A Sense of Purpose


A sense of purpose is key to living a meaningful life. It is the heart of passion and it can bring us to deeper levels of long-term happiness, providing resilience amidst great hardships. A sense of purpose is something we often talk about wanting, seeking, or having, but it is somewhat illusive in our world of ongoing life-projects, characterized by multiple careers and highly fluid sociality. This philosophical investigation will provide a detailed blueprint of the concept of “purpose” and will hopefully help the reader along their DIY life-project.

The concept of “purpose” comes from the  Anglo-French “purpos,” referring to an intention, aim, or goal. Broadly speaking, it can refer to purposely getting drunk on the weekend, purposely caring for your loved ones, or even purposely putting the toilet seat down; therefore, purpose is goal-oriented action. In order to talk about the specific type of purpose I alluded to in the intro – a sense of purpose in one’s life – we will need to refine the concept. But before we can refine the concept, we need to figure out the role of purpose in one’s life. This means defining the purpose of life-purpose. In other words, the purpose of life-purpose can be called the end-goal of life-end-goals, the end of all other ends, or the ultimate end. In regular English, this simply translates to the question: why do we do what we do?

Luckily, Aristotle is a handy tool that can be used to fix this particular type of philosophical entanglement. Aristotle states that happiness is the ultimate end, meaning that all other goals are in some way directed toward the goal of happiness. Therefore, the purpose of life-purpose is happiness. But before moving further, we need to look at what Aristotle means by happiness. Distinct from hedonistic fleeting pleasures, Aristotle conceptualizes happiness as “eudemonia,” which translates to “good spirit,” or in other words, “living well.” For Aristotle, living well/ living a good life means living virtuously in accordance with one’s reason, based on his ethics of moderation laid out in the Nicomachean Ethics.

To summarize the conceptual progress thus far, we can say that the purpose of life-purpose is to direct one toward living a good life. Therefore, a “sense of purpose in life” is distinct from the sense of purpose one feels during everyday goal-oriented tasks like grocery shopping because it acts as an overarching meta-purpose. What this means is that it is a purpose that  shapes all other purposes in alignment with an idea of the good. For example, if one’s life-purpose is heavily governed by a commitment to the flourishing of one’s children, one’s goals while grocery-shopping may be shaped by this overarching goal, moderating the type of foods one chooses to buy. Therefore, the function of life-purpose is regulative. It curbs our short term desires/ hedonic purposes in order to align our actions in accordance with a conception of the good.

To again recap, I first established that the purpose of life-purpose is to direct one toward a conception of a good life. I then established that life-purpose has a regulatory function. Since both its purpose and function are moral, life-purpose can also be called, “moral purpose.” Aristotle refers to the concept of moral purpose when he states: “Character is that which reveals moral purpose, exposing the class of things a man chooses or avoids.” Aristotle’s virtue ethics places a strong emphasis on character development through individual will-power. I want to pose a sociological counterbalance to Aristotle’s existentialism. In other words, I will go deeper into the concept of moral purpose by demonstrating its social basis.

Sociologically, the concept of morality is strongly rooted in the work of Émile Durkheim. Similar to Aristotle, Durkheim makes a link between morality and happiness:

But it appears fairly certain that happiness is something besides a sum of pleasures… Pleasure is local; it is a limited affection of a point in the organism or conscience… In short, what happiness expresses is not the momentary state of a particular function, but the health of physical and moral life in its entirety…

For Durkheim, making fleeting pleasures one’s primary purpose is to live in a constantly unsatisfied anomic state of unregulated desire:

Unlimited desires are insatiable by definition and insatiability is rightly considered a sign of morbidity. Being unlimited, they constantly and infinitely surpass the means at their command; they cannot be quenched. Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture…. To pursue a goal which is by definition unattainable is to condemn oneself to a state of perpetual unhappiness.

Although complete happiness is a goal that is unattainable, the goal of eudemonia is a distinct pursuit since it is the end at which all things aim. The pursuit itself is the fulfillment of eudemonia, not an end-goal. Although Aristotle and Durkheim share a comparable definition of happiness, Durkheim is a helpful tool for getting at the social source of moral purpose, distinct from its manifestation through individual willing. In other words, Durkheim helps us understand the types of social environments that facilitate moral purpose.

Durkheim states, “…for the sentiment of duty to be fixed strongly in us, the circumstances in which we live must keep us awake.” He places emphasis on the importance of strong social bonds that facilitate a sense of duty. Examples include religious life (in traditional contexts) and one’s occupational group (in modern contexts). Durkheim states:

“…when community becomes foreign to the individual, he becomes a mystery to himself, unable to escape the exasperating and agonizing question: to what purpose?”

For Durkheim, moral purpose is bound up with communal life. Yesterday’s post is a prime example of the importance of the communal life of the family.

To conclude this philosophical exploration of “a sense of purpose,” I have argued that a sense of life-purpose can be called “moral purpose,” because its regulatory function is to direct our mundane purposes toward a conception of a good life. Although Aristotle and Durkheim are aligned with one another on this point, Aristotle gives us the tools to individually develop character-traits that facilitate moral purpose, whereas Durkheim gives us the tools to communally facilitate moral purpose. Hopefully this has shed some light on what it means to have “a sense of purpose.”

