January 17, 2019

How to live with purpose

When we think about living with purpose, it can create a lot of pressure – it’s one of those life questions that, like so many things on social media, can make us feel like we’re falling short if we don’t know the answer.

It can also feel overwhelming – living with purpose, practicing self-care, being passionate about what we do, accepting ourselves for who we are – it’s a lot of effort when there are also bills to pay, children (or parents) to take care of, work deadlines, not to mention being mindful, exercising, eating healthy, and so much more.

With so many things competing for our mental and emotional energies, why should we find our purpose and how can we?

UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, points to research that suggests, among other things, having a sense of purpose in life helps reduce anxiety, improves our sleep, allows us to be more resilient; it even reduces our risk of heart attack and stroke.

"There are health benefits to knowing and living your purpose," said Mirgain. "In studies, people who reported a strong purpose in life, on average, live longer than those with a weak purpose. And, these studies controlled for a broad spectrum of other factors that might have been responsible."

Mirgain is quick to note that a sense of purpose doesn’t mean you have an "a-ha" moment when your life’s calling became clear. That may happen to some people, but the reality is that finding meaning is often ever-changing as we age and transition through different phases in our lives. It can also be challenging because we get caught up in the expectations of others, or the expectations we put on ourselves - to have a certain type of job, to be financially well off, to live in a particular neighborhood or travel the globe. When we spend time looking at how others live, such as the images they post on social media, it’s easy to lose sight of what really matters. That’s why it’s important to start by taking stock and thinking about what’s meaningful personally.

"Think about your 90th birthday and what you want to be celebrated for. What would you want people to say about you?" said Mirgain. "Reflect on the different roles you have and what you would like to achieve within your family, your friendships, your work, and for you personally with your health and well-being."

Some questions that can help include:

  • What really matters?

  • What do you value?

  • What motivates you?

  • Why do you get out of bed in the morning?

  • Why do you care?

  • What is exciting to you?

  • Why do you care?

  • What do offer others and how does this improve their lives?

Once you’ve thought about what Mirgain calls "your why," she suggests writing a purpose statement and posting it somewhere as a reminder. For Mirgain, one of hers is to "work with like-minded people on creative projects committed to healing the world." And then start taking small actions – anything, she said – to get started on bringing a sense of purpose to your day.

"Cleaning your house can be infused with purpose when you reflect on how your actions are creating a comfortable and pleasing environment for your family. Cooking dinner takes on meaning when we think about nourishing our family. Engaging in our work day becomes meaningful when we view it as a way to support our co-workers and make a difference in the lives of others," she said. "When we view every day life through that lens, we become more engaged in what we are doing and the sense of fulfillment continues to grow."