Host: Hello and welcome to Well Wisconsin Radio, a podcast discussing health and well-being topics with experts from all around the state of Wisconsin. I’m your host, Renee Fox, and we have a special podcast episode recording from a live event with Dr. Christine Whelan, and it’s on authentic purpose, why it matters, and how to make it happen.
Dr. Whelan is a clinical professor in the Consumer Science Department of the School of Human Ecology at UW Madison, where she is known as the Happy Professor. Dr. Whelan teaches on topics of purpose, wellbeing, and personal definitions of success through the life course, and she’s also the Director of the Money Relationships and Equality Institute, a program dedicated to facilitating those tricky conversations about the intersection of love and money.
Dr. Whelan is the author of five books, including The Big Picture, A Guide to Finding Your Purpose in Life, and recently, the author of the bestselling Audible original lecture series, Finding Your Purpose. She has been published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and countless other national and international publications. She has appeared on television and radio stations nationwide and worked with large healthcare organizations, small startups and everything in between.
Dr. Wheen earned agrees from Princeton University and the University of Oxford. Her motto comes from Seneca, not for school, but for life we learn, and she does her best to practice what she preaches. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her partner, five kids, a dog, and does her best to embrace the chaos on purpose.
Continue listening here for the audio only version or check out the show notes for a link to the Employee Trust Funds YouTube page where you can watch a video version of this presentation and view the slides from the live event.
Guest: Thank you so much, Renee, for that kind introduction. I am so thrilled to be with you all today to talk about purpose.
And you know, this topic is really near and dear to my heart because I am known as the Happiness Professor and you know, there’s no pressure there. Even in tough times, I am supposed to be the one who is bringing happiness and well-being to everybody. Now, that’s because I study and research those questions of what matters most to us.
Why does it matter and how to make it happen. But even as the happiness Professor, sometimes in uncertain times, maybe we have our public face and our private face. You remember this from for the last couple years, the idea of how we present publicly when we are on camera versus off camera. Well, there’s also that moment where we sort of think to ourselves. Huh? Am I really happy? Have I found my center? What about all these wellness and wellbeing goals? Do they matter? Does any of this matter?
So these are some of the things that I want to talk to you about today, really by asking and answering these questions of happiness, wellness, and self-care, but doing it on purpose.
So what we’re going to do today, I’m going to give you a little bit of an outline about how we’re going to proceed. In my work with lots of companies and with my students at the University of Wisconsin and other universities, I’ve found that it’s really important to kind of give an outline in terms of identifying the problem, identifying the promise, and identifying the program.
What we’re going to talk about today is that purpose is kind of a buzzword. You’ve heard about it a lot, but oftentimes we don’t have a really good definition of it or a real sense of why it matters. So we’re going to talk about that. Then we’re going to talk about some of the research about how purpose makes us happier.
But don’t worry, I am a translational researcher, which means I love to take the research and figure out ways to translate it so that all of us can apply it in our everyday lives. And one of the ways I do that is through the program of taking these ideas and putting them into a small steps worksheet so that we can.
Ask and answer these questions, demystify these big ideas and put it into our lives today. So that’s what I hope we’re going to do. So let’s start with the problem. Well, the problem such as it is, is that we’re all really busy and the things that often matter most to us, those big questions of meaning and purpose, those big ideas of taking care of ourselves and our wellness and health goals, they may not often take top priority on our to-do list.
All too often we put those things aside for later. They’re important, but they’re not urgent. But the thing is, there is a real health and wellbeing cost to not asking and answering questions of what matters most to you. And you may have. It. It might be that feeling of overwhelm or languishing. It might be headaches, muscle tension, anxiety, fatigue.
All of these are signs that were out of whack in some way. And while there’s no magic bullet for any of this, one thing that I have found both in my research and in my personal life is that getting to those big underlying questions of why, why does it matter is really important. And you know, these are not new questions.
We’ve been talking about them for millennia. These questions of where am I going in life? What am I doing and what is the meaning of life? Is there any point to this or that big sort of question that especially a lot of my students will ask us. So what, so what? Is there any point to even trying, because sometimes it all feels so hopeless.
This is where those questions of purpose really rise up in us and really come to. To the forefront. But often that happens at like three in the morning when we are, uh, thinking deep thoughts or maybe getting kind of anxious when we should be sleeping, and then we push it aside in the light of day and try to focus on something else, something more practical.
So what I want to do first is give you a little bit of a definition of purpose. And my definition is a little bit different, but my hope is that it’s going to light a spark for you because the traditional definition of purpose is frankly, I think, a little bit scary. The idea of a singular life aim, the why behind everything that you do.
Some people also describe it as this self-organizing aim, uh, that that makes you do things that stimulates goals. I find that’s a little bit less scary, but the idea that there is one thing, only one thing that’s going to make me do what I should be doing, is a lot of pressure. I feel like I’m a woman who does a whole lot of things and I’m not sure that there is one actual thing.
So instead, I think about purpose in terms of a purpose mindset. And so this is the first thing I’d like to offer you today, is the new definition of purpose that hopefully is a little bit more accessible. So I define purpose and a taking a purpose mindset toward life as using your gifts, what you’re good at in keeping with your values, which is what you care about to make a positive impact on the lives of.
