A few years ago, I met a man named Coss Marte who taught me something important about leading a meaningful life. Coss, who lives in New York, used to be a drug dealer. But then he got arrested—and, a few years into his prison sentence, he landed in solitary confinement for thirty days. As he reflected on his situation in solitary, he realized that dealing drugs was a mistake. It was messing up the lives of people in his community. He wanted to be and do better. And he began to see how.
When he first got to prison, he helped some overweight inmates get in shape by teaching them exercises they could do in their cells. One guy lost 80 pounds and cried as he thanked Marte for his help. In solitary, Marte realized that that is what he wanted to do with his life—help people lead healthier lives. When he got out of prison, he launched ConBody, a successful fitness studio in New York.
For the past few years, I’ve interviewed dozens of people like Marte to find out how people find their purpose and what makes their lives meaningful. One of the themes that came up again and again was the importance of reflection and clarity. For Marte, a moment of clarity in solitary confinement, when he was able to think about his life with few distractions, helped him figure out his purpose—and then having a clear purpose sustained them through the inevitable adversities and obstacles that emerged as he tried to launch ConBody into a viable business.
According to psychologists and philosophers, the defining feature of leading a meaningful life—as opposed to a merely happy life—is using your strengths, or the best in you, to serve others. But that requires having a sense of who you are and what you might contribute to the world. Know thyself as the Oracle at Delphi commands.
Researchers at Texas A&M University have discovered the truth of that ancient wisdom. Knowing oneself, they’ve found, is one of the most important predictors of meaning in life. In one study, a group of psychologists had undergraduates list ten traits that best represented who they were deep down, their “true self.” About a month later, the students returned to the lab to complete the second part of the study. As the students performed random tasks on a computer, the researchers flashed the words that the students had used to define their true selves on the screen for 40 milliseconds—too fast to visually register and consciously process. The students who were subconsciously reminded of their true selves subsequently rated their lives as more meaningful than they had before the study.
Why? It’s because people who know themselves can choose to pursue paths that align with their values and skills. Marte, for example, had an entrepreneurial streak, which he used early in his life to become a drug kingpin because he wanted above all to be rich. But when he paired his business savvy with the goal of helping others, he found his true purpose.
When people pursue goals that align with their core values and interests, research shows that they feel more satisfied and competent. They’re also likelier to persevere through challenges to actually accomplish those goals. Their purpose becomes a north star that guides them forward through the good and bad of life.
A beautiful illustration of that point comes via David Yeager and Marlone Henderson, psychological researchers at the University of Texas at Austin. In one study, Yeager, Henderson, and their colleagues asked high school students to reflect on what contribution they’d like to make to the world, and to write about how their schoolwork allowed them to fulfill that purpose. It turns out that simple exercise made a big difference. The students who reflected on their purpose ended up getting better grades in math and science several months later. In the same set of studies, college students who thought about their purpose were more likely to persist through a tedious set of math problems, even though they were free to play online games at any time during the experiment. The students, Yeager and Henderson found, developed a “purpose for learning” that motivated them to push through challenging and tedious tasks.
Finding time to reflect and develop a clarity of purpose isn’t easy, especially today. It requires individuals to buck some very powerful trends. To find meaning, people need time to think about who they are, what values they hold, and how they can best contribute to the world. But today, there are so many distractions that suck up our time and fill our minds with mindless dribble, leaving us little mental space and energy to do the hard work of introspection. It’s revealing the Marte found his purpose in forced solitary confinement and the students in Yeager and Henderson’s research through a controlled study. But that shouldn’t discourage us. In fact, we can learn from these examples and set aside a few minutes each day or week to put our devices away and think.
About the Author
Emily Esfahani Smith is the author of The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed With Happiness.
We'll send you weekly emails with our latest insights and training for free, and we'll never send you ads or sponsored messages.