “moral purpose.”

Aristotle refers to the concept of moral purpose when he states: Character is that which reveals moral purpose, exposing the class of things a man chooses or avoids. Aristotle’s virtue ethics places a strong emphasis on character development through individual will-power.

I want to pose a sociological counterbalance to Aristotle’s existentialism. In other words, I want to go deeper into the concept of moral purpose by demonstrating its social basis.

Sociologically, the concept of morality is strongly rooted in the work of Emile Durkheim. Similar to Aristotle, Durkheim makes a link between morality and happiness:

But it appears fairly certain that happiness is something besides a sum of pleasures. Pleasure is local; it is a limited affection of a point in the organism or conscience. In short, what happiness expresses is not the momentary state of a particular function, but the health of physical and moral life in its entirety.

For Durkheim, making fleeting pleasures one’s primary purpose is to live in a constantly unsatisfied anomic state of unregulated desire:

Unlimited desires are insatiable by definition and insatiability is rightly considered a sign of morbidity. Being unlimited, they constantly and infinitely surpass the means at their command; they cannot be quenched. Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture. To pursue a goal which is by definition unattainable is to condemn oneself to a state of perpetual unhappiness.

Although complete happiness is a goal that is unattainable, the goal of eudemonia is a distinct pursuit since it is the end at which all things aim. The pursuit itself is the fulfillment of eudemonia, not an end-goal.

Although Aristotle and Durkheim share a comparable definition of happiness, Durkheim is a helpful tool for getting at the social source of moral purpose, distinct from its manifestation through individual willing. In other words, Durkheim helps us understand the types of social environments that facilitate moral purpose.

Durkheim states, “for the sentiment of duty to be fixed strongly in us, the circumstances in which we live must keep us awake.” He places emphasis on the importance of strong social bonds that facilitate a sense of duty. Examples include religious life (in traditional contexts) and one’s occupational group (in modern contexts). Durkheim states:

…when community becomes foreign to the individual, he becomes a mystery to himself, unable to escape the exasperating and agonizing question: to what purpose?

For Durkheim, moral purpose is bound up with community life.

Put simply, purpose means having a goal that regulates individual action, in accordance with the values of a broader social environment.

How to Build a Sense of Purpose

These days, we’re always being told to find our passion. I think this is pretty bad advice.

It’s like telling someone who is unhappy to simply “find happiness”. If you’re trying to find your passion in a fog of purposelessness, you’re likely going to stumble around in a directionless haze, tormented by frustration.

Lacking purpose is an issue for many groups including the elderly, retirees, veterans, former high-level athletes, recent graduates, or those going through a mid-life crisis.

Erik Erikson described this phenomenon as the conflict of identity vs. role confusion, experienced in adolescence. I would go further than Erikson and argue this is not just an adolescent issue, but a universal issue that can be experienced at any age. Our sense of self is influenced by our social roles, so any kind of major life transition can provoke an identity crisis, affecting our sense of purpose.

So what is the antidote to purposelessness? Make yourself useful!

In theory, it sounds easy. It’s not too hard to find someone needing help. The problem is that you can’t be useful to anyone else if you’re not being useful to yourself first. So here is step one:

Be useful to yourself. Take care of your basic needs. organize the clutter in your physical environment and the chaos in your day-to-day life. Prioritize your sleep, nutrition, and exercise. If all of this sounds overwhelming, start small. As Jordan Peterson says, “Clean your damn room!” But as he also says, “Cleaning up your room involves cleaning up far more than your room.” Doing something useful for yourself is the first step in reorienting yourself amidst the mental fog of purposelessness. As the fog begins to thin out, you can start to see beyond yourself. This leads to step two:

Be useful to your family or close friends. Once you’re adequately useful to yourself and can help from a place of genuine giving, you can be useful to others close to you. I mention “genuine giving” because many people try to be useful to others without addressing their own needs first. This often results in codependent relationships where you do things for others to fill a lack of self-esteem in yourself. It is an experience of toxic shame where we constantly feel the need to prove ourselves and receive external validation. Once you’ve worked through these personal issues and can engage in close interpersonal relationships based on genuine heartfelt giving, the next step is this:

Be useful to the broader society. Once you’ve addressed your personal needs and can be of service to those closest to you, you can be useful to the broader society. This may happen in various ways. You can be useful in your work, volunteer roles, leisure activities, or even as an activist contributing to some form of social change. The key is that your way of contributing fits your unique personal strengths. Misalignment between your strengths, values, and interests can hinder your level of usefulness and the resulting level of purpose you feel toward the role. Finding alignment between your abilities and your role requires first knowing your strengths and cultivating them.