Yes, you can have a purpose that is really mostly focused on you, but lots of research shows that when you think about other people, not just yourself, you have a happier life with a lot more wellbeing. So when you approach this idea of a purpose mindset, I think about it as using your gifts, what you’re good at in keeping what with what matters to you to make a positive impact, not just on your own life, but on the lives of others.
And one way that I often try to explain this to people is through a parable. And it’s the parable of the traveler who comes across three men laying bricks. And the traveler asks the first man, what are you doing? And the first man answers truthfully, I am putting one brick on top of the other. The second man says I’m building a wall.
The third man says, I’m building a cathedral. And the truth is that all of these men answered honestly. Now, the first one, according to the parable, the first one has a job. The second one has a career, but the third has a larger sense of calling and sees the why behind what he is doing. And so according to the parable, the idea is that we all want to see that larger why, that larger purpose.
And we all want to be that third worker seeing the cathedral that comes out of our efforts. Not in a religious sense necessarily, but in something that’s larger than we are as individuals. But something always kind of perplexed me about this parable because yes, it is true that seeing the larger why, seeing the inspiring thing that you’re working for, or the idea or the cause that’s really important and definitely motivates us.
But you know what? We are all also the first man. The second man, we’re all putting one brick on top of the other, and sometimes in our day-to-day lives, putting one brick on top of the other, like brick laying can be really, uh, difficult work. It can be backbreaking and exhausting and not that glamorous sometimes, right?
So I really like to think about both parts of purpose when I’m trying to demystify this. And this is what I’m inviting you to join me on today, is to thinking about purpose as the larger why, but also thinking about the step-by-step process of laying one brick on top of the other that we all need to do to actually build a cathedral to actually build that life of purpose and meaning.
So it’s both the big picture and it’s the small steps to get there. So this seems like a lot of work, right? Yeah. So the , the, the promise of purpose is that the research suggests that this is actually something that may be really worth investing some time and effort in, because the research over the last 15 years and beyond shows that having the greater sense of purpose in life not only makes us healthier, not only makes us happier, can lead to better relationships, uh, a better financial life situation, a calmer and better life.
So I want to sort of show you a little bit of this research and then we’ll translate it into what it can actually do for you in your day-to. So the way that this research on purpose is done is that there are purpose and meaning inventories where you are asked a series of questions to get a, a numeric score of your sense of purpose in life.
And one of the, uh, the most commonly used of these purpose inventories was actually done by a professor named Carol Riff at the University of Wisconsin Madison. And the way that this idea runs is that you have, uh, you get a score, and you get your sense of purpose, a measure of your sense of purpose. And that’s generally a measure of your sense of understanding why it matters.
And it turns out that high, having a higher score in terms of purpose, tends to lead you to increased agency in your life. And that’s just a fancy academic word for saying that you have a sense that you can do the things that you want to do, that it’s possible, that you think that you can accomplish them.
So knowing why it matters gives you a sense that yes, you can make it happen. And all of that tends to lead to a sense of life satisfaction. Because when you succeed, we tend to be happier. So knowing why it matters gives you the sense that you can make it happen when you do it, you have increased life satisfaction because of your successes.
Now these are very, uh, much the arrows of correlation, not causation in research terms, but the arrows are pretty clear that this is how purpose begins to work in our lives. So here’s some of the research. Purpose tends to be linked with all sorts of positive health outcomes, whether it’s better sleep or a longer life, or lower risk of dementia.
When you have a sense of why behind what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis and in the big picture, you tend to be a healthier person. Purpose is also linked to taking better care of yourself. When you have that sense of why you are more likely to invest the time in mammograms, in going to the dentist and getting flu shots, and you also have lower levels of pro-inflammatory gene expression, meaning that you are sort of healthier and calmer and happier and thriving, hopefully.
Purpose is linked also to financial and personal success. And this is a really interesting one. I teach in the consumer science department and a lot of my students are going into financial services. Their eyes sort of light up at this one because having a sense of why you’re doing what you’re doing isn’t just good for your health and your wellbeing, but it can also be good for your bank account.
Uh, you can have healthier and long-lasting relationships and it increases your odds of having a less tumultuous life. So if I were to put all of this into a, uh, into a pill, you would think that I was selling some nutraceutical that is never going to work, right? It just all sounds too good to be true.
There is no pill. Unfortunately, we’d all like it to be that easy. The good news, though, is that having a sense of purpose is also linked to positive learning outcomes. And the reason why that matters is because having a sense of why behind what you do helps you take the steps to learn how to get there.
For example, you’re here, you’re listening to this, you’re engaging in these ideas. You are doing something very purposeful for yourself right now, and there’s an increased ability to identify and pursue the goals that matter most to you when you have a sense of purpose, and you’re also more likely to follow through and get it done.
One of my favorite studies on purpose is from, um, a researcher who looked at this idea of that metaphor of sort of a climbing a hill, right? So when you have to do something difficult, often you might say, oh, man, that’s, you know, that’s a, that’s a big climb. You know, that’s a big haul for me to do.
So this researcher asked students to first take a purpose inventory, and then when they got this researcher got their scores. And then what the researcher did was show them lines and they would measure the, uh, the incline of the line and, uh, and, and approximate it and it, and then he said, okay, I’m going to take you out to a hill and, uh, take you to the base of a mountain, small mountain.
