Want to Find Your Purpose? Spend More Time Alone.

by

Want to Find Your Purpose? Spend More Time Alone.

by

It’s only when we step away from those distractions and take the time to think and reflect that we can come to a deeper understanding of who we are.”

I recently wrote a book called The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters, which is about how people can lead lives of depth and significance. As part of my research for that book, I interviewed many people about what makes their lives meaningful and I turned to what research in psychology had to say about how people find meaning in life. One of the themes that came up again and again was the importance of self-reflection in a meaningful life. Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living”—and, indeed, figuring out your purpose requires you to turn inward to examine who you are, what your strengths and talents are, and how you can contribute those to the world. 

But turning inward requires spending time alone, away from the distractions of everyday life—and there are many of them today, from social media to e-mail to the endless meetings or events that can eat into our days. It’s only when we step away from those distractions and take the time to think and reflect that we can come to a deeper understanding of who we are and how we can best contribute to the world. 

For example, one of the people I interviewed for my book, a former drug kingpin named Coss Marte, only discovered his true purpose after spending time in solitary confinement in prison. During that period of solitude, he realized that he was “messing up” his life and community by dealing drugs and that he wanted to make use of his talents in a better way. In prison, he had started helping some of the other prisoners get in better shape by teaching them exercises, and he realized that helping others was empowering. And that, he realized in solitary, was his true purpose—to use his abilities as a teacher and entrepreneur to help others become healthier. So when he got out of solitary, he started a fitness center in his old neighborhood on the Lower East Side of New York called Coss Athletics, which has grown into a successful business. And Coss was only able to come to see the true purpose of his life after time spent alone.

As one psychologist, an expert on meaning in life named Rebecca Schlegel, told me: “Our culturally shared sources of meaning are dwindling, so people have to turn inward to figure out how to best lead their lives. Knowing your true self is the first step of that journey.” People who know themselves can choose to pursue paths that align with their values and skills. Someone whose strengths are love and perseverance, for example, may make a great educator, while another person characterized by judgment and prudence may have a calling as a judge or lawyer. Research shows that when people pursue goals that align with their core values and interests, they feel more satisfied and competent. They’re also likelier to persevere through challenges to actually accomplish those goals—that is, they are more purposeful.

 

For more from Emily Esfahani Smith, visit her website and check out her book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. 

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