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Is Finding a Sense of Purpose the True Key to Happiness?

Not many people know I had clinical depression from the age of 17 to 23. I had a hormonal injection which left me crying every single day for an entire year. Unfortunately, even though the hormonal effects subsided, the negative thinking patterns and lack of self-belief that had developed were now firmly in place.

The depression got worse at university. Having been told that “your university years are the best of your life’ – they weren’t.

There were two things that made it worse: 1) people telling me to “just think positively” and 2) seeing everyone else around me having the best years of their lives. This led to unhelpful and painful questions such as “Why are they happy and I’m not?”, “What am I doing wrong?” and “What is wrong with me?”.

I tried various anti-depressants but nothing helped. The heaviness in my head, around my eyes and in my heart didn’t lift. My negative thoughts were seemingly stuck on repeat. Not being able to see the end, I felt hopeless.

The changing moment for me was when I decided to take a gap year after university to volunteer. I will admit my decision initially came from a need to escape. But once I started to research the different volunteer projects available, I stopped focusing on what I was running from. Instead I focused on what I was running to. I spent 18 months working in admin jobs I found dull as dishwater to raise the money. But I was driven by a renewed sense of purpose. For the first time in a long time, I felt motivated. I felt alive.

Safe to say, my time volunteering in South Africa was the best time of my life (so far).

The most profound moment came afterwards. When I realised there had been a purpose to my suffering. For if I had never suffered, I would never have chosen to go to South Africa. My suffering had been essential to my happiness. I learnt that when we can find meaning and purpose in our suffering – the suffering stops. And that when we have a goal to work towards – happiness follows.

This made me question – what if life’s goal isn’t to be happy and successful? What if life’s goal is to find purpose and meaning in our lives and experiences, of which happiness and success are a by-product?

When we make happiness and success the goal, we automatically jeopardise our happiness. We believe we “ought” to be happy and when we are not, we become even more unhappy. Now burdened with the unhappiness and shame of our unhappiness.

The issue is very few people know what makes them happy or what success means to them. We have no natural instinct telling us what we should be doing with our lives. This leads us to either do what other people tell us to do. Or to do what everyone else is doing. Ultimately leading us to live a life not true to who we are or our values. We feel a void. A void we often try to fill externally. With alcohol, material items, cigarettes, drugs, food, people and addictions. We chase pleasure and reward to fill the void. But always with an underlying sense of emptiness, demotivation, frustration and even depression.

Chasing happiness also leads to a life of comparison. The media is full of pictures of celebrities and entrepreneurs living their millionaire and billionaire lifestyles. Giving us the impression we must be millionaires to be happy. This leads us to be unhappy with what we have and to focus on what we don’t have. We start to chase ‘things’ and people we think will make us happy, but are left severely disappointed. Either because we fail to attain these ‘things’ or because the ‘things’ we attained still don’t make us happy.

In “Man’s Search for Meaning” psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl details his experiences as a prisoner in various death camps during World War II. The critical discovery he made from those experiences? Survival is dependent on finding meaning and purpose. The void we experience is a feeling of meaningless. It therefore cannot be filled permanently by reward or pleasure, but only by meaning.

Through observation, he found inmates who could not see the purpose or the end to the suffering, who lost hope and gave up, died naturally very soon after. But inmates who found a sense of purpose to the suffering survived. They found a goal. A reason to live.

He noted here a distinct link between psychological well-being and the immune system. Between courage, hope, and life. Concluding the moment we give up on finding meaning to our lives, it’s game over. This made me wonder: could the high incidence of chronic illness be directly linked to the fact that 87% of people are stuck in a job they hate?

He argues the goal is not to find your “life’s purpose”. Because life is unpredictable and is always changing. We are always changing. The goal is to find meaning and purpose in every moment of life. And to find something that would give your life meaning in the present moment. By focusing on finding meaning, happiness and success will follow.

So how do you find a purpose for your life? He says there are 3 ways:

1)   Creating a work or doing a deed

2)   Experiencing something new (nature, a new culture, a moment of inspiration, beauty, kindness, seeing something in the media) or meeting a new person

3)   Our approach to unavoidable suffering. Transforming a personal tragedy into a triumph. The achievement being overcoming the suffering. By not being ashamed of your suffering but by facing it head on and getting through it.

I have already written an article which can help you explore some ideas around points 1) and 2) to help you find your purpose: For point 3 – only you will know what tragedies you have experienced and whether or not you want to use those experiences as a catalyst to purpose.

The main point is that your purpose is unlikely to hit you in the chest like a lightening bolt. It’s something you will have to go out and find.

If you’re still stuck, here are some questions to help you figure out what would give your life meaning right now:

1)   If you were to look back on your life at the age of 90, how would you know you lived a life you were proud of? What did you do? Who did you meet? Where did you go? What did people know you for? How would they describe you?

2)   What would you like to be responsible for?

3)   Who would you like to be responsible for?

4)   To whom would you like to be responsible?

5)   What difference would you like to make – and to whom? Where? How?

6)   Imagine you were given a second chance at life. What decisions would you make and what actions would you take differently? What can you learn about yourself in those decisions and actions in terms of who you are, and what is important to you?

Remember – your purpose doesn’t have to be this great, big thing. Providing for your family or being a great support to friends or your community can give you an immense sense of purpose. It’s not about finding your life’s purpose. It’s what would give your life meaning and purpose right now.

Ultimately, chasing gratification and trying to meet your needs on an immediate basis will always end in unhappiness. Because the underlying void has not been filled. External “things” and people can provide an exciting sense of novelty, but the novelty will wear off. And the void will still remain.

If you want to be happy and successful, focus on filling the void first. Find something that will give your life meaning. That will give you a sense of purpose. Something you believe you HAVE to do. That only you can do. Find that, and success and happiness will come.

I will end with this beautiful quote:

“He who has a “why” to live for can bear almost any “how”.” —Friedrich Nietzsche.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts and comments below!

If you’d like to find out more about how to find a meaning or purpose for your life, please visit or email me at

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About the Author

Zeta Yarwood is recognised as a leading Career Coach and NLP Life Coach in Dubai, helping individuals across the world to achieve success in all areas of their lives. With a degree in Psychology and over 10 years’ experience in coaching, management and recruitment – working for multinational companies and award-winning recruitment firms – Zeta is an expert in unlocking human potential. Passionate about helping people discover their strengths, talents and motivation, Zeta lives to inspire others to dream big and create the life and career they really want.

For further information and inspiration, please visit or follow on Twitter @zetayarwoodLinkedin or Facebook