It turns out that those students who had a higher sense of purpose in life would say that they felt more able to climb that mountain than students who had a lower sense of purpose in life. So both literally and metaphorically, the idea of having that sense of purpose gives you the sense of agency that you can succeed.
And when you have that sense of agency, you are more likely to accomplish your goals and more likely to have that sense of life satisfaction. We can think about this for our wellness goals as well, because you better believe that some of our wellness goals, whether it is weight loss or exercise, or uh, or, or changing an element of, of our lifestyle, all of these things can seem really, really daunting.
You’ll ask what’s, you know, will I be up to it? Um, how hard is this going to be? And knowing the why behind what you are attempting to do, research finds will hopefully allow you to accomplish your goals and learn that much faster.
So my motto comes from Seneca, not for school, but for life we learn, which means that all of this research, while incredibly interesting to me, is only the first step because I think it’s really important to take this research and figure out what we can actually do about it on a day-to-day basis, how we can actually translate it into small steps programs so that we’re not just talking about maybe having some more purpose in the future, but we’re actually putting this into action.
And so this is where we get to the third part of what I want to talk to you about today, which is the program. and I, over the last decade or so, have developed a small steps program to help people ask and answer those questions of values and strengths and purpose so that you can actually put it into your life.
And the idea is to take these daunting, big topics and turn them into a pleasurable exploration of possibilities. Now, there are going to be some of you who are listening here who are going to say, oh no, don’t make me do an exercise. I get it. I get it. It is so much easier to sit back and think about something theoretically.
But I’m inviting you today to take a little bit of a risk and to participate in this exercise. Nobody has to see it. It’s just you. And to think about purpose as it relates to you as an individual. We’ve all done silly things. We’ve made AI avatars, we take Buzzfeed quizzes. Think about this as something that you’re going to do today for your health and wellbeing.
Alright, so I would encourage all of you to get out a pencil or a pen and, uh, and because we, I’m going to ask you a series of questions and I’m, for each of those questions, I’m going to ask you to jot down three words or phrases. And at the end of it, we’re going to put it all together into a sort of madlibs purpose statement.
And I’ll give you a link at the end. Uh, but I think it’s also in the chat here if you want to follow along with a fillable PDF of it as well. So the reason why I’m asking you to play along is because all of those good things about purpose that I told you about in the research. Well, the good news is that it’s not one of those, either you have it or you don’t.
You can actually build your sense of purpose brick by brick. And to do that, I used to have people do a kind of life purpose statement exercise. But over the last couple years, I’ve rethought that and I am now encouraging people to do a daily purpose statement exercise where you want to ask these questions for how you want to live.
Today. I think of it as sort of a, a purposeful to-do list, um, or a sort of a guiding light for the day. And if you have a morning meditation practice or if you, uh, write out to-do lists the night before, these are things that you might consider incorporating into it. So the first question that, uh, that I want, uh, to suggest to you is for you to think about your core values.
What do you value? . Now values are the thing that underpin all the decisions that we make, but they are of often not something we think about. And, uh, and, and yet thinking about our core values and choosing to live in keeping with our values is probably the most fundamental step to living a purposeful life.
This list that I have put up here is an abbreviated list from Shalom Schwartz’s Universal Values Index. And it comes from worldwide research on, uh, values that the people share around the globe. Now if you’re the kind of person who looks at this list and says, well, I value almost all of them, how can I possibly pick three?
Remember, you can do this purpose exercise. You can think about these, these questions that I’m going to ask you just for today or just for tomorrow, or you can think about them just for your health goals, for your, uh, for your wellness ideas. You can think about them for your family life. For your professional life, anything that is really coming up for you, where you want to live more purposefully or consider making a change.
So the first question is, pick three core values. They don’t have to be on this list, uh, but they certainly could be that you want to guide you in whatever period that you want to focus on or part of your life you want to focus on. Now, one thing I’ll note, since I’m the happy professor, I have to point out, happiness is not on this list.
You know why happiness is not a value? Happiness is a byproduct of living your values. So when you think about values, we’re thinking about the ideas that very much guide us and, uh, and, and underpin what we do. Sometimes we have to separate the shoulds from the values. All too often when we think about the values, we think of the values that other people want us to value or that we think we should care about more than we actually do.
So take a moment and think about your values. The next question is, what are you good at? And not just what are you good at, but what are you good at and enjoy doing? So I now invite you to list three strengths or gifts that maybe you want to use today or in the particular part of your life that you’re thinking about.
We all have superpowers, and so this is an opportunity to think about those gifts that we both can do and want to do. So, for example, I’m pretty good at cleaning up the kitchen and loading the dishwasher, but that’s not something that I often put on my list of strengths that I want to use in a day. So think about those strengths and gifts that give you energy that you want to do more of. And if you’re having a little bit of a moment here where you’re looking at this list and saying, I don’t know, I’m not good at anything. Well, this is an opportunity to put a little asterisk there and talk to friends, talk to family members, talk to a counselor, because I can guarantee you that we all have gifts.
And part of living a life of purpose is sharing those gifts with the world. This list comes from one of my friends and colleagues, Richard Leer, who worked with thousands of people over the years when they were in leadership positions and also transitioning into retirement. So we all have gifts. Why don’t you pick three of them that you want to use in this context?
The next question is, who do you want to positively impact? What are the groups, the ideas, the causes, or even the individual people that you care about most? And yes, you can think about your friends and your family, you can think very small and granular because that’s often where we can have the biggest impact.
