For some people, a purpose in life is something that drives them forward every single day. They wake up with determination and spend every moment of their lives towards their purpose. Think of Elon Musk, for example, whose purpose in life is to accelerate space exploration.
What if he woke up one day feeling like space exploration is the furthest thing from a purpose that he can think of? Can a purpose in life even change, at all? And are there some extreme examples of this happening? And perhaps more importantly, can a changing purpose in life actually be a good thing?
This article will answer all your questions with studies, examples and personal experiences.
Did you know that you are happier when you have a purpose and a passion in life? This article is a part of the biggest (free) guide on how to be happy and is covered in the section Purpose In Life. This section teaches you how to be happier by finding your “Why” in life.
Can your purpose in life change?
So, can your purpose in life even change?
The short and simple answer is yes. A life purpose can (and probably will) change many times over your life. For some people, this means that whatever got you motivated and inspired yesterday might not provide you with the same itch tomorrow.
There’s a lot more to this answer than you may think, which will be discussed later in this article. For now, let’s discuss some examples of a changing life purpose that will help you realize just how much a life purpose can change.
Examples of changing life purposes
In my article about different examples of life purposes, I asked multiple people that I’ve met online about their life purpose. Here’s one of the more interesting answers I received:
I got cancer at age 30 and am currently grappling with this question. My focus has completely shifted and I feel like the whole point of my life now is just 2 simple things:
- Making positive connections with others and enjoying those around you. It is a lot easier to sit on the couch and watch a feel-good show then it is to go have dinner with your in-laws when you are tired – but what is the point in sitting there watching TV? We all waste way too much time doing crap like that. Better to build meaningful connections while you can. There are millions of super isolated people in the world as well who would kill to have someone to have dinner with.
- Squeezing every bit of enjoyment out of life. I need to walk home – I can either take the subway for 5 minutes underground or I can walk 30 minutes through a park and tree-lined streets and truly enjoy it.. maybe get an ice cream on the way. I’d pick the fast way every time before, now I’m constantly looking for the most enjoyable route instead.
This is an interesting example, as it shows how a major life event can change your purpose in life. Something as life-changing as a terrible illness is certainly able to shift your view on your place in the world.
A personal example
Here’s how my life’s purpose transformed over the years of my life:
- Age 4: Putting as much sand in my mouth as possible as a toddler.
- Age 10: Landing a kickflip on my skateboard.
- Age 17: Learn how to talk woman.
- Age 19: Become rich and successful.
Now, these life purposes are pretty silly and not completely serious. My point is that my life as a kid was focused on just having as much fun as possible, without feeling the responsibility I do now as an adult.
What’s my life purpose now that I’m an adult?
It comes down to two things:
- To live a long and happy life.
- To be worth everything that has been given to me, and to have as much of a positive influence on the world as possible.
Now, there’s quite a lot of room for interpretation in these statements, but that’s the topic for another article.
I can’t promise that my life purpose will remain the same for the rest of my life. Maybe, I’ll someday experience something that’ll make me want to drastically change the course of my life. Maybe in 5 years, I want to spend my life fighting global warming or helping the elderly.
Remember, change is the only constant in life.
Different stages in life result in different life purposes
There are a couple of different stages in most lives that are fundamentally different from one another:
- 1st career
- 2nd career
- 3rd career
- Xth career
I’ve placed multiple careers on this list since most people don’t stick with the same employer for 40 years. In fact, a lot of people plan at least one change of careers in their lifetime.
If you’re already in your 2nd or 3rd career, you probably have some experience with a changing purpose in life. Some changes are definitely more drastic than others. If you’re one of the few that enjoys a single career path for your entire life, you might have woken up each day with exactly the same purpose in life.
For most people, though, it’s a different story. Over time, our life slowly changes, we meet new people, we experience ups and downs, the world changes around us, and then suddenly…
You wake up one day contemplating whether or not yesterday’s purpose is still today’s purpose in life. Again, this happens to most people since our life traverses many different stages.
Example of finding your purpose in life at an older age
An interesting example of a changing life purpose at a later stage in life is Bob Ross. I’m a huge fan of this painter, not just for his amazing painting skills but also because he is an amazing optimist.
Anyway, what makes Bob Ross an interesting example of finding a purpose in life is that he only started his show The Joy Of Painting after serving 20 years in the US Air Force. He even said the following about his 20-year long career:
[I was] the guy who makes you scrub the latrine, the guy who makes you make your bed, the guy who screams at you for being late to work.
When he quit his military career, he vowed to never yell or raise his voice again.
What this example shows is that it can take you a long time before you find your purpose in life. Or maybe, spreading the joy of painting was Bob Ross’ life purpose all along, and he just didn’t find the time to pursue his purpose?
Studies on having a purpose in life
The most prominent and well-referenced study that I stumbled upon is very interesting. This study was conducted by Randy Cohen, Chirag Bavishi, and Alan Rozanski and was published at the end of 2015. As part of the study, over 136,000 people were evaluated and followed for about 7 years. The average age at the start of the study was 67 years old, and as the people in this subject passed away or faced health issues, the researchers found out an interesting piece of data.
The analysis showed a lower risk of death for participants with a high sense of purpose in life. After adjusting for other factors, mortality was about one-fifth lower for participants reporting a strong sense of purpose.
Now, you’re probably wondering how they defined purpose? How did the researchers decide which person had a person and which person didn’t?
It took a little bit of more digging to find this information, which is covered in more detail in the fully published report. This is where it gets a little technical, so I’ll just copy and paste the methodology here:
Purpose in life was assessed in 2006 using the 7-item Purpose in Life subscale of the Ryff Psychological Well-being Scales, previously validated in a nationally representative sample of adults. On a 6-point Likert scale, respondents rated the degree to which they agreed with each item. The mean of all items was taken to create a scale. Scores ranged from 1 to 6, where higher scores reflected higher purpose.
The participants were asked to rate their own sense of purpose on a scale from 1 to 6. Sure, this method has some shortcomings, but I can’t think of a better way to measure something as abstract as “a sense of purpose”. That’s why I also use such an easy scale to measure my own happiness every single day.
This study clearly shows that you are more likely to grow old (healthily) when you live a purposeful life.
This should be reason enough for you to understand the importance of having a purpose in life.
Why a changing life purpose can be a good thing
If you currently feel lost and have no idea what you want to spend the rest of your life on, then you can rest assured knowing that your purpose in life will eventually change anyway.
This is especially important for young adults, who have no idea what career to choose. Or maybe you just started your promising career and wake up every morning in panic because you dread working and worry whether or not you wasted all your years in college?
At some point in my life, I also worried about picking the wrong education and career, and in the end, your first career will rarely turn out to be your life’s career. So take a deep breath, relax and know that your life purpose can and probably will change at some point.
Founder of Tracking Happiness and lives in the Netherlands. Ran 5 marathons, with one of them in under 4 hours (3:59:58 to be exact). Data junkie and happiness tracker for over 7 years.