“What am I here for?” is one of the oldest questions humans have been grappling with. For millennia, religion has provided for many a source of meaning — the comforting idea that someone was in control and that, even if we didn’t have the ability to comprehend it all, the world ultimately made sense.
With the advent of modern science came the realization that there may not be any master plan after all. The complexity of nature seems to have arisen spontaneously, without any kind of ultimate justice in an afterlife. Without the guidance of religion in a world that is blind to suffering, many are left to define their life purpose on their own.
This quest to move beyond mere survival to a life of significance, which should in theory provide us with increased clarity and motivation, can unfortunately become a source of stress — especially when everyone around us seems to have it all figured out. This is purpose anxiety: the fear of not knowing your purpose in life.
A “why” for living
To understand purpose anxiety, we need to understand what purpose is. Patrick McKnight and Todd Kashdan, two psychologists from George Mason University, defined purpose as a “central, self-organizing life aim that organizes and stimulates goals, manages behaviors, and provides a sense of meaning.” They describe purpose as a compass that provides direction to life, with continual targets for one to aspire to.
They explain that purpose is based on a higher order of cognitive processing by the cerebral cortex, which means that it’s not driven by a primal motivation such as food, pleasure, or safety. While these primal motivations provide us with a “how” to survive, purpose is a “why” for living.
While the words “purpose” and “meaning” are often used interchangeably, they’re actually two different constructs. Meaning is oriented towards cognition, our ability to mentally process and connect ideas and make sense of our lives. In contrast, purpose is geared toward action rather than comprehension.
Both meaning and purpose enable us to better live in the present moment, but meaning helps us make sense of our memories so we can understand our past, while purpose helps us to consciously project ourselves in the future.
Having a strong sense of purpose in life has been linked to many psychological benefits, such as higher levels of well-being, life satisfaction, self-acceptance, self-esteem, sense of control, and optimism. Conversely, lack of purpose is associated with depression and self-derogation.
Purpose seems to be a net positive in and of itself. But when the future is uncertain, we may struggle to define what exactly our purpose is. When unfruitful, this search for purpose can lead to existential distress, which the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl called “noögenic neurosis” — also known as purpose anxiety.
The rise of purpose anxiety
Our search for purpose can be associated with psychological distress, such as worry, fear, stress, frustration, and even jealousy. This phenomenon, purpose anxiety, has been defined by Larissa Rainey as “the experience of negative emotions in direct relation to the search for purpose.”
While human beings have been wondering about their purpose in life for a long time, purpose anxiety has become more prevalent in the past century. Several factors may be responsible, such as longer life spans and a greater fulfillment of basic needs.
As we’ve become wealthier and safer, we’ve started seeking motivation through the fulfillment of higher order needs. And as we’re now living longer than ever before, questions about death have been pushed further away in our minds, replaced with questions about life.
In the words of psychologist Corey Keyes: “Science has succeeded in putting death further at bay, leaving in its wake new questions for individuals regarding what to do with the added years of life and how to make that time meaningful.”
Culture has also shifted, making people reconsider their definition of self from an institutional perspective to an individual perspective. Work doesn’t provide purpose in the way it used to. Instead of accepting the purpose offered by society, we feel a powerful need to discover our own purpose for ourselves.
Life is full of opportunities, but because purpose has become a choice instead of a calling, we are no longer provided with a map outlining what it looks like to live “the good life”. Fortunately, while it is true that searching for one’s life purpose involves psychological anguish, it can ultimately be rewarding.
Dealing with purpose anxiety
There is no magic bullet to finding a purpose in life, but we can make the search a lot less excruciating by applying simple strategies to minimize purpose anxiety.
- Avoid social comparison. When searching for a purpose in life, it can be tempting to compare ourselves to others, especially if we’re surrounded with people who seem to have found their calling. However, social comparison may inflate negative emotions and lead to purpose anxiety. Instead, practice self-reflection to understand your intrinsic motivations and explore the inner questions that fuel your curiosity. As Roy Bennet puts it: “Live the life of your dreams according to your vision and purpose instead of the expectations and opinions of others.”
- Embrace the liminal. Our time between life and death is an extended liminal space. It can be scary to not know where we’re going, which may lead us to desperately cling to a ladder of linear goals, where each next step is clearly defined in order to achieve success. But this liminal space can also be seen as a playground, full of opportunities for growth and discovery. Enjoy the journey by exploring different paths and learning about yourself along the way.
- Practice deliberate experimentation. As we have seen, purpose is action-oriented. Even if you don’t know yet what your purpose in life is, you can take steps towards investigating potential sources of purpose. Just like a scientist, design short experiments where you try working on a new project, meeting new people, or learning a new skill. Use metacognitive strategies to document the process and how it makes you feel so you can keep on adapting your experiments until you find a direction that feels stimulating and fulfilling.
In the beautiful words of psychiatrist David Viscott: “The purpose of life is to discover your gift. The work of life is to develop it. The meaning of life is to give your gift away.” Finding your purpose is a lifelong journey. It can cause anxiety. But, if we let ourselves enjoy the search, it can also help us live life to the fullest.