Since I recently turned thirty, I can say this is the greatest lesson I’ve learned during my twenties. Throughout the past decade of post-secondary education, I’ve had to constantly adjust the focus of my sociological studies to keep the purpose alive.

In the beginning, it was hard to imagine how sociology could be useful beyond the walls of academia, but that didn’t matter at the time. As in step one (be useful to yourself), sociology helped me make sense of the world, improved my critical thinking skills, and built my knowledge of history, politics, and human behavior. I learned how to write, how to present, and how to conduct myself in a professional environment.

Studying sociology was useful for me, but once I started my doctoral program, I questioned whether this was enough. It was hard to see how theorizing about “modernist discourses in a post-structural context” was useful to the broader world. Social theory often turns into an intellectual game of 3D chess played among career academics creating ever-new cleverly articulated problems that may or may not have any relation to the world outside the ivory tower. Luckily, I learned a lot while becoming skillful in the art of intellectual language games, but I had only been useful to myself.

After the first year of my doctoral program, my purpose became foggy. I asked myself, “What is the purpose of a university?” I knew the answer had to be something beyond self-enrichment, but I had become so entangled in theoretical jargon, I couldn’t even come up with a real problem to study. Here is an embarrassing excerpt from my original dissertation proposal draft:

“I will address the cultural meaning of technology in the context of recent developments in prosthetic technologies…. Building on the calls for a sociology of impairment that goes beyond the impairment/ disability dualism, while remaining critical of technological progress by engaging in a sociology of the prosthetic in order to consider the cultural meaning of technological enhancement for bodies marked as impaired.”

I was deep in the fog and couldn’t connect my own skills and interests to a broader social need. If you’ve been following my blog, you may know by now that I have come a long way since then. By the end of my second year, I began reading war memoirs and discovered that many veterans are having serious issues adjusting to civilian life. They were struggling to find purpose in a world where they no longer feel useful. This was the moment I knew what I needed to study. I could make myself useful by shedding light on this important issue.

Shortly after discovering a renewed sense of purpose, I started this blog. It has served as a way to work through ideas in dialogue with non-sociologists, helping me keep my focus relevant and in touch with real issues.

Since graduating three years ago, I’ve learned how to be useful in therapeutic contexts, working directly with individuals who suffer from an addiction. As I continue learning and practicing, hopefully, my usefulness grows, fueling a sense of purpose.

I never expected to end up in the addictions field. Simply trying to find a passion was not enough. I had found a passion for sociology but needed to rethink my usefulness to maintain the passion.

If you have lost your passion for something or are struggling to regain a sense of purpose after a major life transition, consider how you can make yourself useful to yourself, your family, and the broader society.

As Emerson states, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful…”. When you put happiness first, you find disappointment. When you put usefulness first, happiness follows.

A Sense of Purpose Can Save Your Life

“If you try to do only for yourself, you’ll only get so far in life. If you reach out to touch other people, you can fix your own soul.“ Bryan A. Wood

This idea was inspired by a comment from a fellow blogger who said this philosophy saved his life. He writes:

…once I’ve accepted that my life is fundamentally expendable, no longer worth living, I get on with it and do what I can, each act of generosity makes me feel better about myself, rebuilds my confidence if not my validity, sometimes it’s a long hike, a very long time alone.

when a caller at a distress centre where I volunteered asked once if I had found my own reason for living after my own bouts with myself, I answered that maybe it was to be there to help him, where would he be if I weren’t? I think that helped us both.

I’ve encountered this same sentiment of salvation through service in my interviews with Canadian veterans of Afghanistan. Upon leaving the military, one veteran stated:

You lose the sense that you are serving your country. Serving your country tends to be an undervalued activity, but it is one that veterans have embraced. Unlike any other profession, they put their life on the line. What they are looking for is something like what they just left, and that doesn’t exist anymore, so that’s why so many people don’t actually leave the military; they go to the reserves or they go into organizations that deliver projects to the military or they go on as trainers.

