Usually, when people ask “what should I do with my life?,” they are talking about their careers. I hear this a lot as a professor. College students are obsessed with finding just the right career. This makes sense. Someone working full time can expect to spend 50,000-100,000 hours of work during their life. That’s a long time to be doing something that doesn’t feel purposeful or meaningful.
Nonetheless, the importance of a career should not blind us to other sources of purpose.
Purpose can be found in other domains of life as well. In fact, sometimes it is best found in these other domains.
Purpose is found in interpersonal relationships. We humans are deeply social creatures. We need relationships to live and thrive.
Research links social relationships to greater meaning and purpose. How much time we spend with loved ones significantly correlates with feelings of meaning. One study found that a majority of participants, 81%, identified family as intrinsically valuable and meaningful.
We can find purpose when we put relationships front and center in our lives. One day a student told a story that illustrates this. Her mother was a medical professional. Rather than maximizing income or prestige, she took a job as the nurse at her children’s school. This gave her the same schedule as her children. She could be with them more often than if she was working shifts at the local hospital. She prioritized parenting and this gave her deep meaning.
Purpose is also found in spirituality. Research connects religion and meaning in life. This is especially true when we view God as loving. A sense of spirituality, whether based in religion or not, creates meaning . It serves as a unifying theory by which to live by. It’s an integrating force in our lives.
In college I was involved in a Christian student group—Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. Our staff members had recently graduated from Stanford. He had studied Russian. She had studied engineering. They could have had high paying jobs. Instead, they were on our campus living on a paltry income. From there, they founded a nonprofit ministry and have spent the last three decades serving the poorest worldwide. Spiritual activities, rather than climbing the traditional career ladder, have brought great purpose and meaning in their lives.
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