But I also encourage you to think about ideas or causes community organizations, uh, places where you want to give your gifts. Today, tomorrow, again, we’re going to be fairly focused in this, right? Because then it doesn’t seem so overwhelming. Again, this is where we want to think about the shoulds versus the values.
So maybe there’s a lot of people that you should be doing something for, but who is it that you want to positively impact, and how can you do that today or tomorrow? Now, years ago when I first started doing this purpose statement exercise, this is where I would end. I put it together in a madlibs purpose statement because I value, and then you would put in your core values, I will use my gifts for, and you put in those gifts to positively impact you put in your impact groups.
And quite frankly, this is a pretty good little purpose statement because it might not make grammatical sense initially. That’s okay. You can edit it. But it really gets to that purpose mindset definition, and it gives you an overarching roadmap for where you want to go. So for years, this is what I did with people right up until life happened for me.
And I realized that while this is a beautiful purpose statement, and here’s my version of it, I, I totally stand behind it. It’s absolutely what I want to do and who I am, and I’m quite proud when I look at it. But the key thing that was missing was how to make it happen. And all too often when we talk about purpose, we are talking about the big picture, the cathedral, and not talking enough about the brick-by-brick way that we make it happen.
So, I added two more parts to this purpose statement exercise that I want to take you through because turning purpose into action is tough work. And anytime we make a change, it’s scary. We have all been on the rollercoaster of life where we feel like sometimes, we’re potential energy, we’re tick, tick, ticking up, and then we turn into kinetic energy and the ride just sort of takes us away for a little bit and then we maybe tick, tick, tick up again.
When we think about purpose and do a purpose statement like this, we can be potential energy, we can think about all the good things that we want to do, but how do we turn it into action? Anytime we think about turning it into action though, guess what happens? All those fears and anxieties come along for the ride.
Oh boy, do they ever, and if you’re anything like me, we really try to outrun those fears and anxieties or sweep them under the rug or deny them, right? Because we want to be better than that. We want to pursue our goals and, and our dreams and live purposefully. But guess what? It doesn’t work. It is really, really a ton of energy to outrun your fears and anxieties.
And so much of that energy would be so much better spent on living joyfully and purposefully and in keeping with the wellbeing that you want to have in your life. So, the next question that I want to ask you is a little bit of a, a personal one, but only you are going to see this purpose statement. That’s all right.
So be really honest. What are the fears and anxieties that might hold you back from living your purpose? The reason why I ask this is because when we look at our fears and anxieties and name them, and by the way, I put up this list because hopefully this makes you feel less alone in your fears and anxieties, because maybe they’re up there, we all have them.
When we look at our fears and anxieties, it makes them less scary. You know, those monsters that lurk in the dark are way more scary than the ones that we look at and say, okay, you’re actually probably trying to give me some information. Should I change my course? Should I take this information? Or is this information from a previous part of my life, a past part of me that maybe isn’t relevant right now?
So how can you sort of list those fears and anxieties and look at them? So that’s the next question. List three fears and anxieties that might hold you back on your path to purpose. And my invitation to you is not just to list them so that you can stomp on them and get rid of those monsters, but instead, can you think about how you can accept those fears and anxieties as part of your journey toward purpose?
Because as I found in my own life, actually accepting the fears and anxieties sort of makes those monsters a whole lot less small, a lot less big. It sort of shrinks them down. And when I accept my fears and anxieties, I spend a lot less time running away from them and a lot more time living and accomplishing the things that I want to accomplish.
So you list those three finally. How are we going to do this? We have looked at our, our larger purpose. We’ve accepted that there are going to be some stumbling blocks along the way, but now is the time to set purpose-based commitments. And purpose-based commitments are basically how you’re going to do it, paired with why it matters, their goals with a purpose.
And all too often we are really good at setting goals, but we don’t ask why it matters. And then sometimes when we think about why in the big picture, we’re good at that, but then we don’t think about how to make it happen. So this is an opportunity to try to put it all together. And again, this is where doing it on a daily basis or in a particular part of your life gets really important because I’m now inviting you to set three purpose-based commitments.
Three goals, three how’s with the why behind them to actually live your purpose and make it happen? It turns out that. We spend our time and our money in keeping with our values. And if we’re diluting ourself about what our values and our purpose is, then we’re going to go through life spending in one way and talk in it in another way.
Aligning how we spend our limited resources and making sure they’re in keeping with our values is an important step on the path to purpose. So the question really as you think about those purpose-based commitments is, how can I spend my limited resources? And we all have limited resources. Limited resources of time, of energy, of money in keeping with my values to maximize not only my wellbeing, but the wellbeing of others to maximize not only my happiness and wellness, but the happiness and wellness of those that I want to positively impact.
So when you make these three purpose-based commitments right now, you can think about it. How can you make the, these purpose, these commitments for yourself personally? How can you make them as you work with the teams that you work with in the professional, in your professional life, how can you make them as you work with your family, how can you make them around a particular goal that matters to you?
So think about that and list three. Now, this is the one where if you can’t get to it right now in the moment, put a little asterisk by it as well and uh, and get back to it later. But this one is a really important one because it’s going to turn the purpose into action. Now, I love this image. I absolutely love this image because I have anthropomorphized this fish for years.
