We all need to eat and sleep. We all want shelter and companionship. But once our basic survival needs are met, we also yearn to feel useful too.
A sense of purpose may not seem essential to survival, but our physical health and mental well-being depend on it.
In his bestselling book, “The End of Procrastination,” Petr Ludwig reports that our sense of purpose has a strong influence on both the quality and quantity of our lives. He points to several studies which show that the more purpose we have at work, and in life in general, the lower our risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, and the better our relationships.
“Our sense of purpose significantly influences our longevity,” Ludwig said. “There is research that shows that societies that don’t retire live much longer.”
Consider, for example, the Japanese island of Okinawa. On average, Okinawans live about ten years longer than Americans. Researchers believe one reason behind this longevity is that when Okinawans grow old they’re more likely to be contributing members of society.
“They have their ‘ikigai,’ the Japanese word for life-long purpose, and use their personal strengths to serve others,” Ludwig said. “Even as we age, we should continue to try to change the world.”
Purpose influences our health because it is intimately tied to our happiness. It’s not the fleeting thrill that comes from ice cream or a new car, but genuine, my-life-feels-like-it’s-in-a-good-place kind of happiness that sustains our soul, and gives meaning to our lives.
However, when this driving force starts to fade, our performance begins to falter. Without the motivation of purpose pushing us along, procrastination develops. Despair and depression soon follow.
Loss of Identity
When we lose our sense of purpose, our lives can fall apart. Kevin Bishop sees examples of it every day. His mission is to provide people who’ve lost their purpose with a path back to it. His method is music.
Bishop directs a Connecticut street choir called Music Moves Hartford. All the singers are people who face homelessness. The project was modeled off of similar groups in Dallas and Atlanta. Bishop’s group meets twice a week—once in a Hartford homeless shelter, and again in a room off a local soup kitchen.
“It is very evident that a major reason for homelessness is the loss of purpose,” Bishop said. “Purpose creates motivation. In a world where it is easy to think everything is going wrong, purpose gives you a reason to get up and keep on living and working.”
Singing in a choir may seem insignificant, but Bishop says the experience of having this one small purpose can help people without direction achieve something greater. He mentions one man who came to the soup kitchen rehearsal soon after his release from prison. He was quiet and distant at first, but his spirit began to shine over the course of a year in the choir. He eventually left the shelter and found a job. Today, he lives in his own apartment in a neighboring town, but he still stops by the rehearsal room when he gets a chance.
“He doesn’t have the need to come to the soup kitchen anymore, but he still feels a part of the community,” Bishop said.
A big reason why purpose is so important to our well-being is because it is essential to our identity. In normal social circles, people ask what you do and you have an answer: student, parent, a career, or something else you’re engaged in. But Bishop says the homeless don’t have that answer. He says that’s why fights often break out in this community over petty stuff. People are scared, angry, and depressed because they don’t know who they are or what they’re good for.
“In the choir they keep it in check, but outside of that you see where people feel like everyone is out to get them, or take something from them,” Bishop said. “A lot of these people are veterans. They are very quiet and then all of a sudden they will be lashing out in anger. You can tell they’re not in a good place.”
Choir members, on the other hand, develop an identity they can be proud of. For the first time in a long time, they begin to feel like they’re somebody.
“It’s one thing they can point to and say, ‘I’m a singer. I’m a member of this group. I’m doing something and succeeding at something useful and fruitful,’” Bishop said.
Obstacles to Purpose
Most of the people Bishop works with once led normal, productive lives. So how did they lose their way? He sees three common themes: mental illness, addiction, and violence.
“Something catastrophic happens and it causes the slow degradation. Then the depression sets in,” Bishop said. “These people have a purpose, but it’s temporarily hidden. They’ve lost the motivation, usually due to more than one of those categories.”
Even if we never face homelessness, we all face moments in our lives where we feel lost or without direction. Often, it’s because our roles end. We graduate or retire; our children grow up and move out. The purpose we once had either runs its course, or becomes obsolete. In these situations, where we’ve been stripped of a familiar identity, it’s hard to move on because it’s no longer clear who we are.
“When we were younger, finding a purpose was easier. We had kids to raise, and a career path to follow,” Nelson said. “But what happens when you retire from the work world, your family ends up on the other side of the country, or you didn’t have grandchildren despite your fondest hopes?”
Nelson says that when you find yourself in this position, you have a choice: search for something that gives your life meaning, or resign yourself to boredom and stagnation.
“Once you start deliberately exploring your options you will find something—or many things—that pique your interest,” Nelson said. “Then, get up, get out, and do it. View finding a new purpose as an adventure. That sense of adventure alone will draw you towards finding new meaning and a happy life.”
Purpose is a personal thing, but we often look to others for guidance. A group or an individual who exhibits a strong sense of purpose can serve as inspiration. Ludwig believes successfully promoting purpose in the workplace often depends on the quality of leadership.
“When managers are disconnected, how can they inspire their employees?” Ludwig said. “Many companies have their mission statements or values written on their office walls, but the reality is that those are empty phrases that no one believes in. Finding a purpose starts with authentic personal values that are lived every day.”
As a leader, Bishop says a major goal for him is to instill confidence. If his choir members can find their confidence, realizing their purpose isn’t far behind.
“Music is something they can be successful at. They can get accolades for it. People applaud, and it helps build their confidence again,” Bishop said.
But even with good role models and a space to build confidence, people still need to forge their own way. And those who hold a strong sense of entitlement never find the motivation to do so.
Motivational speaker, self-empowerment author, and self-defense teacher John Graden says that people who feel like the world owes them something lack the ability to make something of their lives.
“When you feel that you are owed you don’t feel a purpose, other than to collect,” Graden said.
A sense of purpose is an innate calling that naturally dwells within each of us—we just have to listen for it. A sense of entitlement, on the other hand, is the result of mental programming. Both can color our outlook. We decide which one to cultivate.
“That programming will stick until the person makes the conscious decision to reprogram their patterns of thought and behavior into a more purposeful life,” Graden said.
Living for Others
Having a purpose is crucial to our own well-being, but we realize it through serving others. According to Andrew Selepak, a media professor at the University of Florida, what we give beyond our selfish pursuits is what really makes our lives significant.
“Humans are by nature communal, and communities only work when we do for others,” Selepak said. “When we lose this, we begin to not only lose our purpose but our reason for living.”
Some dream of a perfect life as a permanent vacation, with no responsibilities to get in the way of our fun and leisure. But a life geared exclusively toward personal pleasure may not be as satisfying as it sounds.
“Everyone likes a vacation now and then, or to just binge their favorite show. But we can’t spend all of our lives playing video games and watching TV,” Selepak said. “Chasing selfish pursuits leaves us unfulfilled, like a drug addict chasing their next hit that will never satisfy their needs.”
For Bishop’s choir, it’s the public performances that give the project meaning, and give the singers a reason to do what they do. They perform primarily in Hartford—from neighborhood festivals to downtown events—but they recently booked several gigs outside the city. They’re preparing for a tour around the state where they will share the stage with a well-known singer-songwriter and a string quartet.
“This is the first time we’re putting them on a bus, taking them out of Hartford, and taking them on a little tour,” Bishop said. “When we first started this program we were honestly concerned that people would have serious behavior problems, but we’ve never had an issue. People are very supportive and kind to each other. They really leave life at the door and just have fun.”