A Grand Life Purpose or Just Little Ripples?

I’ve struggled in my retirement transition with the concept of Life Purpose.  It is not as simple as answering the question, ”Do I have a life purpose?” I struggled so much with it that I abandoned the term in favor of Personal Development!  See previous posts on Life Purpose, A Purpose-driven retirement and key life domain questions, where Life Purpose is a mere subset of Personal Development.  Instead of figuring out my Life Purpose, I focused on spiritual development and that’s been a good thing for me, leading me into Putting Positive Psychology into Practice and new learning areas to explore.

But, I continue to read claims that finding and living a Life Purpose is THE key to long life and wellbeing.  Too often, when I (and others?) think of Life Purpose, what comes to mind is a big, earth-shattering, legacy-leaving, high-impact purpose.  While it’s pointed out that a life purpose is “the reason you get up in the morning” and “what you were meant to do or be”, it’s also often talked about as goals and achievement and our impact on society.  While it’s “based on your personal values and interests”, it’s also talked about as contributing to the world in some important way; of helping to solve major social problem; to make your mark on the world; to give back in ways that matter to you (assuming this is a value you should have); and to help, inspire and support others (assuming this is another value you should have).  All of that description feels so grandiose, so outward focused, and in many ways, so masculine (Yang) in mindset.

When I think about a grand Life Purpose, I quake. I’m not making an impact on the board of some non-profit. I’m not devoting hours to volunteer work.  I’m not teaching my grandkids about life (having no kids means no grandkids). I’m not mentoring, nor coaching. I’m not an influencer-level blogger. Yes, this is feeling like a big Compare & Despair moment.  I feel very much “”not enough”!

A comment from a reader made me consider, How am I thinking about Life Purpose right now, at this point of my retirement journey, in my current state of personal development? I began to wonder, “Is having a life purpose just a socially imprinted should?” Or am I just making it too big a thing?

This summer I am researching (dabbling really) in religious literacy – pushing to better understand what beliefs are out there to help me decipher what I truly believe.  I’ve been socially imprinted with Christian monotheism, but also know that for many years I struggled to align with the Church’s (Roman Catholic) teachings.  I’ve struggled with the patriarchal mindset, the intolerance, and the concept of God as a father figure who approves or punishes.  As I look at alternate religions and different ways of thinking and living, I wonder if the concept of life purpose is tied to the Christian theology (which is also tied to the American cultural mindset).

In my reading on religion, I also noted this thinking on purpose, based on Taoism: Find your purpose in a harmonious pattern of what you like to do (your true interests) and live life fully in your own rhythm – be present in all you do, find value in everyday activities, avoid negative thought patterns (gossip, resentment, judgment), harmonize with nature, affirm your “wholeness” (balance of feminine yin and masculine yang).

Maybe it’s not about a big Life Purpose (capital lettered, grand impact, achievement focused) but making a small little ripple (more the Butterfly Effect) in every day living.

I’ve never made a big impact.  At work, I had individuals I mentored, projects I moved forward, businesses I helped build. But I had no major business impact. I’ve not had kids to raise nor long-term mentoring relationships, so no big family/social impact. Why do I think that at this point in my life I will suddenly start to have a big impact? Yes, people will point out the individuals who wrote their first (best selling) book after age 50, became renowned painters in their 60’s, made significant discoveries in their later years.  But those are individuals.  When it comes to the masses, we are not making tsunami waves of impact! Maybe, we can just hope to make a small ripple.

When I was looking for more on the concept of Life Purpose, I found couple of sites (see these links: Live Bold & Bloom and Happier Human) and liked that they had a series of Life Purpose examples that were not all about goals and achievement!  Yes, a Life Purpose can be outwardly focused OR it can be inwardly focused.  It can be about others (raising family, empowering others, giving back to community, supporting a cause) OR it can be about individual living (living healthy, mastering a new skill, exploring personal development, finding authentic self).  It can be small (becoming a vegan, living simply) OR big (being an activist, mastery in an art form).

Excerpts of examples I especially liked:

  • “The purpose of my life is to be my true self, uninhibited by fear. I want to inspire others to live authentically and with passion.”
  • “The purpose of my life is to be a source of light to other people and radiate positivity. I hope to find peace and model that for others.”
  • “My purpose (goal) in life is to love others unconditionally and foster meaningful connections with people. I want to walk through life with an open hand, being available to form new friendships.”
  • “I envision a life where I take things slowly and stop to smell the roses. I never want to miss out on an opportunity to find joy in the little things. I will explore my world with open curiosity and be fully present with all experiences.”
  • “I will prioritize taking care of myself by putting my health first. I will take care of my physical and mental health needs by being mindful of what I put in my body, and focusing on my emotional and mental well-being. Self-care activities will be a part of my regular routine.”

