Man standing on top of mountain at sunrise, one hand raised in victoryLife purpose—a sense of meaning or purpose in one's life—or the lack thereof, might often arise as an issue in therapy, even when treatment was originally sought for a different reason. When the lack of a life purpose is affecting life negatively, it is often possible to rediscover or realize motivations and goals in therapy.

Why Is Purpose Important?

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Because a clear purpose and direction in life can help restructure even difficult crises into opportunities for growth and renewed motivation, a life purpose may be an essential aspect of mental well-being. When this purpose is lacking or unclear, a general indifference toward life may be experienced.

Difficult times may be far less terrifying or devastating when a lasting meaning to one’s life is already present or can be developed through the work of therapy. Without such meaning or purpose, even small challenges can grow and feel overwhelming, confusing, and painful. Therapy can help in regaining touch with lasting values, beliefs, needs and goals and in treatment, a sense of meaning and purpose can be built around these. Techniques such as meditation, dreamwork, and other powerful tools for getting in touch with inner guidance can also be explored in treatment, and with these techniques, a sense of purpose and meaning that may lend a renewed structure to life can often be regained.

Difficulties Faced without a Sense of Purpose

If we do not have a meaningful purpose that guides us every day and over the course of our lives, making important decisions, resolving internal and external conflicts, planning for the future, choosing friends and partners, and making sense of suffering become very difficult. Without a chosen, “higher” purpose, life gives us a sort of default purpose: avoid suffering as much as possible. If this is all life means, we are sure to suffer more, not less, because the human mind and spirit need creativity, accomplishment, fulfillment and meaning that the avoidance of suffering alone cannot provide. Further, the experience of some suffering is necessary for us to learn and grow; if we try to avoid it at all costs (which is impossible anyway), we never mature.

Therapy can help us get in touch with lasting values, beliefs, needs and goals, and built a sense of meaning and purpose around these. It can also teach us techniques – such as meditation, dreamwork, and other powerful tools – for getting in touch with our own inner guidance, which can help us discover a sense of purpose and meaning to guide us through life.

Case Examples

  • Clarifying Goals and Values to Discover Life Purpose: Oscar, 29, enters therapy for mild depression and anxiety. After several weeks, he begins expressing confusion about how to handle several different situations: a budding relationship with a woman, some friendships that don’t seem to be working anymore, conflict at work, and his living situation (he still lives at home to save money). The therapist asks him directly: What is your purpose in life? Oscar is forced to admit he has no idea and hadn’t really considered it. After some discussion of his financial goals and his religious beliefs, the therapist and Oscar agree that this question is essential for his progress, and Oscar begins a path of self-discovery through meditation, prayer, reading, and conversation with close confidants, including this therapist. Oscar is able to begin clarifying his values and goals, including being of service, experiencing as much of life as possible, and leaving his children and grandchildren a legacy of financial security and ethical integrity. With these goals and values in mind, the decisions before him become much easier, and his choices clearer.
  • Therapy to gain a sense of purpose: Samara, 41, a married woman without children, enters therapy, reporting that she is indifferent to life. She does not feel especially close to her husband, but this does not bother her. Samara is independently wealthy, and she wishes to find employment to have something to do with her time, but her husband discourages her from working and encourages her to only engage in activities that he approves for her. Samara finds these activities boring, so she does nothing. She reports having no sense of purpose and a feeling of being disconnected from reality, and she often imagines that her life is simply slipping away. In response to questions from the therapist, she reports that she cannot remember the last time she experienced happiness or enjoyment. The therapist first discusses with Samara the various types of abuse that might take place in a relationship, and they then explore ways that Samara might talk to her husband about his tendency toward controlling behavior and the lack of connection Samara feels with him. Samara tells the therapist that she wishes to discuss the various aspects of her life that may have led to her dissatisfaction, and over the following weeks they work through this topic, and Samara begins to outline ways to regain her sense of satisfaction with life and discover any areas of talent so that she might reestablish a sense of purpose.