Can you imagine what this fish is? Think. This fish is in midair. It for some crazy reason, has made a leap. I don’t know, maybe the bowl was salty or hot or something, and maybe the other one is cool and lovely and it’s certainly bigger. But regardless, this fish has made a leap and it is in midair and saying, oh my goodness.
Oh my goodness. It must be terrified, right? Well, the reason why I anthropomorphize this fish is because I am this fish, and you are this fish. Anytime we try to make a change, anytime we try to think about these big ideas of purpose and meaning, we’re this fish, and it is downright scary and daunting at times, but I think this fish is going to make it.
This fish is making the leap. It’s made the decision, it’s put in the work, it’s done. The hardest part. And I have looked at the trajectory of this fish, and I think this fish is going to land in the bowl. So I am inviting you to join me in being this fish to join me in taking these steps toward purpose and toward a purposeful daily life.
And so on the Well Wisconsin website is a PDF. That is a fillable pdf, which is really cool. So you can type right into it and you can also print it out and you can begin to complete your daily purpose statement. So it’s that first purpose statement, because I value, I’ll use my gifts for to positively impact, but then you’re going to accept those fears and anxieties and you’re going to consciously make purpose-based commitments to put it into action.
Here’s mine for today. It’s that first sentence that I already showed you, right? And. Then of course I’ve got my fears and anxieties, and we all have them. You know, am I, am I good enough at what I do? Um, do I, do I feel out of control? Yes. Often, it’s very hard to control everything in life. And then I talk about what I actually want to do.
I embrace those fears and anxieties and I say, you know, despite all that, and, and with all of the that information I want today to give a great lecture to you to meet with some students because I have an upcoming exam in my consuming happiness class. And to make a big potato bar with all the fixings for my kids.
Now, you may be looking at this purpose statement and saying, now wait a second, I thought she was going to rock our world with the amazing things that she was going to do today. Well see, this is the thing about a daily purpose state. I am living my purpose when I do these things. And while I might have done these things without putting them in a purpose statement by actually putting them out here, I’m kind of giving myself credit for doing what I want to do in keeping with my values, doing it purposefully to impact those that I care about most.
And it turns out that every day is not always the most purposeful of days. And that’s okay too. I often think about life, uh, and through that, that idea that that, you know, just like walking, you know, we just look, walking looks very seamless, but walking is actually the act of controlled falling because you’re out of balance at every point, right?
You’re out of balance as you’ve moved from one leg to the other and often in life, we are not always in purposeful balance. And not every day is going to be all about, you know, impacting the people we want to impact and, and living our values. But by doing a daily purpose statement exercise, you can kind of check in with yourself and you can see whether you are heading in the right direction for the most part.
So this exercise has been incredibly helpful to me, and it has been really useful for thousands of people, including a lot of my students who, uh, who do these exercises. And so I invite you to consider putting it into action for yourself, for your own life. And by the way, you can edit it any way you want.
You can make it fit for your life, uh, as, as you see. So to review, these are the things that I, um, that, that I really want you to leave you with. And then we’ve got some time for some questions. And I intentionally left time for questions because when I talk to people about purpose and wellbeing, all sorts of wonderful questions come up.
I think it’s very important to meet people where they are because I’m meeting myself where I am and I’m learning and growing in this purpose work. And I would love to hear about how you are thinking about it as well. So my takeaways are that purpose and wellness very much go hand in hand. And right now, today is a great time to be asking and answering these big questions because when we ask and answer questions of purpose, what we’re doing is building up.
That, that intrinsic value-based learning inside us, we’re creating something inside of us that doesn’t come from just people saying nice things about us, but that comes from knowing that we are putting our energy where it matters most to us. The second thing is that purpose is a verb, not a noun. And what that means is that doing a purpose statement exercise and just putting it up on your wall and never doing anything about it, that’s actually not purposeful living.
So to really live on purpose means to put into action these purpose-based commitments and take these small steps to use your gifts in keeping with your values to make a positive impact on the lives of others. and if you want to find more of these exercises, you can visit my website. I have these, all these free worksheets, uh, on how to use this with your family.
And, uh, I’m open to taking questions on how to use this in particular elements of your wellness life if you want to learn more. Um, I also did this associated, uh, I also did this audible original, uh, lecture series that was an Associated Press bestseller. And it talks you through the same kinds of things that I’ve talked to you about today, but with lots more examples, with lots more detail, lots more stories, and lots more data to back it up because I really do believe that, uh, not for school but for life, we learned.
And I’m so grateful that you took the time to join us today and to really begin this conversation. So I’m going to leave it there and open up and maybe RenXee is going to be able to share some of the questions that I hope are coming.
Host: Yes, we have a lot of wonderful questions coming in, and if you haven’t submitted your question yet, go ahead and do that in the question box on the right side of the screen. Um, so I’m, I’m actually going to combine a couple that I think are very similarly related. Um, so one, we, we’ve, well, we’ve had a, a couple people already ask about your specific purpose statement. Are you completing it on a daily basis or are you just changing the last sentence on there? They’re kind of wondering a little bit about how, how you complete it. And then I guess the second part of that question, um, we had someone ask about research around the frequency, um, of when these questions are updated, like, do have you ever done research to see whether this is done daily or not? And if that actually lends to behavior change or self-reported levels of purpose.
