Suppose someone asked you: “Why are you here? What is the purpose of your existence?” Would you be able to answer that in a meaningful way? Aligned to that question is: “What do you value? What has meaning for you?” In my psychotherapy work, the question of MPV – meaning, purpose, values – often comes up. Some people claim to be “drifting”: just being carried along in life without any clear sense of why they are here, or what values are most meaningful for them. Are they happy? Of course not. Do they need to stay stuck at that place of ill-defined purpose? Absolutely not.

The importance of purpose

Many writers have tackled the age-old question of purpose, as in higher purpose. We can define it as that motivation for living which gives life meaning. You may have heard the saying that, on our death bed, most of us will not wish we had spent more time at the office. This is not to say that work itself is not meaningful (my work is supremely meaningful to me!); but that we would not value more time spent working, because the extra time may not be meaningful in the context of our overall purpose and values.

You’ve probably guessed that MPV goes together: that is, it is difficult to connect with our purpose without knowing what is meaningful to us. It is difficult to find what has meaning if we have not identified the values we cherish.

The consequences of clarifying MPV

We realise several major advantages when we get this stuff sorted out. First, it is much easier to be happy; we know where we fit into the scheme of things, for example we can say: “My life is about this; it isn’t about that.” It makes goal-setting possible, because how do you set objectives for yourself when you aren’t clear on what you are “meant” to be doing and where you are going? And it makes decision-making much less tricky, for example: “I value health over momentary sense-pleasure, so I (usually) choose a breakfast of fruit and egg over chocolate croissant.” “I value relationship over blind productivity, so I am available to support friends and family members even if it isn’t always convenient.”

Why don’t people identify their MPV?

Roberto Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis psychology, posed the question of why some people seem to be going blindly along the road of life. He observed that, at least in some cases, people are afraid to identify their higher motivations for valuing something because they fear that they also have “lower” motivations for that same thing. He gives the example of someone being afraid to connect with their value of creativity – something that might be highly meaningful for the person – because of fear of not being able to live up to the ideal of using it for “pure” purposes, but rather the “lower” motivation of making money. Assagioli is reassuring, noting that – for most people – many types of motivations co-exist (we are all human!) and that, in fact, they are not always in conflict with one another. He gives the example of Dostoevski, who wanted to finance his gambling habit and thus produced more literary works than he otherwise would have.

Other people may simply not know how to engage the process of finding purpose.

A short purpose-finding process

So, how do we identify our higher purpose? The short answer is: your purpose is always something you love. I like Steve Pavlina’s blog on how to find your purpose in 20 minutes.

He suggests a three-step process:

  1. Get pen and paper or a blank document on your computer.
  2. Write at the top, “What is my true purpose in life?”
  3. Write an answer (any answer) that pops into your head. Either sentences or short phrases are fine.

Repeat step 3 until you write the answer that makes you cry (it could take 100 or even 500 answers). This is your purpose.

Pavlina’s process might seem weird, or even silly, but I think he’s on to something, because when we are disconnected from our purpose, it is like wandering in the desert. That “aha!” moment of recognition – discovering the answer that makes us cry – is poignant. Our purpose is beautifully bewitching: that raison d’etre too precious to be spoken, or sometimes, even imagined. It is that most joyful of moments when we see the oasis shimmering on the horizon, and realise that we need not travel anymore.

You can work it backwards or forwards

I said that meaning, purpose, and values are connected. While Pavlina suggests starting from purpose, Assagioli notes that we can go in the other direction: that is, starting with what has meaning and what we value. With our main values identified, it may be easier for some to say, “Because I value these things, my purpose is ____.” You can find Pavlina’s list of 418 values here. Note that the surge of emotion, that profound joy at discovery, may be a clue regardless of the method you use.

Let me close with a sample life purpose statement: Pavlina’s. His purpose is:

“To care deeply, connect playfully, love intensely, and share generously: to joyfully explore, learn, grow, and prosper; and to creatively, brilliantly and honorably serve the highest good of all.”

Now, that’s a purpose! Enjoy crafting yours.

Written by Dr Meg Carbonatto B.S., M.A., and Ph.D.

This article was originally published in Asteron Life’s Balance BlogAIPC regularly contributes to Balance’s wellbeing blog category.