This individual stated that his step-son who also served in the Canadian Forces valued service and that although he embraced the value of his generation of making a lot of money in the banking industry, his heart was in public service and he spent a great deal of his spare time serving his military reserve-unit.

With service comes a sense of contribution. Therefore, losing the community one served creates a need to regain a sense of contribution. As one veteran states: “no one tells us, ‘hey, you’re still worthy of making a contribution.'” Facilitating social environments that give veterans the opportunity to apply their skills in civilian professions allows them to potentially regain a sense of service, reducing the risk of suicide in this population.

People die by suicide because of a sense of thwarted belonging and a perceived sense of “burdensomeness“ as discussed by Thomas Joiner. Therefore, even individuals who belong to a supportive group and are surrounded by loved ones may still be at risk of suicide of they feel like a burden to these people. The opposite of burdensomeness is the sense of meaning and purpose that comes with contribution/ service to a cause larger than oneself. A sense of meaning through service provides psychological resilience amidst the darkest states of suffering.

Conclusion

A sense of purpose means finding a sense of commitment to a goal or cause beyond yourself. When you lack a sense of purpose, you feel lost, unmotivated, and have difficulty finding meaning in life. Addictions are a common way to cope in the short term, compounding the issue in the long term.

If you are lacking a sense of purpose, it might be helpful to consider ways to make yourself useful. This does not necessarily mean waiting until you have advanced skill-sets. You can simply start by being useful to yourself and those around you.

Looking for General Support?

BetterHelp.com provides online counseling. Check out their site here to see if their services are right for you Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily if you don’t feel supported.

Online-therapy.com is currently offering free support for persons looking to optimize their mental toolbox. Check out their free worksheets based on the evidence-based practice of Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT).

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help and Online-therapy.com, I may receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

To find local support, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors and therapists are not consistent. Also, one of the most important factors in successful treatment is the quality of the therapeutic relationship. If you are not feeling supported, it is important to seek out another practitioner.

Curious if online therapy works? I wrote an article here, looking at the evidence.

If you’re just bored and looking for a new hobby, check out Skillshare. with thousands of classes to choose from, this online community allows you to gain new skills, network with peers, and find new opportunities. Check out their free trial here.

*As an affiliate partner, I may receive a commission if you sign up for a free trial. 


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27 Comments

  1. onthepages

    I found this to be a great perspective on passion. You’re right about purpose. I think purpose and passion together are an even greater combo. You can also have passion with no purpose, which can be all over the place. You can also have purpose with out it being a passion focus too. Nice share. Thank you and appreciate it.

    Reply
    • Steve Rose

      Thank you for this comment! I completely agree that passion and purpose must go together when you’re working at your optimal effectiveness/ usefulness.

      Reply
  2. JT Twissel

    I agree. I do feel better when I feel useful.

    Reply
    • Steve Rose

      Glad you can relate! Thanks for the comment!

      Reply
  3. Mark Kerry

    As an addict that slips in and out of addiction, I find that being purposely busy the main factor in remaining sober. My mind is overwhelmed with confusion, fear and lack of enthusiasm when I am in addiction. A thought provoking article. I never looked at usefulness as a part of my recovery until now.

    Reply
    • Steve Rose

      Thanks, Mark! Glad you’ve been able to connect to this article. We always hear the words “passion” and “purpose” but don’t often know what it means or how to develop it. I think looking at these concepts through the lens of “usefulness” is an effective way to put them into practice, in addition to connecting yourself with the broader social realm.

      Reply
      • Mark Kerry

        Thank you Steve, good stuff.

        Reply
  4. eva murray today

    Happiness…it’s a by-product of right living. Happiness finds me! Nice article!

    Reply
    • Steve Rose

      Thanks! I like the way you phrased it: “a by-product of right living”.

      Reply
  5. Rosaliene Bacchus

    Well said, Steve. Individualism and the pursuit of happiness serve only those who profit from such behavior.

    Reply
  6. weekendtherapy

    This is so true!! I get excited every year when I return back to work from Summer Break (I’m a School Counselor), and I think I’ve realized that though the break is necessary for self-care, I crave the order and purpose.