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  1. Steve I was just reading this post again and just wanted to say how insightful this was to me.
    The key to growing as an individual is to constantly challenge ourselves and explore new opinions.

    Thank you for this truly remarkable read!

    I reblogged this so as many people as possible can get to read it.


  2. Reblogged this on enrouteinward and commented:
    Recently my energy going ups and downs.

    One moment I feel lost.
    Watching Youtube videos from my office desk of those who joined The Voice or Britain Got Talent makes me wonder about my own passion.
    What passion do I have that will make me step out and take that risk?
    I am a teacher, comfortable and well. Once in awhile I feel fulfilled, once in awhile annoyed and once in awhile wonder if this is it.

    Sometimes my energy is up and I feel a sense of drive and motivation to improve my endeavour to be a fabulous teacher. To nurture and guide my weaker students, to come up with strategies to help those who face learning procrastination/obstacles or to embark on my long overdue personal professional blog.

    Am I seeking my sense of purpose in the midst of this ups and downs?

  3. I’ve always resonated with this quote by George Bernard Shaw:

    This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

    To me, Shaw’s externalization of “purpose” seems to presuppose discovery of a community that says “yes” to the things that we do. Then we find ourselves living a “life of good.”

    What can be difficult is when that community has needs that overwhelm our means, or when it finishes its healing and moves on without bringing us along. I think that, in referring to the “scrap heap”, Shaw is suggesting that all great purposes lead to such ends. The force us to reach, stretch and grow beyond what we would ever have imagined was possible, and certainly beyond anything that we could have imagined for ourselves.

  4. Thanks for the post, Steve. It was an interesting read. My thoughts in reading this post were similar to those expressed by D.E. Harding, above. I tend to find the notion of “purpose” to be fundamentally contrary to existential appreciation of experience. It seems to me “purpose” requires a sort of perpetual planning, a management of experience that must judge present experience based upon particular (purpose-oriented) objectives. Do you think “purpose” can play innocently alongside existentialism?

  5. One thing I notice about purpose is, people who are depressed often do not exhibit or feel a sense of purpose. Certainly, when I have been depressed in the past things around me do not seem to have much purpose to my life. Happy people, on the other hand, seem to find purpose in many things.

    So, does purpose lead to happiness, and does lack of purpose lead to depression? Or, does happiness cause everything to be purposeful, and depression result in nothing having meaning? My vote is for happiness leading to purpose.

    Aristotle did say that the overarching purpose of life is “eudemonia,” which is usually defined as “flourishing.” The Dalai Lama has said the same thing. However, what is flourishing?

    I do not think you can say that a sense of flourishing is consistent with a sense of moral purpose — or requires a sense of moral purpose. A person who lives a moral life is not necessarily going to have a sense of flourishing; and a person with a deep sense of happiness may not live what one would call a moral life.

    Flourishing is an inner sense of well-being. My sense is that everyone is flourishing, deep inside. Everyone is happy, inside. A person’s sense of purpose, and a person’s sense of a moral purpose, result of experiencing that inner sense of flourishing. That sense of flourishing imbues everything with a sense of purpose.

    One final note. It is true that a sense of flourishing does not require accomplishing any particular purpose, living a successful life, or any other physical manesfestation of existence. A soldier can lay dying on the field of a battle that was lost, and honestly say to himself, “All is well.” The soldier can have a sense of flourishing right up until the end.

    1. Thank you for this comment!
      I like to look at it through the metaphor of upward or downward spirals. Depression can come through various influences, lack of purpose being one of them. I also think that once you’re experiencing depression it’s much harder to develop a sense of purpose. The same would be the case with an upward spiral where they both influence each-other, promoting even further psychological resilience.
      In terms of the concept of “morality,” I’m using it in the sense of the “good,” rather than the “right.” (in the tradition of Aristotle), and adding Durkheim’s “communal good,” as the end, building on Aristotle’s ethic of individual moderation. Therefore, “the good,” in my sense means contributing to a cause outside one’s self. I completely agree with your military example.

  6. the question is….how do we know what our goal is when we become adults? so many of us go thru life doing the right things, and never knowing much less reaching, the things that would give us a life we enjoy being in. of course that is not to say some don’t have a clearly defined idea and a plan to reach their goal of happiness…of course some do, but i think they are the exception.

    1. Thank you for the comment. I think this question would requires quite a bit of thought. My posts on what it means to “follow your passion,” are probably the closest answer I have right now. But to answer the question of “how do you know,” based on the criteria of knowing, “a clearly defined idea and a plan,” I would say that it doesn’t necessarily have to be fully known and clearly defined. Most people go about their everyday life guided by some sense of purpose, whether or not they have contemplated it and clearly defined it. I actually think part of the problem is over-thinking it. Sometimes too many vision-boards and mountain-top philosophizing can take you away form a deeper sense of purpose that can be build through action alone. I guess you can say this post is part of the problem since it’s probably the definition of “over thinking,” but for me, writing this post was actually part of my own purpose-driven action. It was a practical way for me to develop a concept I’m using in my dissertation, while sharing the ideas with others who might be interested.

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