Expressing and symbolizing human experience through meaningful concepts has long been an aim of religion, philosophy, and psychology. And few concepts do so more powerfully and effectively than that of purpose. The concept of purpose points not only to our experience of purposefulness, but also to our sense of vocation and identity (e.g., “My purpose in life is…”). It elegantly marries one of our most poignant inner experiences—that of personal meaning and mission—with our concept of self.
Every purpose has three core elements—importance, energy, and ideas. In this post, we will explore each of these elements, shedding light on what is means to “have a purpose,” as well as how we might go about clarifying our own purpose.
1. Purpose & Importance
The first core ingredient of a life purpose is importance. We naturally embrace things that feel important or meaningful to us, while feeling indifferent or apathetic toward those that don’t. This is why it is difficult to perform tasks that we experience as trivial or meaningless. We deplore the thought of wasting time on things that don’t matter. Instead, we strive to invest our time and energy doing something important—something that makes a difference.
Most of us have a decent barometer for what feels (and doesn’t feel) important to us. In many cases, such determinations are made outside our conscious awareness. In other words, we may experience something as important without having clear or complete understanding of the criteria being used to make that determination; it feels important, but we can’t say exactly why. On other occasions, our reasons are more conscious and a rational explanation is available. Those with the an understanding of personality psychology may find explanations a bit easier to come by, since what we experience as important is often rooted in the needs and desires of our personality type (e.g., INTP, INFJ). Either way, importance remains an indispensable feature of the purposeful life.
2. Purpose & Energy
When we experience something as important, we feel energized and primed for purposeful action. Importance thus goes hand-in-hand with another core ingredient of purpose—energy.
Most of us have a good sense of our energy levels, including how our energy is affected by certain ideas, experiences, and individuals. We naturally welcome and pursue the things that augment our energy, while avoiding those that seem to diminish it. Anticipated energy gains and losses play a prominent role in our daily decisions, as well as our understanding of our life’s purpose.
For example, I use energy as a primary guide and reference in my work as a writer. When I sense that a topic offers me little in the way of energy or inspiration, I will either avoid it altogether or return to it at a time when it feels more energizing. I’ve found that focusing on energy-giving topics makes me a more effective and efficient writer. In my experience, writing without inspiration is like trying to driving a car without any fuel. The same could be said for life in general. If we don’t have an energy-giving purpose, life will feel less meaningful and more like an uphill battle.
3. Purpose & Ideas
Ideas are instrumental to purpose because they allow us to envision a better life. By juxtaposing dreams and ideals with our current reality, we create gradients that are dense with potential energy. Hence, focusing on an imagined goal or ideal can be inspiring and energizing. Don’t like your life as it is? Start by imagining something better.
Carl Jung was no stranger to the power and importance of ideas. In discussing the “primordial image,” by which he meant something very similar to an idea, he wrote:
“[It] gives a coordinating and coherent meaning both to sensuous and inner perceptions…and in this way frees psychic energy from its bondage to sheer uncomprehended perception. At the same time, it links the energies released by the perception of stimuli to a definite meaning, which then guides action along paths corresponding to this meaning.” (Psychological Types, Para. 749)
Here, Jung makes two noteworthy observations. The first is the close relationship between ideas and energy. He suggests that ideas help free up psychic energy, which accords with my view that ideas can augment our energy levels. Second, Jung points out that ideas can funnel that energy in a specific direction. In other words, ideas can serve as goals and guideposts for purposeful action.
A life purpose has three key ingredients—importance, energy, and ideas—all of which are interrelated and mutually reinforcing. To discover our own life purpose, we must pay careful attention to each of these elements. We must recognize the types of things we experience as important and energizing, which can provide insight into the nature of our purpose. Clarifying our ideas and conceptions of our purpose is also imperative. This includes developing an understanding of our personality, interests, and abilities, as well as who it is that we’d like to become. These conceptions energize and pull us forward, imbuing our lives with a deeper sense of meaning and purposefulness.
A.J. Drenth is a four-time author, as well as founder of the popular personality website, PersonalityJunkie™, which is dedicated to enhancing self-knowledge and personal development through personality typology.