Guest: Oh, these are wonderful questions. So for me, I have been playing with this all different ways, and what I’ve found is that doing the, um, doing the purpose statement as sort of frequently as possible within the week, I mean, its often life runs away with you and you can’t do it every day, but trying to do it.
Um, and then saving, I, I save the worksheets and then I look back through them because it’s a very interesting, almost, uh, diary of not only the things that I did, but the changes and the things that I cared about most. And so if you keep a journal, this might be something to add in your journal. Uh, occasionally as a check-in, sometimes I don’t change that first sentence.
Other times I do. I have, there are a bunch of things that I value. I’m one of those people who looks at that list of values and says, yeah, I mean, a lot of them are good. How do I pick three? The thing is that values collide, and you can’t always live all your values in one day. In fact, most of the time you can’t.
And sometimes there are two values that you have that directly compete with each other. So, for example, when I, uh, have to make a decision about whether I’m going to travel for work, uh, or be able to put my kids to bed, and those are two, I value my kids and spending time with them and reading with them before bed.
But I also value talking to people about purpose and wellbeing. So which of the values is going to win out on any particular day? And if you do the purpose statement more often, you can also see when you’re out of. Right. So if you think about life as that controlled, falling and, and walking and sort of going out from one thing to another, as long as you’re sort of moving through, you can see a good overall balance.
But sometimes we get kind of stuck in a rut, and this is a way to see that as well. In terms of research around whether doing this often is a good thing or not, I have not yet done that, and I think it would be a really exciting thing to do. I’ve only begun to do those daily purpose statements in the last couple years.
I would say that thinking about purpose, especially in times of transition, so for my undergraduates as they’re thinking about graduating, so um, thinking, going from school into, into their professional life, if you’re thinking about changing a job, thinking about re-partnering, uh, or retiring, or any of those kinds of big moments in your life, these are really good times to think about purpose.
And as part of the money, relationships, and equality initiative that I direct at UW Madison, I’ve also taken these purpose statements and made them into workbooks around financial goals and financial discussions so that couples can talk about their financial purpose with each other and talk about financial wellbeing through the lens of what matters most. So there are many ways that you can update these.
Host: Wonderful. So we have another, another question now about how do we face evolving purpose that seems to be very different from our starting.
Guest: Hmm. Oh, that’s wonderful. So this is why I don’t like the definition of purpose as a singular life aim. This is why I really like this idea of a purpose mindset, because with a purpose mindset, it can evolve and it can change as we change in life.
I mean, I look back at myself, uh, and I’m a very, uh, different person with different responsibilities, with different goals, and with a different set of values that are coming front and center than I was in my early twenties. That’s normal. That’s okay. And so, rather than kind of force ourselves into being one type of person forever, Often we thinking about purpose can really, you can see it as the thread that runs through all of the roles that you play in your life.
And when you see it that way, the challenge though there though, is that really you can only see that thread retrospectively. And so for a lot of, uh, a lot of the purpose self-help books out there, they are geared toward folks in midlife and actually really in later life, looking back as they think about their legacy for retirement.
And that’s a wonderful time to be thinking about purpose. But since I encourage folks to start thinking about purpose early on in life, to make purposeful decisions and embrace a purpose mindset, that means that we also have to be kind of comfortable with purposes changing. Now when I look back, I can see some really common threads.
I can’t believe that I was interested in some of this stuff, you know, even in my teens. And, but at the time, I had no idea what I would be doing. Now I can retrospectively look back and find that thread, but taking a purpose mindset, I think allows you to take a little bit of the pressure off when your goals and your focus changes as life changes.
Host: That’s great response. I love this information. Great questions coming in. We have another one here. Um, how can we decipher our true values versus our societal should values or perhaps what society has trained us that we should.
Guest: Oh, when you, when you figure it out, please let me know. Uh, that is an excellent question, and it’s really true. I mean, we are raised and socialized. I mean, basically at its core socialization is teaching people what they should value right and wrong. Um, what is a virtuous life and what is not? Now, that can be good because that’s how all of us come together and have a shared set of norms and values. At the same time, figuring out whether we have internalized those values as our own is an important differentiation that comes at different stages of our lives.
Sometimes it comes in our twenties as we ask those big questions and think about the dreams that we want to pursue in our lives, other times it comes midlife as we say. Now, wait a second. Is this all there is? You know, how can I shake things up and do something different? or it can come at retirement.
As you are thinking about your next steps and thinking about what you want to do when you don’t have to do a nine to five job anymore, these are all times of transition when you can sort of really begin to think about those shoulds and values. What I will say about shoulds and values is often, this is sort of the way we talk about things rather than the way we actually feel about them.
So if you think about, um, I should call my father every week. Well, yeah, but how about I reframe it as because I value family and my relationship with my father, I will, I, I choose to call him every week. All of a sudden that changes. That should. Into a value. And it’s not that I didn’t feel that way before, but I’m able to take agency and ownership and not have it come from the outside in.
We can think about even how we talk about the things we have to do in the day. I have to give this speech, I have to go to work. It sounds kind of corny, but if you reframe it, at least silently to yourself, because I value communication, I get to do this. I’m really excited that I get to have this opportunity because I value providing for my family.
