The Problem with Not Being Clear about Our Purpose

Article Summary: 

Not being clear about our purpose harms us in many ways, affecting our quality of life, relationships, work, leadership, and more.


Many of us have a general sense of what we want in life but haven’t taken that further into a clear sense of purpose—of our deeper why.

Of all the personal and leadership development practices, purpose tends to be the most difficult for many, in part because of all the myths and misconceptions about purpose. Some people feel what’s been called “purpose anxiety”: distress from not knowing our purpose in life or from not living it.

Our purpose is why we’re here, our reason for being. It’s related to but not the same as our values, vision, and passions.

Purpose is important because it gives us a sense of meaning and coherence in our lives, as well as a connection to something larger than ourselves. And it’s hard to live our purpose if we don’t know what it is.


The Problem with Lacking Clarity about Purpose

What are the impacts of not knowing our purpose—or from lacking clarity about it? There are many, and some are severe.

When we’re not clear about our purpose, we can suffer from:

  • anxiety
  • stress
  • frustration
  • loss of hope
  • lack of a sense of coherence in our lives
  • lack of fulfillment
  • lack of joy
  • less engagement with family, neighbors, friends, colleagues, and community
  • lower resilience
  • burnout
  • depression
“If we lack purpose, we lose connection with our true nature and become externally driven, generating discontent or even angst. Because purpose can be so elusive, we often duck the big question and look for ways to bury that discontent, most often through ‘busyness,’ distraction, or worse.” -Christopher Gergen & Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives

When we lack clarity about purpose:

  • It can negatively impact our physical health. Researchers have linked purpose to better sleep, fewer heart attacks and strokes, longer life span, and a lower risk of dementia. (See the section below on purpose and health.)
  • We feel that our lives lack a sense of meaning and significance.
  • Our goals and actions can be haphazard, lacking focus and direction.
  • We can lose our motivation to work hard or persist through adversity because there’s no animating aim driving our actions.
  • We can lack a sense of progress because we don’t know what our ultimate aims are.
  • It can keep us from growing because we lack the clarity and motivation that comes from a deep and meaningful why.
  • We can feel that success is unachievable because our efforts seem aimless and scattershot, without lasting redeeming value.
  • We start living from the outside in, conforming to the desires or expectations of others instead of living by our own guiding lights.
  • We tend to turn inward and “cocoon” instead of reaching out to others, causing disconnection and loneliness, two of the leading causes of unhappiness.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


Not being clear about our purpose harms us in many ways, affecting our quality of life, relationships, work, leadership, and more.

Of course, the flip side is that knowing our purpose and living it comes with many benefits.

“When we are clear about our purpose, or at least working toward it, our lives come together in powerful ways.” -Christopher Gergen & Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs

For example, McKinsey research during the pandemic found that people who say they’re “living their purpose at work” reported levels of wellbeing five times higher and engagement levels four times higher than people who say they’re not doing so.

According to a recent McKinsey report, purpose can be an important contributor to worker experience, which is linked with employee engagement, organizational commitment, and feelings of wellbeing. Also, those who experience congruence between their purpose and their job are more productive and more likely to outperform their peers.

One CEO cited in that report noted that articulating his purpose helped make him a more observant and empathetic leader:

“I believe I’m more honest with myself and faster to recognize if I might be doing something that’s motivated by my own vanity, fear, or pleasure. I know I’m more open to feedback and criticism. I spend less time talking about weekend or vacation plans and more time exploring what motivates, frustrates, or scares people—the things that really matter. I make faster connections with people now.”



When we’re clear about our purpose and building it into our daily lives, we feel authentic, energized, awake, and alive. The key is not just knowing our purpose but living it—intentionally building it into the fabric of our days.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


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 Postscript: Inspirations on Purpose

  • “Many of us are starved for coherence in our lives…. The most effective people know how to carry out daily activities while keeping their eye on a longer-range vision and purpose they want to center their lives around. Purpose has a way of ordering time and energies around itself….” -Richard Leider, writer and expert on purpose
  • “Purpose is adaptive, in an evolutionary sense. It helps both individuals and the species to survive.” -Jeremy Adam Smith, Greater Good Science Center
  • “You might do a hundred other things, but if you fail to do the one thing for which you were sent it will be as if you had done nothing.” -Rumi, 13th century poet and Sufi mystic


Appendix: Purpose and Health

Research in different domains has found powerful connections between purpose and health. For example:

Longevity: A study of more than 79,000 Japanese people found that those with a strong connection to their sense of purpose tended to live longer. According to researchers in a 2014 study, “having a purpose in life appeared to widely buffer against mortality risk across the adult years.”

Heart disease: A 2008 study of Japanese men found that a lower level of purpose was associated with cardiovascular disease, and another study found that “purpose is a possible protective factor against near-future myocardial infarction among those with coronary heart disease.”

Stroke: Researchers found that people who say they have a sense of purpose are 22 percent less likely to exhibit risk factors for stroke compared to those who say they don’t—and 52 percent less likely to have experienced a stroke.

Alzheimer’s disease: Neuropsychologist Dr. Patricia Boyle found that people with a low sense of life purpose were 2.4 times more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease.



  • Boyle, P.A., Buchman, A.S., Wilson, R.S., Yu, L., Schneider, J.A., Bennett, D.A. (2012). Effect of purpose in life on the relation between Alzheimer disease pathologic changes on cognitive function in advanced age. Archives of General Psychiatry; 69(5): 499-505.
  • Boyle, P., Buchman, A., Barnes, L., Bennett, D. (2010). Effect of a purpose in life on risk of incident Alzheimer disease and mild cognitive impairment in community-dwelling older persons. Archives of General Psychiatry; 67(3): 304–310.
  • Naina Dhingra, Jonathan Emmett, Andrew Samo, and Bill Schaninger. (2020). Igniting individual purpose in times of crisis. McKinsey Quarterly.
  • Hill PL, Turiano NA. (2014). Purpose in life as a predictor of mortality across adulthood. Psychological science. 25(7): 1482-1486.
  • Koizumi, M., Ito, H., Kaneko, Y., Motohashi, Y. (2008). Effect of having a sense of purpose in life on the risk of death from cardiovascular diseases. Journal of Epidemiology; 18(5): 191-6.
  • Rainey, L. (2014). The search for purpose in life: An exploration of purpose, the search process, and purpose anxiety. University of Pennsylvania Master’s Thesis.
  • Schaefer SM, Morozink Boylan J, van Reekum CM, Lapate RC, Norris CJ, et al. (2013) Purpose in Life Predicts Better Emotional Recovery from Negative Stimuli. PLOS ONE 8(11).

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!