A Practical Guide to Finding Your Purpose in Life

30 May ‘22
4 min
Finding purpose
Lisanne van Marrewijk
Reviewed by psychologist Eva Rüger
“All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.” This is both a quote from Walt Disney and a belief that many of us were raised with. You can be anything you want to be. But the question is: How are you supposed to actually know what you want? How do you dream big if you don’t even know what to dream about?


It’s the question that all of us ask at some point: What do I want from life? OpenUp psychologist Eva Rüger is going to talk us through this question. Why are we so busy looking for answers? How can you find them? And what happens if you never get a completely clear idea?


The possibilities are endless


In the past, the world mainly consisted of collectivist cultures. You were part of a community and lived your life according to the social rules that existed. These days, life is much more individualistic


We’re autonomous, independent, and we choose our own unique paths. As a result: Never before in human history have we had as many options for how to live our lives as we do right now. 


On the one hand, this freedom of choice is obviously a wonderful thing. “But it also creates a certain amount of pressure,” explains Eva. “You get this sense that you’ve got to get the most out of your situation.” 


On top of this, the lives of others have never been so visible (hey there, Instagram and LinkedIn). “And that also creates pressure. You keep seeing how others have seemingly found their purpose while you’re still feeling lost at sea.”


Why do we look for purpose in life?


“Knowing what you want in life is actually a basic human need. It gives you direction, clarity, and it helps you to make decisions,” explains Eva. 


“For example, her whole life my niece consciously made choices that would help her get accepted to study Medicine. She’s now in her third year!” That’s something that many people aspire to.


5 steps for finding direction



Before you start looking for a direction in life, there are a few practical things you can do to get an idea of what your calling is.


1. Make a vision board


This might sound cutesy, and it kind of is. But it’s also very valuable! Surf the internet or flick through a physical magazine and cut out and stick down the things that speak to you. You could do this on a big sheet of paper or make it a digital project


Don’t make too many rules for yourself, just see where your thoughts take you. After a while, you’ll start to notice a story emerging. There’ll be patterns you can recognize. This gives you insight into what you actually want in life.


2. Scroll through your social media


Open up your social media. Which stories and images do you react to? What do you share about yourself on a regular basis? What appeals to you about other people? This will also give you insight into your inherent interests.


In addition, you might want to consider which of your connections you admire, or even who you’re secretly jealous of. What draws you to them so much? 



Do you want to get a better idea of what’s important to you in life? Here’s how to live your values (and learn more about yourself in the process)



Eva: “A friend of mine followed a number of ‘van life’ accounts on Instagram. Each time she looked at them, she’d get butterflies in her stomach. She’s now the proud owner of her own motorhome. Awesome, right?”


Sidenote: Obviously, you need to be aware of the fact that things on social media always look a bit nicer than they actually are.


3. Talk to people!


There’s no better way to learn what it’s like to live a certain kind of life than by talking to the people who live that way. So, get chatting! Send a message to the people you admire the most and ask them if they’d like to get a cup of coffee with you. Who knows what could happen?


4. Help other people


Research shows that people who spend a lot of time helping others have a stronger sense of ‘purpose’. It’s a win-win situation! By helping other people, you’re helping yourself.


5. Be grateful


Practicing gratitude also gives you a sense of direction in life. Gratitude activates the reward system in our brains. 


A good way to do this is to keep a journal. Each evening write down what you enjoyed about the day. What gave you a sense of satisfaction? What are you looking forward to right now? On the one hand, this helps you to be grateful, on the other hand, it helps you to figure out what you want.


How can you make the process of finding purpose as smooth as possible?


“I’ve had some ups and downs, but eventually I figured out what I want in life: To be a psychologist at OpenUp, obviously,” laughs Eva. The following (more process-oriented) tips are based on Eva’s own search for direction in her life and on the science around this topic.


1. Adopt a growth mindset


Having a ‘growth mindset’ is associated with experiencing a sense of purpose in life. “People with a growth mindset are constantly looking for opportunities to develop as people. This not only helps you to figure out what your goals are in life. It also helps you to achieve it.” 



For further reading: 6 Ways to Step out of Your Comfort Zone and into Your Growth Zone



2.  Think small


Looking too far ahead can be difficult. If you have nightmares every time someone asks ‘Where do you see yourself in ten years?’, break this question down into smaller chunks. These are easier to answer. “Consider what you want in terms of your love life, your career, your social life, and your home. And just focus on the upcoming year, instead of thinking long term.” 


“How we spend our days, is how we spend our lives” – Annie Dillard


3. Enjoy the process!


“Although my own process involved a lot of twists and turns, I learned to enjoy it by seeing it as one big adventure,” explains Eva. “It was an adventure of discovery, of reflecting on my choices, and of celebrating when I figured out what I didn’t want. Also, very important.” 


So, be curious. Get out into the world. Ask your friends if you can visit them at work. Observe. Ask questions. Make notes. Drink coffee (or beer) with people who do interesting things. Ask strangers and acquaintances what makes them tick. You’ll get there in the end.


4. Stay calm, even if it isn’t working out


“It’s good to be conscious of the fact that searching for purpose in your life isn’t a linear thing. There are going to be ups and downs. It’s okay if you’re struggling to find purpose in your life,” says Eva. “That’s human. Even people you think are living their best lives will be doubting parts of their lives.”


So, be kind to yourself, even if you’re struggling. Eva: “Life is full of uncertainties. The only thing you can do is trust that you’re making the best choice with the information you have available to you today. You can’t know what consequences your choices will have in the future.”


5. Let it go


You can also choose to accept that you don’t necessarily have to find your purpose in life. We’ve been raised with the idea that you need to pick a career. When you were a kid, how often did you hear the question: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ 


Now you don’t necessarily have to choose; you can do it all! How? Emilie Wapnick explains this in the book ‘How to Be Everything‘. A must-read for those of you who can’t or don’t want to choose.  



Are you feeling stuck in your search for direction in your life? 🧭 Eva or one of the other psychologists is here to help you. Don’t hesitate to get in touch. Your first consultation is free.