The desire to live a purposeful life runs deep in the human condition, but since none of us were born with a tag on our toe stating our purpose, finding it on our own is challenging. But before we can figure out how to find our purpose in life we need to define what purpose is.
Some scholars, as well as lay people, maintain that purpose must include an action that is altruistic in nature. Some scholars have therefore maintained that life is not purposeful unless it contains an element that has an impact on the world beyond itself. Others maintain that purpose has to include “God’s purpose” to be purposeful.
These definitions, however, lead us to judge the actions of others and label them as purposeful or not based on our subjective definitions of what either God wants or of what we define as altruistic. Although such judgments may be interesting academically, they are unhelpful for the individual who is trying to obtain the health and wellness benefits associated with having a purpose in life.
Post-modern philosophers have pronounced that objectivity is dead, arguing that it is impossible to be truly objective about anything. With this in mind, I will attempt to argue that whilst it is impossible for us to be totally objective, we must attempt to remove all our biases about what purpose means to an individual and recognize that what might be purposeful for one, is not necessarily purposeful for another.
Whether something is purposeful or not is tied to the feeling of the individual carrying out any given task. Simply put, if an activity feels purposeful to the individual, then it is purposeful. We can thus define the construct of purpose in a way that removes as much of our own judgment as possible and allows the individual room to define purpose in their own image.
We might therefore define the construct of purpose as the deep understanding of oneself and, based on that, where one fits into the universe and then act in accordance with that knowledge. Therefore, when a person lives a life that reflects an understanding of themselves and where they fit into the world, they are living with purpose. Most of the time purpose based on this definition will include behavior the helps the world beyond the self.
Nonetheless, there are some whose purpose, based on a deep understanding of themselves and their place in the world, does not seem to meet the criteria set by the social justice community as making an impact in the world. There are some, therefore, who would say that such an individual is not fulfilling their purpose in the world. I would argue, however, that whether or not someone is purposeful is not for us to judge.
As long as they are living a their life based on a deep understanding of themselves and where they fit in the world, they feel purposeful and will therefore gain the health of wellness benefits of having a purpose.
Since purpose is so highly individual, when we help people find their purpose it is important we don’t prejudge the process or try to impose our subjective definitions of purpose on others. Instead we must recognize that the purpose discovery process that is highly individualized and personal. What might lack purpose for one may be highly purposeful for another.
Levi Brackman is founder of Purposes Inc and creator of a scientifically proven online purpose finding tool Next Stage Purpose. He is currently doing a Phd focused on learning how people can develop purpose and meaning in life. He is also a rabbi and bestselling author.