science of us

It’s Okay to Be Purposeless

Photo: Ismail Sadiron/Getty Images/EyeEm

An acquaintance recently theorized that my main problem in life is that I have no purpose. It was weird to hear but also welcome.

What is a life purpose? It sounds good, but what does it mean? Helping others, raising a family, creating beauty, making money, working with plants, solving addiction, going to space? Do most people feel like they have a purpose? How often does it change? Do people without a purpose want one? And if you do have a purpose, can you take a break? (And if so, for how long? Two days, 20 years? Does any of this matter?) I Googled “do most people …” and the first auto-prompts were funny, at least: have herpes / have hpv / dream in color / have presidents day off.

In case anyone else is ever feeling concerned or confused about life purpose — or life passion — two recent stories sort of alleviate the pressure. Briefly, anyway. Purpose and passion seem similar, but one distinction suggests that purpose involves reason while passion involves emotion, although both are engines and maybe the line between them is not so important.

In a short essay for Outside, author Brad Stulberg writes about the “lies” we’re often told about the concept of “finding” your passion. Number one is, “You don’t find it. You cultivate it.” Change your expectations of coming across something “perfect” to developing something “interesting,” he suggests, and work from there. (Stulberg also has a new book out on the topic — The Passion Paradox.)

The idea of demoting passion is sort of sad but also funny. I don’t have to dream of becoming an amazing artist; it’s enough to enjoy using these pleasant pens. Where did this belief in passion come from, anyway? Is “find your passion” a cousin to “happily ever after”? Maybe passion appears at certain points in life and not at others, and the ebb and flow is natural. Or maybe it appears in one life arena in one season, and another arena in a different season. Is my former passion for finding funny YouTube videos my current passion for eating fiber? It could be.

Meanwhile, in an especially calming story on one of my favorite knitting blogs, Mason Dixon Knitting, writer Max Daniels makes a compelling case for swiping the whole concept of “Discovering Your Life’s Purpose” off the table, gently. “What if there is no predefined life purpose?” she writes. “What if you don’t need to spend your precious life searching for one, because there isn’t one to discover?” Daniels suggests, instead, doing things that sustain one’s “physical situation,” like cleaning, working, and paying bills; activities that have “no purpose other than pleasure,” like watching Netflix and spending time with friends; and, whenever possible, activities that “cover both bases.” Maybe the concept of purpose also comes and goes, like passion, and forcing it to emerge when it’s not obvious is similarly unnecessary.

For what it’s worth, I used to think my life purpose and passion were the same: to make certain kinds of jokes. But that no longer seems right, and now I think mostly about having a baby and a family. And knitting. And, like, three other things that I’m keeping to myself. Okay, maybe life purpose is a rope with a series of knots in it, and the space in between the knots is how long it takes to feel your way to the new ones?

I had coffee with a friend and asked him if he had a life purpose, and he was like, “No. No, definitely not. I definitely do not have a purpose,” and it made me laugh.

It’s Okay to Be Purposeless