Purpose isn’t a destination but a journey and a practice, research suggests.
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, 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, purpose isn’t 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.
This “is a project that endures across the lifespan,” as purpose expert Kendall Bronk and her colleagues wrote in a 2009 paper. This research suggests that if we’re able to revisit and renew our sense of purpose as we navigate milestones and transitions, we can look forward to more satisfying, meaningful lives.
Teens: Seeking Purpose
A purpose in life isn’t just any big goal that we pursue. According to researchers, 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, such as music or volunteering, some teens start to discover paths they want to pursue. Other teens have challenging life experiences, such as a parent being diagnosed with cancer or a 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.
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.
A 2012 study by the same researchers had a similar finding, but in the opposite direction—with young people who felt purposeful building a more solid sense of identity over time. “Identity and purpose development are intertwined processes,” wrote Patrick Hill of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Anthony Burrow of Cornell University.
At this age, though, only about 20 percent of teens have a strong sense of purpose in life, according to the work of William Damon, author of “The Path to Purpose” and a professor at Stanford. Damon has spent nearly 20 years studying how people develop purpose in work, family, and civic life.
Other teens have pie-in-the-sky dreams, or fun hobbies, or they’re just trying to get through high school. More often, childhood and adolescence seem to be the time when the building blocks of purpose are established, but we’re still exploring what we want out of life.
Adults: Busy With Purpose
According to Damon, most people who find purpose do so in their 20s and 30s. That’s when we tend to start building a career and a family—both of which are major sources of purpose during adulthood, along with religion and volunteering.