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What purpose looks, feels, and sounds like is really up to me

I don’t know about you, but my social media feeds are inundated with professionals, entrepreneurs, and freelancers advocating for finding my purpose, claiming to have found theirs.

Research has shown a link between a strong sense of purpose and resilience. It’s also been shown to increase the chance of healthy aging.

This sounds great in theory, but I often find myself reflecting on what my purpose might be and coming up with, well, not very much.

While finding your purpose can be beneficial, further research is pointing to the downside of all this searching, with something psychologists are referring to as “purpose anxiety.”

Purpose as a concept has been somewhat tricky for psychologists to explore. The word itself covers such an expanse of human experience, it’s difficult to know where to begin.

In his book, “The Happiness Hypothesis,” positive psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt says when we seek to understand the meaning of life, we’re actually seeking answers to two distinct questions:

  1. What is the purpose of life?
  2. What is the purpose within life?

The benefits of pursuing these questions are vast.

Research has consistently linked purpose to heightened levels of emotional and mental well-being and overall life satisfaction. One study even found that having a sense of purpose in life led to better physical health, and as a result, longer life expectancy.

The trouble with all these amazing benefits is it begins to put pressure on people who have no idea what their purpose might be, or how to find it. People like me.

Alongside the research and all the purposeful people popping up on social media, I’ve found that instead of feeling good about myself, I’ve ended up feeling deeply anxious.

Although psychologists have acknowledged the distress that searching for your purpose might cause for some time, the term “purpose anxiety” is more recent.

Researcher Larissa Rainey writes in her paper exploring the topic in-depth that “Purpose anxiety can provisionally be defined as the negative emotions experienced in direct relation to the search for purpose.”

In other words, it’s the anxiety we feel when we don’t have a sense of purpose but are all too aware that it’s missing. Rainey goes on to write that purpose anxiety can be experienced at two different stages:

  1. While struggling to actually uncover what your purpose might be
  2. While attempting to enact or ‘live’ your purpose

Purpose anxiety can be experienced on a spectrum, ranging from mild to moderate to severe. It can encompass a range of negative emotions including stress, worry, frustration, fear, as well as anxiety. In her research on the concept, Rainey found a whopping 91 percent of participants surveyed reported experiencing purpose anxiety at some point in their life.

As Rainey says, there is a spectrum for how purpose anxiety might show up. Here’s how it’s looked for me over the years:

Constantly switching jobs or companies

This was a big one for me, especially in my 20s. I would job-hop seeking the “perfect” role. Essentially, I was looking to external cues through my job or company to help indicate I’d “found purpose.”

Feeling ‘not good enough’ or like a failure

With so many stories out there about others having found their purpose, it can be hard not to feel like a failure when I’m not on the same path. I’ve long been tied to notions that purpose looks like a particular job title. When I see old friends from university making professional gains and securing those senior job titles, I’ve learned to remind myself that no two journeys are the same, and the way one finds purpose is not always how another will.

Negative comparisons

Something I tend to indulge in a lot is making comparisons. Instead of reflecting inwards on what purpose means to me, I find myself comparing with others and feeling as though I come up short.

Worrying I’d never find my one, true purpose

Purpose sometimes feels like a huge word. Finding it can feel more like a stab in the dark than a positive journey. I often find myself wondering if I have a purpose at all.

Inability to acknowledge accomplishments

Like many forms of anxiety, purpose anxiety is centered around the experience of negative emotions. When I’m stuck in a negative thought loop, it becomes very difficult to recall positive experiences and accomplishments.

If striving for purpose is actually causing stress, you might be wondering why you should bother.

Rainey argues that the benefits of finding purpose hugely outweigh the experience of purpose anxiety. Once you acknowledge you have it, you can begin to proactively switch up your mindset and pursue your purpose in more positive ways:

Purpose comes from self-knowledge

When it comes to finding your purpose, it’s important to turn the lens inward rather than outward. I so often look to others to inform me how to achieve my goals. While there can be helpful tips out there, I’m learning that authentic purpose needs to come from knowing myself.

A few years ago, I finally secured a senior management position, something I thought would give me more purpose at work. As it turned out, I really missed the day-to-day activities of my old role where I spent more time working as a teacher with young people one-on-one and in the classroom.

Being a manager didn’t fulfill me nearly as much as being more hands-on in my work.

Purpose needs to be created, not found

Developmental psychologist William Damon advises we need to stop seeing purpose as something we innately have, just waiting to be discovered.

Instead, we should see it as a “goal toward which we are always working. It is the forward-pointing arrow that motivates our behavior and serves as the organizing principle of our lives.”

Purpose grows from our own personal experiences and challenges

Researcher and editor for Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, Emily Esfahani Smith, has traveled the world studying belonging and purpose. She says that purpose often sounds bigger than it really might be and the secret to uncovering it could be in our daily experiences.

“Purpose sounds big — ending world hunger or eliminating nuclear weapons big. But it doesn’t have to be,” says Smith. “You can also find purpose in being a good parent to your children, creating a more cheerful environment at your office, or making [someone’s] life more pleasant.”

Ultimately, purpose can be defined in a multitude of ways, and the purpose you find today might not be the same as the one you find yourself living a few years or even months from now.

Understanding the how and why of purpose anxiety has helped me to not only feel less anxious about what I’m doing with my life, but also to know that the decisions I make about what purpose looks, feels, and sounds like are really up to me.

In our success-oriented societies, it often feels like we’re on a tight schedule for when we should reach certain milestones.

What diving deeper into the research around purpose has taught me is that there are no quick wins or time limits. In fact, the more time we invest in exploring this part of ourselves, the more likely it is we’ll get it right.

I’m slowly learning that my sense of purpose in life is truly in my own hands.


Elaine is an educator, writer, and psychologist-in-training, currently based in Hobart, Tasmania. She is passionately curious about the ways we can use our experiences to become more authentic versions of ourselves and obsessed with sharing photos of her Dachshund puppy. You can find her on Twitter.