I’m going to go to work, and those are ways that we can use our values to. Yes. Now there are certainly going to be things that other people would like you to value that you do not value, and then you’ve sort of got to be honest with yourself and say, well, no, that’s a wonderful value, but that’s somebody else’s focus.
You don’t have to diminish it. But we can only do so much in the limited time that we have. So what is it that we actually value? And can we reframe some of those shoulds as values as a way to make ourselves know that we are in fact acting purposefully.
Host: So we’ve, we’ve had a couple questions come in, um, Dr. Whelan on around identifying our gifts. And so I’m going to kind of combine two. So someone’s just asking what do we do if we’re really unsure what our gifts are? And then someone else asked, um, what your thought thoughts are around gift talent surveys that are available. And if you have any you would recommend specifically.
Guest: So I’ll do, I’ll put those together. So the first thing is there are many wonderful surveys out there. There’s the VIA Character Strengths Inventory, which is one of my favorites. It’s really, really research based. Uh, and um, and then there’s Gallup Strengths Finder.
These are, um, these are wonderful ways to help. Suss out some of your strengths if you are really unsure. But frankly, my favorite way to figure it out is to ask your friends and your loved ones and to say, I’m not fishing for compliments. I’m actually doing this exercise. In fact, you can suggest they do it too.
And, uh, and can you tell me what you see as my, uh, as my biggest strengths at that point? Then you can figure out whether those are, can-do strengths or want-to strengths because sometimes you’re good at something and people really want you to do it because it’s better for them than it is for you. So you can crosscheck that one.
Now the other thing that I think is really a challenge is that, uh, we evolved in very small societies. Humans are really social animals, right? But we evolved in societies of like a hundred people. and in a small society you would be known for being good at something. Everybody had a talent that they were really recognized for and they were the best in that society.
But now with social media, with all of our inputs out there, it’s a really big world. And the idea that you are going to be the absolute best at something, odds go down when we’ve got billions of people that you’re comparing yourself to. Right? And this, I think, has been really hard for our self-esteem. So when I say, what are your strengths and your, your skillsets and, and what do you enjoy doing?
I’m not saying like what you could win, uh, the world record for. I’m not saying like, you know what? You are the single best on the planet in doing. I’m saying, what are the, the things that you do that give you energy and that other people appreciate about you being a good listener, being a caring friend?
Uh, being able to organize a situation or, uh, in your work teams to get everybody focused on what they need to do, keeping a schedule. These are all things that you might say, oh, those aren’t really skills, but they are. Because if that organization or your family or you yourself didn’t have them, things would be very, very different.
So, thinking about gifts and strengths, maybe in a, um, not like, you know, you’re going to get a trophy kind of way, but what are the things that you do that really have value that also make you feel valued, uh, and, uh, and that you can give to other people?
Host: Great. Um, okay, our next question here, I have been thinking about purpose as it relates to my career. Any recommendations for someone who has many interests instead of one singular passion and for whom versatility is a strength in an environment that seems to value specialization of expertise?
Guest: Ah, so this is terrific, and I really relate to this question because I was trained to be a journalist and, uh, all throughout high school and college, I was editor of the newspaper.
And the thing that journalists do is they learn about something for a bit and then they write about it, and then they move on to a completely other topic. And I realized that I loved journalism because I loved learning about a whole variety of different things. And then I loved translating them. And this initially was sort of upsetting to me because like this question is asking, I thought, well, no, everybody needs to have a specialization.
You have to have something that you’re going to focus on, otherwise no one will hire you. But your specialization can actually be pulling the pieces together. Can be seeing the forest for the trees. It can be synthesizing, it can be organizing things, it can be envisioning possible futures. And so in your career, looking at other resumes and picking words that really pull that strength in, a lot of people don’t have that.
And while it is not like, you know, I can, uh, write this particular code or I can, um, I have degrees in this particular. If you can convey your ability to pull ideas together, to be interested in a lot of different things, and ideally to help other people share that interest that you have, that’s really an invaluable thing.
And when we think about purpose, we can think about it in the same way. Now, we can’t all you, you probably can’t do all of your various values and all the things that you want to do in one day, but I often think about it like my pediatrician told me when I first had kids, how to feed a toddler. You don’t have to worry about what the toddler eats at any given meal, but you want to think about what the toddler eats over the course of a.
And what the toddler eats over the course of the month. Because like some meals are just going to be carrots and other meals are just going to be mac and cheese. But as long as it evens out over the course of the week, it’s fine. And the same thing is true with us and our strengths and how we live our purpose. We want to make sure that we have an overarching balance, but knowing that sometimes we’re going to focus on one thing more than the other, and as long as we remember, and this is where these purpose statement exercises come in, as long as we take, can take that big picture view to know that we’re going to focus on this now, but we also do have these other interests that we want to get back to. That can be really useful.
Host: All right. We have a question about helping loved ones. So do you have any advice on how some of our participants today can help a loved one develop a purpose statement? And especially if that person is struggling a bit in life? So yes, uh, I have five kids. Youngest is seven, oldest is 14.
And I have tried to do these purpose statement exercises with the kids, um, with even a second-grade classroom. So the good news is that these exercises are, uh, very accessible to a lot of different people. The bad news is that it’s very hard to think about purpose when you’re depressed and. It is really hard to think about the larger why when you are in psychological pain, um, or you are wrecked by addiction or you, um, are otherwise in a really tough time.
