How to Create a Sense of Purpose, According to Science

Training your mind to find meaning in everyday life

Cortland Dahl

April 1, 2021

Photo: sultancicekgil/Getty Images

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 it is also linked to memory and cognitive abilities, to a lower risk of major health issues, like heart problems and stroke, and, believe it or not, to having a higher income and net worth.

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.

Over the past few decades, a growing body of scientific research has shown that we may be looking in the wrong places to find meaning and purpose. The picture that is emerging from all this research suggests that having a sense of purpose is not something that we only discover when we are free from our struggles and the mundane details of life. To the contrary, purpose is precisely what helps us deal with adversity. It gives us the strength to persevere when we start to lose hope, and to find meaning in the seemingly meaningless details of our daily routines.

To give just one of many examples, a team of researchers led by Dennis Charney, MD, an expert on the biology of resilience, found that purpose was the key factor in predicting recovery from major life trauma.

When you think about it, this makes perfect sense.

The people who we think of as the very best of humanity were not free from hardship and suffering. They often faced tremendous adversity. Nelson Mandela spent decades in prison, deprived of the most basic human necessities. Malala wasn’t allowed to go to school as a young woman in her village in rural Pakistan. These situations were tragic. The point is not that we need such monumental challenges to connect with a deeper sense of purpose, but rather that these remarkable individuals, as well as countless others we’ll never hear about, were able to find meaning and purpose not by living a fantasy life of pleasure and happiness, but rather by transforming their perspective in the face of suffering and tragedy. They learned to transform life’s challenges into opportunities to learn and grow.

If Mandela could find meaning in decades of unjust imprisonment, and Malala could transform her own personal struggles into an opportunity to open doors for young women around the world, surely we can use our own challenges and setbacks to gain a greater perspective on life. If we look at the lives of those we hold up as the true exemplars of our highest values and aspirations as human beings, we will find countless stories like these. It is not our peak moments and achievements that define who we are. It is how we deal with adversity, and how we carry ourselves in the countless moments when no one is watching, and no one will remember.

A shift in perspective

Much of the research in this area has focused on the degree to which people have, or do not have, a sense of purpose. As I mentioned above, this research has uncovered many links between purpose and our emotional well-being and physical health. More recently, a new area of research has begun to examine whether or not a sense of purpose can be learned. In other words, are we hardwired to see our lives a certain way, or can we cultivate a sense of purpose? And if it is something we can cultivate, how do we do it?

Scientists have found some ingenious ways to answer these questions. For one, it appears that purpose is not determined by our biology, nor by the circumstances of life. Purpose is a skill. It’s something that we can learn, practice, and apply in the midst of our daily lives.

One of the most illuminating studies on this topic examined the role that a sense of purpose plays in the learning process. A team of researchers conducted a series of four studies with over 2,000 young adults who were in high school and some who were starting college, many of whom were the first in their family to attend university. The first thing they found was that the students who reported a self-transcendent purpose for learning (meaning they wanted to learn not only for themselves and to have a good career, but also so they could give back to society) had better learning outcomes. They were more persistent and more likely to stay in school.

The researchers then wondered if this sense of purpose could be learned, so they created a simple exercise to get students to think about the bigger picture. Their findings were remarkable. The exercise was brief, and the students only did it once, but it made a huge difference. Compared to a control group, the students who learned to imbue their perspective with a self-transcendent purpose saw an immediate impact on their learning process, including deeper learning behaviors and improved self-regulation, which translated into higher grade point averages (GPAs) a few months later.

The take-home message here is that it is not what we do that determines how much purpose and meaning we feel, but rather how we view our lives and pursuits. As these students learned, purpose is a matter of perspective. They didn’t change what they were doing. They still had to study, take tests, and sit through hours and hours of lectures. In fact, the researchers intentionally gave them boring work to do. What changed for these students was their perspective on all this. They learned to see their efforts — including all the mundane routines and boring details — as part of something bigger. And that simple shift in perspective made a dramatic difference.

Purpose is a skill. It’s something that we can learn, practice, and apply in the midst of our daily lives.

So… how do we do this for ourselves? How can we learn to shift our perspective like the students did? At my research center, we’ve developed an entire program to strengthen sense of purpose and the other three pillars of well-being, and our research is showing that it only takes a few minutes a day to learn these skills.

Here are a few tips to get started.

Tip 1: Pause for a moment of mindfulness

The hardest part of learning any new skill is remembering to do it. Mindfulness reconnects us with the present moment. It takes us out of our habitual way of seeing things and creates some inner space, giving us the opportunity to see things from a fresh perspective.

One simple way to create inner space is to hit pause and bring awareness to your breath in short moments throughout your day. Take a few slow, calming breaths and notice the sensations in your body as you breathe in and out. You don’t have to stop what you’re doing. You can do this while you’re lying in bed or doing the laundry, or even when you’re exercising or talking to a friend. The key is to bring yourself back to the present moment.

Tip 2: Clarify your motivation

The next step is to link whatever you’re doing with a deeper motivation, a self-transcendent purpose. We have countless reasons for the things we do in daily life, but we rarely give them much thought. Some of these motivations are important, but not very nourishing. We all need to make a living, for example, but if that’s the only motivation that occupies our mind, we’ll likely end up feeling depleted over time. Instead, we can acknowledge our many motivations — from the mundane to the transcendent — while putting our focus on those that are most nourishing.

This doesn’t need to be some heavy, soul-searching exercise. Treat it like an open-ended exploration. Keep it light and playful. Think beyond yourself. Include the well-being of others: your family and friends, your community, the whole planet.

For example, when you wake up in the morning, try thinking to yourself, “Today I’ll do my best to leave the world a little better than I found it.” Whether you’re doing the dishes, working out, or going through your to-do list, remind yourself of what you want your life to be about. Friendship, integrity, kindness… It doesn’t really matter. Whatever speaks to your higher sense of self will work. This 10-minute guided meditation might be a good place to start.

Now, this might all sound a little cliché, like a bad bumper sticker or something. But remember the example of Nelson Mandela. If he could find purpose and meaning while stuck in solitary confinement, what excuse do we have for not learning to see something greater in a boring routine? It’s all a matter of perspective.

Tip 3: See every moment as an opportunity

As I mentioned earlier, the hardest part here is remembering to do this at all. The force of habit is strong. It takes time to work on any new perspective. But once you get used to this way of seeing things, it will only take a moment to reconnect with your deeper motivations. You can then open things up even further by training yourself to view every moment as an opportunity to learn and grow.

If you sit down to write your biography someday, you may very well focus on the big milestones and the major life challenges you faced, but life is actually what happens in between these memorable moments. It happens in the countless small steps we take every day. As we see in the lives of the most inspiring figures of human history, and the students who learned to bring a fresh perspective to their learning journey, every moment is an opportunity.

We don’t have to wait for the peak moments to feel truly fulfilled. We can treat purpose like a skill and train ourselves to find meaning in the highs, the lows, and everything in between.