Do you know what your life purpose is? Apologies if you’re reading this before your morning coffee and that’s a little deep. But according to a recent study by the Communication Neuroscience Lab at the Annenberg School, if you have your life purpose sussed, then you’re likely to find it easier to make physically healthier choices on the daily. Yoona Kang, lead author of the study, explained that we make health-based decisions every day, and even the most simple, mundane ones (like whether to take the elevator or stairs) involve some level of decisional conflict. The researchers assessed sedentary people who needed to exercise more. Before testing them, they had to complete a survey indicating how much they agreed with certain statements such as, "I have a sense of direction and purpose in my life" or "I don't have a good sense of what it is I'm trying to accomplish in life.” They were then shown messages promoting physical activity, while their brains were hooked up to scanners. In short, those with a strong sense of life purpose made healthier decisions and dealt with less internal conflict than those who didn’t.
I don't know about you, but this resonates with me. I find sticking to a workout regimen tough and will often be found gulping a large glass of red rather than a large green smoothie. Sure, there have been times in my life when I’ve trained for marathons or stuck to a weightlifting routine, but these have generally coincided with periods when my career felt on track; when I had clear-cut goals and a purpose. If I feel lost or down, I don’t balance the negative by making healthy life decisions. Instead, I spiral by comforting myself with takeouts and duvet days.
It may seem a little overwhelming to unpack what your life purpose is, which is why I called on two experts to help. Dr. Julie Gurner, a doctor of psychology and an Executive Performance Coach, as well as Lindsay Bare, Lululemon’s Training Manager, Europe. Lululemon does a lot of vision and goal-setting with its employees (I’ve experienced some of the workshops myself and they’re pretty powerful).
Below, a guide to discovering your life purpose (or at least getting a little closer there).
"There are some people who find that their purpose is clear and well-defined from the start. Although we hear many of these stories, the truth is, many people also have a lot of experiences behind them before discovering what their purpose was," says Dr. Gurner.
When you're starting to unpack what your life purpose could be, Dr. Gurner recommends you focus more on your strengths rather than your weaknesses. "Purpose is often linked with passion, talent, and happiness," she says."The mistake too many people make is focusing on their weaknesses. Certainly, we all want to improve in our struggling areas, but the majority of your energy should not be focused there. Identify what you are passionate about and combine that with your natural talents." If you are already above the curve on something by nature, imagine the trajectory in that same area with a little effort.
Ask Yourself Questions
Below, Dr. Gurner shares some questions that you should ask yourself when trying to identify your life purpose. "You’ll notice they start a conversation around your passions, talents, resolve, and what makes you uniquely happy," she says. "Use these answers as a kicking off point to thinking about what your purpose could be."
What are the things you truly a.) feel drawn to, b.) love to do, and/or are c.) naturally good at?
List each of these out. Feel free to brag a little here (no one else is reading it), and really hone in on each of these areas. Be as specific as you can, and list as many as you can.
What are the things that brought happiness into your life when you were younger, and still do? We’re looking for trends here that have been consistent throughout your life.
Many people find that although the presentation shifts, the same activities remain. For example, children who loved to draw might still find a different form of art or creating a part of what makes them happy.
As an adult, when are you the happiest? What are you doing, what activities are you engaging in, what kind of mental stimulation really excites you?
Try to hone in on not just the activity, but the mental side of it. For example, you might be happy when rock climbing, but what you love about it is not just the physical but the “challenge” or “problem-solving" aspect.
Write down a time that you overcame a difficult time in your life, and talk about how you did that. What inner strengths and resourcefulness did you have or use?
This question should really focus on those mental and emotional resources that are strengths of yours to bring to the table. It might not be your passion directly, but it may tap into what can fuel it.
What does your ideal life look like to you? Give specific details.
How can you reach your ideal if you don’t know what it is? Living with purpose is living a life that aligns with you, uniquely. When you know what your ideal life looks like, you can do a bit of reverse-engineering to figure out how you can get there using the talents, passions, and strengths you have.
While you are answering these questions, be sure to make some changes in your life:
- Remove the things that are toxic in your life. Toxic elements distract us and keep us in a defensive place. They are so prominent that they prevent us from focusing on anything else.
- Try new things all the time. If you’re not sure what your passion is and have opportunities in areas you are unfamiliar in, take them! You never know where they could lead and the things you might discover.
- Tune into your gut. It sounds cliché to say, but listen to that feeling deep inside that tells you when something “just feels right”...or when it doesn’t.
Once you have an idea of what you love, try some goal-setting.
"At Lululemon we practice vision and goal setting as a means of living into our fullest potential," explains Bare. "Goal-setting is a powerful tool towards living a life with purpose and intention, allowing you to draw your map and chart your route, enabling you to stay the course in the thunderstorms of life."
And don’t feel pressure to have it all figured out." Write goals that create reach and require commitment and effort, but ensure they're manageable so you can confidently take action without feeling discouraged or overwhelmed," Bare recommends.
Here are Lindsay Bare's top tips for effective goal-setting:
Visualize your fullest potential. Let go of any limiting beliefs, constraints, or “should” – fear doesn’t serve you here. Go big in creating a vision for your life and see what unfolds.
Make it measurable. For every goal, give yourself a realistic deadline to work towards. If it’s a habit, think about when you want to start, and how you’ll know you’re succeeding. This is a tried-and-true way of keeping yourself on track, as well as prompting you to celebrate achievements throughout the year.
Be accountable to yourself: Make time to review your progress. Try adding a check-in or reminder on your calendar and put your goals somewhere visible, like your desktop or on your fridge.
Be accountable to others: When you share your goals, it’s proven that you increase the likelihood of achieving them. Share them with people who will powerfully support you and hold you accountable—mentors, friends, family or even on social media.
Give these exercises a try and hopefully, they will set you on a path towards finding your life purpose and maximizing your potential. And, if you start to make healthier decisions in your life as a side effect, then even better. And remember: "If at any time you're not excited or invigorated by your vision or goals, then gift yourself the space to re-think what you need to feel fulfilled," adds Bare.
Kang Y, Strecher VJ, Kim E, Falk EB. Purpose in life and conflict-related neural responses during health decision-making. Health Psychol. 2019;38(6):545-552. doi:10.1037/hea0000729