Purpose: The Context
In this article, a definitive look at what philosophers, theologians, psychologists, and scientists throughout history have thought regarding finding meaning and purpose in your life and the impact that it has on your well-being.
How Should We Define Purpose?
In a research paper titled “The Multifaceted Benefits of Purpose in Life”, Gabrielle N. Pfund and Patrick L. Hill dig deeper into this subject. They clarify its definition as “a commitment to a clear set of aims or causes that direct actions while also leading to the sense that life is meaningful.” They outline three key elements of Purpose “a) its scope, or the reach a purpose has throughout all aspects of life, b) strength, or the power with which purpose influences those aforementioned life aspects, and c) awareness, or a person’s ability to explain their purpose.”
Throughout the course of your Bodhi journey, you may not realize it, but you’ve been working toward each of these elements. Through your journaling, you’re digging deeper into how your values not only affect you, but also help define your impact on those around you. During your experience with “Compass,” you spent time each day reflecting on yourself, what guides you, and how to put those feelings into action. By “Writing Your Own Story” you exhibited awareness by putting pen to paper and outlining a path for yourself. It’s all starting to come together now!
The Health Benefits of a Purpose in Life
Establishing your purpose and living by it has been shown to result in more positive health & happiness outcomes over time. In a series of studies, cognitive decline was reduced, the volume of brain matter in certain cases increased, reduced likelihood of stroke, improved sleep, and a lower likelihood to develop frailty. These factors were identified after mitigating for many of the common factors leading to both positive and negative health outcomes.
There was an additional study conducted the relationship between life purpose and mortality, with the results showing decreases in all-cause & certain cause-specific mortality. The results controlled for a number of other factors such as age, health, and lifestyle attributes.
Other Benefits of Finding Your Purpose: Resilience
A 2013 study identified a link between recovery after being exposed to a negative stimuli and the participant’s sense of purpose in life.6 This ability to recover is also similar to the findings that grit tend to be related to having a sense of purpose.1 The ability to push through challenges while recognizing there will be small obstacles along the way toward achieving your ultimate vision is what we’re ultimately trying to help you achieve in studying these mantras. Consistency is crucial, so keep up the good work on your journey!
Modern Philosophy, Psychology, & Science
Modern science and psychology provide insight into how finding meaning and purpose in life can impact our well-being. Positive psychology, for example, emphasizes the importance of cultivating positive emotions, relationships, and personal strengths to promote well-being and flourishing. Neuroscience research has also shown that activities such as meditation and mindfulness can improve mental health and emotional regulation. Modern science and psychology encourage individuals to find their own path to meaning and purpose, and provide evidence-based tools and practices to support well-being.
Modern philosophy offers diverse approaches to finding meaning and purpose in life, from existentialism's emphasis on individual responsibility and freedom to postmodernism's focus on the socially constructed nature of reality. Philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum and Charles Taylor have also explored the role of emotions, imagination, and narrative in shaping our understanding of the good life. Modern philosophy emphasizes the importance of critical reflection, self-awareness, and dialogue in cultivating a meaningful and fulfilling life.
Axial Philosophies Overall
The Axial Philosophies, which emerged in the first millennium BCE, proposed that individuals can find meaning and purpose in their lives through self-awareness, ethical behavior, and a sense of connection to the larger universe. These philosophies emphasized the importance of developing a moral character and cultivating a sense of compassion towards others. By living a life of purpose and virtue, individuals could experience greater fulfillment and well-being. The impact of these philosophies is still felt today, as many modern ethical and spiritual teachings draw on these ancient traditions.
Confucianism & Daoism
Confucianism and Daoism, two of the major Axial Philosophies, offered different paths to finding meaning and purpose. Confucianism emphasized the importance of social harmony and ethical behavior, while Daoism encouraged individuals to live in harmony with nature and cultivate a sense of spontaneity and simplicity. Both philosophies emphasized the importance of self-cultivation and developing a sense of inner peace. These teachings continue to have an impact on East Asian culture and society today.
Hinduism & Buddhism
Hinduism postulates that individuals can find meaning and purpose in their lives by fulfilling their duties, or dharma, and seeking spiritual liberation, or moksha. Hinduism encourages individuals to cultivate virtues such as compassion, humility, and self-control, and to view the world as interconnected and impermanent. By following these teachings, individuals can achieve greater inner peace and well-being, and ultimately, union with the divine. Hinduism continues to have a profound influence on Indian culture and spirituality, as well as on the broader global community.
