Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Cultivating Happiness Through Purpose

5 reflections to strengthen our sense of purpose in life.

Key points

  • Having a strong sense of purpose is linked to higher levels of well-being, happiness, and resilience.
  • Our sense of purpose naturally changes over time, but can be strengthened.
  • Reflective practices that cultivate an evolving sense of purpose include considering your life roles and what you are most curious about.

If you’ve found yourself doing some soul-searching about what matters most in life and reflecting on what makes you feel most fulfilled, you are not alone.

A recent McKinsey & Company survey (2021) of more than 1,000 people found that a majority of people are rethinking their priorities, including the role of work in their lives and how they want to contribute to society. Many people look to work as a primary way to fulfill their sense of purpose because a job can provide opportunities to make progress toward and achieve meaningful goals. Others may focus on family roles, their contributions to their community, or living out their beliefs and values in daily life.

Though some people are defined by a specific calling that is sustained over the course of their lives, it’s more common to find purpose in many different areas, with the prioritization toward one or another shifting and changing over time. Research indicates that purpose changes over the course of our lives, and strengthening our sense of purpose is a skill that can be learned.

Purpose Is a Journey, Not a Destination

Reflections about our purpose in life can begin in adolescence when we begin to explore our individual identities, values, and interests. (Damon 2009) Significant times of adversity during formative developmental years can guide us toward a specific cause or area of service in our communities.

Most people develop a stronger sense of purpose in their early adult years as they launch careers or build a family. Our sense of purpose tends to be strongest in adulthood but can diminish during major times of transition, especially in middle age. A 2021 study found that purpose diminished in midlife for some study participants, but that those who maintained a strong sense of purpose through midlife emerged with better health.

Purpose is not a destination we arrive at once but rather a practice. It is an ongoing endeavor to make sense of the world and to articulate our contribution to it as our life unfolds.

The Importance of Purpose

While our sense of purpose may wax and wane over the course of our lives, it can be cultivated and doing so is a worthwhile practice. (Damon 2009) Research links purpose with happiness, mental health, and resilience. Those of us with a higher sense of purpose take better care of ourselves, function better, experience fewer chronic conditions, have better mental health, and live longer. (Strecher, 2016) We are also more likely to find our work lives more meaningful when we bring our sense of purpose into our daily tasks.

How to Cultivate Purpose

Developing purpose is a personal journey and must come from within. It emerges from contemplation about our higher-order goals and answers questions like: Why am I here? What matters most? and How do I make the world a better place? Our sense of purpose can be bigger than our goals, accomplishments, or what we do for our job. It can focus on how we wish to show up in the world and how we make a difference in big and small ways.

The following five reflections can help you cultivate and renew your sense of purpose:

  1. Reflect on what you value and how you want to show up in the world. This can begin with reading, journaling, or reflection. But it can also be achieved through volunteerism or service to others and then paying attention to what feels most meaningful.
  2. Consider your life roles. Identify those that are most important to you and why. Written reflection or a verbal discussion with a trusted peer or coach can help identify the relationships and responsibilities that matter most. Work through how you might prioritize your roles and responsibilities by articulating why they are important to you and how they might be related.
  3. Reflect on what gives you a sense of deep satisfaction or joy. Are there certain things you seem especially good at and enjoy doing? If so, are there ways to direct those skills, gifts, and resources to support the well-being of others in the world? Consider asking friends, family members, or professional peers what strengths they observe in you.
  4. Consider what you are most curious about. Learning can spark new ideas and inspire personal growth and development. If your interest in a hobby or activity that once fascinated you has waned, it’s an invitation to try something new. This may occur once we’ve reached a milestone representing mastery or excellence.
  5. Review life milestones or challenges and consider what you’ve learned. Working through challenges or achieving successes gives us insight that others might find helpful. How might you help others avoid mistakes, learn a new skill, or succeed in life?

As you work through these reflections, identify words, images, or pictures that remind you what matters most in life. Place a photo where you will see it often; begin each day with a journal reflection about opportunities to live out your purpose; and identify friends or peers who can hold you accountable to the priorities you’ve identified for yourself.


Having a strong sense of purpose is an important contributor to our well-being and happiness, but it can diminish over time. Reflective practices help us tune in to what matters most to us and can renew our sense of purpose during times of transition and change. Reflecting on purpose increases our resilience and helps us deal more effectively with life’s challenges.


Damon, William. (2009). The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life. New York: Free Press.

Strecher, Vic. (2016). Life on Purpose: How Living for What Matters Most Changes Everything. New York: HarperCollins.

More from Psychology Today

More from Jessica Grossmeier Ph.D., MPH

More from Psychology Today