I wonder if living a retirement lifestyle on my own terms, and being a role model to others for doing that (here on my blog and with my book), is enough of a Life Purpose.  I know it’s not saving the world, but I hope I have made a small impact (a ripple) on one or two people.

Is my Life Purpose then “Living with intention my retirement lifestyle vision – active body, connected heart, creative spirit, contemplative mind”?  Is that enough?

What’s your current thinking on Life Purpose?

Picture: tonights sunset from the patio

38 thoughts on “A Grand Life Purpose or Just Little Ripples?

  1. To me, the term life purpose can be so daunting. I love the thought however of making a difference through small actions that cause ripple effects. I believe we can all make a difference everyday, although it might not be newsworthy!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not newsworthy, but definitely making a difference. I’ve come to realize that all the books and articles about purpose are sharing the newsworthy stories…. not the masses who are making daily little impacts. I’m one of the masses… join in and maybe all together we will make a bit of a wave (of kindness).

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  2. A great post Pat! you’ve articulated very well what I (and it seems many others) are struggling with: finding that Holy Grail of “life purpose.” Trouble is they don’t define it well. For me, I knew I needed something more to add to the new things I was doing for myself but not more of a To Do list. I won’t call it “purpose” and I too see that as too grandiose but mine has been an effort to redefine “work” and what work gave me — a way to express myself that starts with me and fills my needs because it goes beyond me. So, I think you’ve nailed it: living a meaningful life with your “purpose” all the ways you express yourself. Thank you for your blog!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ps: I think you nailed the key to “purpose” in your last post: “Figuring out what you need is critical. ” Then, just live your life according to those needs. That’s purposeful!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Judi, thank you for your comment. I hope you find your “something more” also. What is lovely about this time of life is you can try something out… and then try something else. I know that my retired life right now is quite different than 5 years ago, not even counting the impact of the pandemic. And I expect that 5 years from now, what makes up my full and meaningful week will be different again.

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  3. This post really speaks to me, Pat. For many years, I tried to figure out what my grand Life Purpose was, thinking it should be something big. That left me feeling confused and not enough, because I just couldn’t figure out what it was. More recently, I have shifted to accepting that bringing joy to myself and others, even in small daily ways, is a life purpose. Making small ripples is enough for me. That said, I am a work in process. Like you, I sometimes give in to the old mindset and have to redirect myself. Thank you for the reminder today.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Christie, I too am a work in progress and I too need reminders about things like this. That ugly “compare and despair” voice in the head just will not go away completely. And you do bring joy to others… I know you regularly bring a smile to my face with your endless optimism and gratitude about life.

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      1. Thank you for those kind words, Pat. Realizing that I have brought you some joy makes me smile!

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  4. I think the emphasis on having a purpose is overdone. We can spend so much time trying to find that purpose and miss great options for having a satisfying life and being content with that. It doesn’t mean we don’t have goals or aspirations, but we can’t all make a big impact on the world. I guess that means I think the little ripples are just as significant.

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    1. I agree. Every once in a while, that old “compare & despair” rears its ugly head and I worry I’m not doing something “right”. It takes me a bit of time to wrap my mind around the “it’s okay to be making little ripples in life” because when I stop and look at reality (being truly honest and not trying to brag), I do make some little ripples in a positive way.

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  5. What if life honestly has no purpose? Is it something we just invent for ourselves because there is no purpose? Was Sartre right- life is absurd and meaningless? Against that backdrop, aiming simply for happiness and our own self-fulfilment at whatever level is surely an achievement worthy of acknowledgment.

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    1. I’ve tried to read the philosophers and they give me a headache! Yes, we (human kind) invent all the concepts of life – even the concept of retirement is an invention! I agree, daily living is certainly more enjoyable when you aim for (and achieve!) a happy life.

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  6. I’ve never liked the term “Life Purpose” because, in my mind, it implied that some deity assigns a single purpose to everyone. I don’t believe in a deity and I don’t believe we all have a single purpose. Whether we have a grand passion or we create small ripples, I think being kind, not doing harm to others or our planet, and living a thoughtful, loving, engaged life is enough.