    Reply
    • Steve Rose

      Very nice! Looks like you’ve been able to find an alignment between your skills and a role where you can be helpful to others, while balancing self-care.

      Reply
  7. Ben Morais

    A very good and thought provoking read. I concur with the advice that we should make ourselves useful. In doing so, we bring joy to others and that gives our lives more meaning and satisfaction.

    Reply
  8. John G

    Yes ! I also find that if you find a purpose in your everyday life, you will create a super passion for doing things and handling problem’s that may come our way. Passion not only feeds our insole but adds to a richer life for all .

    Reply
  9. Eliza

    thanks for sharing.
    I hope I can one day be purposeful towards myself…. it seems so far off to be impossible, but hey, you never know.

    Reply
  10. Active Counseling Melbourne, FL

    Enjoyed this article and the premise of usefulness is in starting with basic self-care and moving one step at a time from there.

    Reply
  11. Active Counseling Melbourne, FL

    Enjoyed the perspective of this article. The start of usefulness toward oneself first in basic self-care and moving forward from there…. just doing what is in front of you and moving forward from there. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  12. Mike Balof

    This was very useful for me. Thank you very much.

    Reply
  13. Mehret Biruk

    This was so timely for me to read, thank you for writing it.
    Jordan Peterson also advises it is better to aim badly than to wander through life aimlessly and without a purpose: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZwGDnSWmqhM
    I absolutely adored studying sociology while in school and ended up in the field of youth work with a focus on mental health. However, I often find myself frustrated and cynical because of the precarity of the field, and the toxicity of office politics. While I despised armchair activism, direct work isn’t all that glamorous either.
    How can I be useful in my work when I feel bogged down by office politics and lack of autonomy? Re-focus. Be useful to myself, and my loved ones. Find volunteer work to be useful to my community, etc. Thank you again for the inspiration!

    Reply
  14. Anonymous

    Love this!!! This is exactly what I’m struggling with but for completely different reasons. When I was little, I emotionally enmeshed with my concept of (the Christian) God. I wanted to make him happy in whatever way possible, and I became somewhat delusional by settling to be a missionary, and if I was good enough, I might be one of the martyrs from the last days. I spent from age 5-19 mentally preparing myself to die, sacrifice it all to save people from eternal torment. This followed me through most of my undergrad degree in Biblical Studies, but started to fall apart as I learned of the devastating impact of colonialism and imperialism on POC, through missions. I adapted open theism, loosened my view of salvation to anyone that believed in Jesus, and other things not accepted in my home denomination due to my understanding of theology and the historical, cultural, and literary context of the Bible (yes, I know Greek and textual criticism all y’all KJVer’s). Anyhow, as my knowledge increased, my love for others increased, and my worldview collapsed. That was about 4-5 years ago now, and I’m still struggling with all this. It’s like an internal battle between how I was raised and what I know, and what I want to believe, and triggered by the sexism I faced in the field, I gave it a rest. So now, here I am, MDD, GAD, almost an MA in TESOL (which I started for missions and have increasingly realized I can’t do that), and still struggling to start the process of self care. It’s hard when you’ve spent your entire life under the delusion that you would be the one to save people from misery, that single-handedly with the help of God, you would do make the biggest impact humanity would see since your Messiah, as a prophet if you will, to suddenly realize that you don’t agree with the practices of prophets anymore, or these teachings, that you no longer think the highest power cares if you’re a martyr or an artist, to realize that you question the foundations of everything you’ve ever been taught to believe, by studying it more. Now I’m here, not even sure there is a hell, definitely certain I’m not the prophet of end times, realizing that my grandiose delusions and relationship with the Ultimate Being were the result of childhood trauma and the desire to be loved while believing love was conditional. It’s hard, because every new purpose I can find is minuscule in comparison to the delusion, and I have to find love and worth within myself.

    Reply
  15. Shivani

    “my usefulness grows, fueling a sense of purpose.”

    Does this mean you need to feel useful to irrigate your purpose?

    Reply
    • Steve Rose

      I would argue yes, but not in a utilitarian sense. Usefulness could me a sense of contribution to something greater than yourself.

      Reply

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