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Four Ways to Cultivate Purpose

Photo courtesy iStock

A sense of purpose can be a critical roadmap in your journey of life. It can help you determine when you’re heading in the right direction and when you may be way off course. Science suggests that having a sense of purpose is vitally important to well-being - both for our physical health and our state of mind. There’s growing research that shows a clear sense of purpose is one of the cornerstones of human flourishing.

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“Purpose has emerged as one of the single most important predictors of well-being. People with a strong sense of purpose tend to be more satisfied with their lives in general,” says Richard Davidson, Founder and Director of the Center for Healthy Minds. “They also tend to have better physical health, more quality relationships and even improved brain function. They also actually live longer.”

For instance, one study1 shows that people in their 60s with low purpose in life were more than twice as likely to die within five years as those with a higher sense of purpose, revealing that having a strong sense of purpose is among the most robust psychological predictors of mortality. 

Life satisfaction plays a part, too. Another study2 looked at nearly 100,000 people across 94 countries and examined the link between a person’s overall life satisfaction and how satisfied they were with their income. People with a stronger sense of purpose were less likely to judge their lives based on how much money they made, and were also more satisfied with how much money they already had.

How to cultivate purpose

So how do we move purpose in life from something that’s aspirational to a personal and lived reality? The answer is in your values and how they show up every day when you’re acting in line with your purpose. Clarifying values can bring depth to your relationships, meaning to your work and pursuits, and can give you the inner resources to learn and grow from life’s challenging moments. Seeing your values and applying them to your daily life is a skill that takes practice. It’s a skill you can learn. Below are four ways you can get clear on your values, and ultimately help you cultivate a greater sense of purpose.

  1. Identify your values. The first step in cultivating purpose is understanding what is deeply important to you. These are your values and motivations. Give some thought to your values and write them down. Notice how they show up in your day-to-day life. When you uncover what values are most important to you and keep them front and center in your mind, it can transfer even the most mundane tasks into a more meaningful experience. 
  2. Pause. Once you clarify your core values, the next step is to find ways to apply them in a range of situations. How do you do this? Take a moment to pause. Make a habit of pausing for short moments throughout the day. A great opportunity for this time of reflection is when you’re transitioning to other activities. Take a mindful breath and bring yourself back into the moment. Then think about the next activity you will be doing and how it connects with your deeper values. Noticing how you apply your values to everyday tasks helps strengthen them in the mind and deepen your sense of purpose. 
  3. Reflect and reframe. When you find yourself in a challenging situation, reframing your experience within the lens of your purpose can help shift your perspective. Even small annoyances and daily frustrations can help us sharpen this skill, and that prepares us to weather the big storms of life.



    “When something bad happens, we often feel powerless. We tend to ruminate about all the things we don’t control, and this just makes it all worse. But in a stressful or challenging situation, bringing our values to mind can put us back in the driver’s seat, shifting our focus to the things we can control. Instead of powerless, we feel empowered, and as a result, we are less defensive and better able to manage our feelings and reactions,” says Davidson. The one thing that is always within your control is your perspective, and with the right perspective, even the most challenging situations in life can become deeply meaningful.

  4. Act with your purpose in mind. Lead by example. Sometimes the problems happening every day in the world seem insurmountable. When you find yourself caught up in diagnosing the world’s problems, consider what you can do to lead by example. Is there a small step you can take that would help in this moment? Or, is there a simple shift in perspective that can help you see things in a new light? Use your values as a guiding principle in the things you do, leading by example. This can help reinforce your connection to your values and your higher purpose.

"The one thing that is always within your control is your perspective, and with the right perspective, even the most challenging situations in life can become deeply meaningful."

-Richard Davidson

Cultivating purpose as a lifelong skill that can improve your own well-being, but can also have a ripple effect on the world around you. Over time, sustaining a sense of purpose for the little things will build up to big things in your life. Maybe there’s some major turning point around the corner, or some important decision you need to make soon, and all this training to see things from a larger perspective will have a dramatic impact on how you approach it. 

Interested in cultivating your own sense of purpose? Healthy Minds Innovations offers the Healthy Minds Program App, which supports individuals on a path to well-being through the practice of awareness, connection, insight and purpose. The app is available for free to individuals. Learn more.

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