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What does it mean to have a sense of purpose?

What does it mean to have a sense of purpose?

3 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset
  • The science of learning

Do you have a sense of purpose in life? What do you feel this purpose is? These can be difficult questions to answer. Some people know from a young age what job they want to do when they’re older. Others take a long time to figure this out.

But sense of purpose isn’t only about your career; it’s also about what you believe in, what you value in life, and what motivates you. So, what exactly is “sense of purpose”? And why does it matter?

What is a sense of purpose?

Having a sense of purpose gives us clear reasons for what we want to do. This can be a goal in life that makes us want to study, work, or train well. There’s a close link with intrinsic motivation. People with a sense of purpose work hard because of a true interest in their goal, rather than because they have to.

But it is about more than just motivation. Research suggests that there are three components of a ‘sense of purpose’:

  • Firstly, rather than the goals of daily tasks, such as making dinner or getting to school or work on time, goals related to sense of purpose are “more stable and far-reaching.” For example, keeping healthy, or having a successful career.
  • Secondly, sense of purpose also has an external aim that reaches beyond the self. This could be a drive to help others, to look after family and friends, or a longing to improve your community and work against injustice.
  • Finally, purpose is driven by achievement. Getting the most out of everything you do, developing your abilities, and striving towards long term goals and a satisfying future.
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Why is having a sense of purpose important?

Sense of purpose might at first sound like a vague aspiration without much true meaning. However, research shows we can explicitly measure sense of purpose, and that it has many real-life benefits.

Research from education shows us that people who can identify the purpose of their work for later life achievement (people with intrinsic motivation) are likely to take the initiative in their own studying and personal development and be independent learners. Students with a strong sense of purpose have higher engagement in academic activities, more efficient study habits, and higher success and satisfaction with their studies. 

From a wider perspective, there’s evidence that having sense of purpose maintains health and well-being across your lifetime. For example, this study showed that people with high sense of purpose are more likely to engage in physical activity, have healthy eating habits, and sleep well.

Sense of purpose also helps you through the low points. When things go wrong, sense of purpose helps you to put this in perspective, preserving self-esteem and giving you the resilience to push forward. It helps maintain optimism about the future, and that underlying belief that you can do it. In other words, having a sense of purpose builds your growth mindset.

Final thoughts

Sense of purpose is what helps you to prioritise in life, make plans, and be resilient to setbacks. It helps you to achieve both short-term and long-term goals. It’s a complex concept which can take years to develop and may change over time.

Although it has many benefits, searching for a sense of purpose can be challenging and confusing. So, if you’re struggling to understand your purpose, be patient with the process. What’s most important is to identify what makes you happy, what you’re most willing to put effort into, and what matters to you. If you can start to answer these questions, you’re already halfway there!

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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