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    1. I’ve struggled with the term since I started this retirement journey and it was a big deal in a number of my early readings on “how to retire successfully”. I came back to it as one reader, new to retirement, asked about it. This time, I loved some of the newer “life purpose” statements I came across … which are more about living a thoughtful, loving, engaged life! I think this post is my way of trying to break down the myths of retirement.

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  7. Pat, I think we all question these things, maybe more as we age, but ultimately I think the answer is Yes. An ‘active body, a connected heart, a creative spirit, and a contemplative mind’ is enough. I could do with fewer Pulitzer Prize winners in favor of that.

    I personally love the thought of ‘radiating positivity.’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Suzanne, A number of folks have really tapped into that phrase (radiating positivity) – here and on FB where I also post my blog. A number of elements in executing my lifestyle vision statement are about putting positive psychology into practice. So maybe in some ways I am radiating positivity? Oh, and thanks for overtly answering my question! 🙂

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  8. Hi Pat, well you’ve certainly made ‘a ripple’ in my life! I found your blog at the exact time I needed it and it feels like each post is written just for me!!

    I’ve struggled with the big Life Purpose question for many years before I retired but it never felt ‘right’ to me. Not every person will have a significant impact on the world nor do they need to. One quote you referenced really resonated with me: “The purpose of my life is to be a source of light to other people and radiate positivity. I hope to find peace and model that for others.” I’ve always tried to see things from a positive perspective (even when bad things happen) but most importantly I’ve always tried to lift others up and help them see their worth.

    I think that’s my purpose and I’m happy with that!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much for letting me know I’m a ripple-maker for you! (Like my new description?) This foray into the topic really made me feel like “a life well-lived ” can be “enough” of a purpose. Radiating positivity is something so needed in today’s world! Shine-on!

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  9. I find that the notion of Life Purpose is too big, too intimidating, too unattainable. I much prefer your interpretation of living life according to our own rhythms … which we can now do since we’re retired and have shed a lot of unwanted responsibilities.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tom, Of course everyone who extol’s big life purpose is also selling you their approach to help you find yours… so I think that might have something to do with it, too. Even though I sometimes worry I’m missing something, I keep coming back to “a life well-lived” – according to your own rhythms, tapping into your own interests. In retirement, we have the time and mental space to figure that out.

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  10. Yet another post that deeply resonates with me, Three years into (early) retirement and I don’t have One Big Goal and have been wondering if I’m “failing” retirement, Part of me is just happy enjoying each day as it comes and doing the small daily things and small projects that keep me happy but part of me is questioning should I be doing more/contributing more/thinking bigger. Its a struggle, and one I really can’t share with my still employed friends without sounding completely tone deaf. Its hard to know if that is my voice or a societal expectation voice.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Chris – I get it! But if you’re happy enjoying each day, isn’t that what life is all about? What you worked all those years, pursuing big goals, to get to? I’ve struggled with the idea of a grand life purpose for 8 years… or in fact, not having one. This foray into the topic, I loved seeing some of the purpose statements liked the ones I shared – not Big Goal, but Big Life. Also, I’m pretty sure having a happy life is completely retirement success!

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  11. I have just started reading Holy Moments by Matthew Kelly (given to me by a dear friend). You might find that a good read and it may help you with the answer to this question. I recently ordered 6 free copies on his website and all you have to pay is shipping cost of under $7.00. If we lived closer, I’d just give you a copy as I plan to pass on the ones I ordered to folks I feel led to share it with.

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  12. Hi Pat – I think there’s far too much fanfare about Passion and Purpose – and a lot of the people who claim to excel in this area often do so at the cost of others (failed marriages, less time with loved ones etc). I’ve never had a “Grand Passion” that drove me (I’ve written a couple of posts on the subject). It used to bother me, but now I’m much happier with the idea of balance, and spreading myself over lots of little interests – and doing things because I want to invest my time and love there…..rather than because I have a burning drive “to make a difference”. I hope my legacy is one of having lived well, loved the people around me, walked my talk, and shed some laughter and light – I’d be happy with that.

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    1. Leanne, I’m in agreement with you! I just still struggle at times (OK, every time I read something that extols have a grand purpose!) that I might be missing something important. I go round and round and come out to the same point… live life fully, be kind – make a small difference. I think many people new to retirement struggle with this idea as well – searching for a big life purpose to replace a career that might have provided a sense of purpose. But, I’m hoping this post helps folk see that a life purpose doesn’t have to be grand. It can be live well, love those around you, walk your talk and shed laughter!

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