Buddhism shares some similarities with Hinduism in its teachings on finding meaning and purpose in life. However, Buddhism emphasizes the importance of ending suffering and achieving enlightenment, or Nirvana, through the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Unlike Hinduism, Buddhism does not recognize a supreme deity or a fixed caste system. Buddhism teaches that by cultivating mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom, individuals can achieve greater well-being and inner peace. These teachings continue to influence millions of people worldwide.
Traditional Western Philosophy & Stoics
Traditional Western philosophy and the Stoics believed that individuals could find meaning and purpose in their lives through reason, virtue, and the pursuit of excellence. The Stoics emphasized the importance of living in accordance with nature and accepting what is beyond one's control. By cultivating a sense of inner peace and moral clarity, individuals could achieve greater well-being and resilience. These teachings continue to influence modern philosophy, psychology, and self-help literature.
Christianity, Judaism, Islam
Christianity postulates that individuals can find meaning and purpose in their lives by following the teachings of Jesus Christ and developing a relationship with God. Christianity emphasizes the importance of cultivating virtues such as love, compassion, and forgiveness, and of serving others. Through faith and devotion, individuals can experience greater inner peace and well-being, and the promise of eternal life.
Judaism and Christianity both emphasize finding meaning and purpose in life through a relationship with God and living according to moral principles. Judaism places a greater emphasis on the importance of following Jewish law and tradition to achieve closeness to God, while Christianity stresses the importance of faith in Jesus Christ and the power of prayer. Both religions value community, service, and charity as a means to enhance one's spiritual and emotional well-being.
Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all provide guidance on how to find meaning and purpose in life through a relationship with God and adherence to moral principles. Islam emphasizes submission to the will of Allah and the importance of following the Five Pillars of Islam to achieve closeness to God. Christianity stresses the importance of faith in Jesus Christ and the power of prayer, while Judaism emphasizes following Jewish law and tradition. All three religions value community, service, and charity as a means to enhance spiritual and emotional well-being. These teachings continue to shape the lives of millions of people worldwide.
Life can feel directionless at times. Two big thinkers have wrestled with life's "absurdness" and have answers. Here's Søren Kierkegaard and Albert Camus on why we should accept the absurdity of life.
- Alimujiang A, Wiensch A, Boss J, et al. Association Between Life Purpose and Mortality Among US Adults Older Than 50 Years. JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(5):e194270. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.4270
- Becker, L. C. (1993). A New Stoicism. Princeton University Press.
- Esposito, J. L. (2011). What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam. Oxford University Press.
- Flood, G. (1996). An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge University Press.
- Fotuhi, M. “The Science Behind the Powerful Benefits of Having a Purpose.” Practical Neurology, Sep. 2015. https://practicalneurology.com/articles/2015-sept/the-science-behind-the-powerful-benefits-of-having-a-purpose.
- Fung, Y. L. (1952). A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. The Free Press.
- Harris, J. (2013). Jews, Christians, Muslims: A Comparative Introduction to Monotheistic Religions. Cambridge University Press.
- Harvey, P. (2013). An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge University Press.
- Jaspers, K. (1953). The Axial Age of Philosophy. In The Origin and Goal of History (pp. 1-22). Routledge.
- McGrath, A. E. (2017). Christian Theology: An Introduction. John Wiley & Sons.
- McKnight, P. E., & Kashdan, T. B. (2009). Purpose in Life as a System that Creates and Sustains Health and Well-Being: An Integrative, Testable Theory. Review of General Psychology, 13(3), 242–251. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017152
- Nussbaum, M. C. (1990). Love's knowledge: Essays on philosophy and literature. Oxford University Press.
- Pfund, Gabrielle & Hill, P.. The Multifaceted Benefits of Purpose in Life. 41. 27-37. 2018 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330565076_The_Multifaceted_Benefits_of_Purpose_in_Life
- Ryff, C. D. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 1069-1081. https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0022-35220.127.116.119
- Schaefer SM, Morozink Boylan J, van Reekum CM, Lapate RC, Norris CJ, Ryff CD, et al. (2013) Purpose in Life Predicts Better Emotional Recovery from Negative Stimuli. PLoS ONE 8(11): e80329. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0080329
- Seligman, M. E. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Simon and Schuster.