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You Can (And Should) Rethink Your Purpose At Different Stages Of Life, Psych Experts Say

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From the outside, it looked as if Tenise Hordge, 39, had it all. After spending 18 years climbing the corporate ladder, the engineer had the impressive title, big salary, and corner office. But she wasn’t happy.

After her daughter was born prematurely in 2017, she began to feel adrift at work. Who cares about this title I have? she remembers thinking. It didn’t help her carry her baby to full term. The money was not helping her daughter come home from the hospital sooner. Then came 2020. Hordge was exhausted, in so many ways. “I didn’t want to continue being this person I no longer was,” she says.

You might call it an identity crisis, but psychologists would describe what Hordge was going through as a crisis of purpose.

What does that actually mean? Purpose is a driving force in your life that connects you to values and ideals bigger than yourself, says psychologist Chloe Carmichael, PhD, a WH advisor and the author of Nervous Energy. Some prioritize crushing it in their careers. Excellence is a value, “so the drive to be excellent as a professional can be a purpose,” says Carmichael. But purpose can also take other forms—you may be motivated to devote yourself to religion, create art, or advocate for a social cause.

“You can create meaning in your life no matter your circumstances.”

All this may seem a bit abstract, but research shows purposeful living has a real impact on our well-being. Not only are those who move through life with a defined purpose more likely to stay happy in their jobs, but they are also better at keeping up with regular health screenings and less likely to have anxiety and depression. A strong sense of purpose has been linked to greater longevity too.

It can be good to intentionally rethink and renew your purpose periodically throughout your life. This helps you stay in tune with what’s important to you at different points in time. FYI: Adults are more likely to feel happy with their life if they have a purpose and concrete strategies to carry out that purpose, a study in Frontiers in Psychology found.

On that note, let us introduce you to a process called “life crafting.” It involves actively reflecting on your life via writing and thinking exercises—then setting goals to make changes so that how you spend your time aligns with what you value most, says Michaéla Schippers, a professor of behavior and performance management at Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University in the Netherlands, who coined the term.

You’re prompted to take an honest look at your passions, skills, and even social life. “For a lot of people, without realizing it, they find they are working a certain job or living in a way their parents wanted for them or what they think society demands of them,” says Schippers.

Life crafting involves actively reflecting on your life—then setting goals to make changes.

In Hordge’s case, it definitely took time—and a lot of planning—to figure out her next steps. Hordge wanted to help new moms navigate the challenges she faced, especially in breastfeeding. When her daughter was in the NICU, having a lactation consultant made a huge difference. She decided that was what she wanted to do and nailed down the specifics of how to turn it into reality. First, she used her bonus to cover a year’s worth of expenses. She and her husband paid off their car loans and debts. She found a certification program near her family so she could complete her clinical hours and have help with her two children. She found a lawyer and set up an LLC. Hordge now runs her own business helping new moms.

“You can create meaning in your life no matter your circumstances,” Schippers says. “But what’s really important is that you have to set aside time to focus on it. It’s something you create for yourself. You’re the only one who can do it.”

The good news is anyone willing to put in the effort can reap the benefits of life crafting. Keep reading for a step-by-step guide with exercises from experts to find your spark, design your future, and set a unique and fulfilling vision in motion.

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1. Get to Know Yourself

    The first step is clarifying your values. “My biggest piece of advice is to relearn yourself,” Hordge says. “Once you understand who you are, you’ll know what’s important to you.” The cultural obsession with status or achievement drives many to go after the next pay raise or better title versus something truly meaningful to them. “For high-achieving women and especially women of color, we’re valued and judged by what we do and not who we are,” says Omolara Thomas Uwemedimo, MD, founder of Melanin and Medicine. “That allows people to do all these things because of positive reinforcement from others without asking, ‘Is this what I really want?’”

    Explore Your Values

    Organizing your thoughts in writing is key, per research. Ideally, you want to identify a passion that aligns with your values. So, from the two prompts below, pick one that speaks to you and write a short essay to discover where you stand:

    • Look to the past. Your past experiences shape you, sure—but they can also teach you a lot about your purpose. “Look back at the moments in your life that have been meaningful to you,” Dr. Uwemedimo says. “That can help you find what brings joy and lead you to where you should put your focus.”
    • Look to the future. Think about what kinds of relationships you’d like to have in your private and professional lives and what kind of career you want. Also, become aware of your current habits and skills while reflecting on the ones you adore or want to develop. That’s the first step toward breaking old patterns and building new routines.
    a dart board with three darts in the center

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    2. Set Goals

    Research shows that goals that are aligned with values are better for overall well-being. So, once you clarify your values, you’re already halfway there. Now give some thought to how you might turn them into action. For Hordge, that meant a career change. But finding your purpose can also mean simply creating space in your life to do more of what brings you meaning. For example, if it’s being a parent, a goal may be to find a way to delegate more tasks so you can spend time with your family.

    Imagine the Alternate Universe…

    Fantasize what your life will look like if you don’t take any actions. This actually motivates you to follow through because you’re confronted with the consequences of doing the opposite. Ask yourself, “What would my future look like five to 10 years down the road if nothing changes?”

    …Then Prioritize

    Write a passage laying out your ideal life. How would you spend your days if there were no limits of any kind? When Schippers started assigning first-year students this exercise, the university saw a 22 percent decrease in dropout rates among those who wrote it. List specific goals that will help you achieve your ideal life, then prioritize them. Identify the stumbling blocks that could get in your way, and write down how you might work through them.

    3. Open Up

    Finally, announce your plans to the world, Schippers says. Sharing your goals increases accountability and makes it more likely you will achieve them. Post your goals on Instagram, or simply talk through them with your partner or friend.

    It’s also important to start a new conversation with yourself. Life crafting can help you cultivate what’s known as an “internal locus of control.” With it, you believe it’s within your control to shape and affect the outcome and experience you have in life.

    Visualize Your Success

    Once you get the ball rolling, spend a few minutes each day or week picturing yourself living the ideal life you wrote about in your essay. If your goal is to travel the world, you might imagine looking up at the northern lights or chatting with the locals in Rome. Then envision yourself messaging your 2023 self to let her know you’re proud of her. “This can help you feel connected to the person you aspire to be,” Carmichael says. “This way, your aspirational self feels more attainable.”

    This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of Women’s Health.

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