And that doesn’t mean that talking about purpose is impossible because actually the research finds that having a sense of purpose very much gets us through tough times. And in my own life and in tough times, I found that sort of focusing in on that kernel of purpose, even when things seemed really bleak, that was, that gave me the strength to carry on.
So my advice would be to model the purpose. Work yourself. Nobody really wants to be handed, uh, an exercise out of the blue and saying, you should do this right? Because that’s shoulds, that’s somebody else’s shoulds on you rather than a value. But if you can model what it looks like to be asking and answering these questions of purpose, ask that person what they think your strengths are, um, and then what do they think their strengths are, and have a conversation based on this that could be a really nice and unthreatening way to begin a purpose dialogue. I hope that helps.
Host: We have another question that came through. Um, someone who, like you was a university professor with a family, um, and this person now is retired and lives alone and their, spouse just passed away. They also are living in a community, um, a new community. So finding purpose is a challenge. Any ideas and recommendations?
Guest: So this person sounds like they are in what I would call a generative time of life where meaning and purpose is about making, uh, a positive impact in the lives of others and giving the gifts that you’ve received in your lifetime and sharing them with others. And so what we find, uh, in later life, and Richard Lighter, by the way, my colleague, uh, who I, I cited earlier, he’s written some really beautiful books about this, um, including one called, uh, I think the Claiming Your Place at the Fire.
And it’s about the role of elders and the purposeful role of elders in, uh, I in, in sharing these ideas with others. So I would recommend if there’s a way that you can be a mentor for somebody, if there is a way that you can volunteer your time at, uh, at an organization where you’re working with younger people, you have a wealth of knowledge, uh, to share and part of giving of yourself.
Is that pro-social behavior that comes with purpose, that will also give you yourself dividends in terms of happiness and wellbeing.
Host: Um, now someone had a question specifically about your books, um, and are there additional practical steps that your books include that would be helpful? More activities and worksheets, like what you’ve shared.
Guest: Yeah. So the big picture is, uh, really geared toward young adults. And so if you have a young adult in your life, in their teens, twenties, thirties, that’s a great book.
And yes, it’s full of exercises and activities that you, it’s actually a workbook, so you can do the exercises in the book. Then the audible original lecture series while it, you just listened to it. Um, it does talk you through lots more exercises and there are pauses, so you can sort of think about, or you can pause the audio, uh, the audio lecture series.
So yeah, both of them, uh, that, that Finding Your Purpose, audible original lecture series is geared toward adults. Um, and so not young adults, but like, you know, thirties and thirties and up kind of thing. And, uh, and both of those have lots of, lots more exercises that are useful. To figure out really deep, to dive deeper, what are those values?
How do you separate shoulds and values? What happens when values collide? How do you figure out your strengths? Who do you want to impact? How do you envision, uh, what, what your vision statement might be? And your purpose statement and exercises on looking at fears and anxieties and those monsters that come out, uh, at you. And then how to put those commitments into action.
Host: So we have someone who is, um, self-declaring as a, a perfectionist, and they’re wanting to let go of one of their fears, um, and anxieties from your worksheet as like a fear of not making a mistake. So what recommendations do you have for letting go.
Guest: Oh, good luck. Me too. Um, it’s really hard. This perfectionism is crippling at times because then you, you get so anxious and beat yourself up so much. So for me, what has helped is to understand that I’m not the only one who is doing what I am doing. And to know that I am part of a community of others who share these ideas.
I’m not the only one talking about purpose and meaning or happiness. And that’s great because what that means is I don’t have to do it all. Uh, you know, there this idea that there are, there are many, there are many rooms, there are many ways to, uh, to, to achieve the thing that you want to achieve. So for me, actually thinking about myself as, um, part of a whole.
Has helped the perfectionism idea because part of the perfectionism is like you’re the only one that can do it, and if you don’t do it, like the world’s going to fall down around you because you haven’t done it right? So taking that weight off a little bit, I think is really useful. And purpose can help with that because when you think about your values and you think about the people that you want to impact, ask yourself, are you the absolutely only one who has those values and who is trying to impact those people or ideas?
No. And being part of a community and acting in pro-social ways, that is a fabulous way to kind of give yourself a break knowing that you are held in the presence of others as well.
Host: Wonderful. So, um, we have another person that has asked about, um, does a person ever arrive at their destination or is it always a struggle to lead a purpose driven life? Can a person ever stop and just be content in the moment, sort of bask in what has been accomplished?
Guest: So the answer is yes and or no. And yes. So will we ever arrive well at the end of our lives? Ideally, yes. Uh, but will we, uh, but should we bask in the wonderful moments on the way along the way? Absolutely. So purpose shouldn’t feel like a chore. This is where this idea of being able to do something rather than having to do something, you have a beautiful.
Beautiful opportunity to be able to use your gifts in keeping with what you value and care about to make a positive impact on the world around you. And that is something that I want to do every day of my life, which will then be the definition for me of a, a life well lived. It’s not like another should on me.
And if it feels like another should, like, oh my gosh, this is another thing I’m supposed to do for my wellness, or something like that, then give it a little rest for a bit and, and reframe it and think about is there a way that you can reframe this so that this is actually something that you want to do?
This is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic values. And, uh, oftentimes we have to do something repeatedly so that it becomes intrinsic and it becomes a habit that we have. And if you think that, that just trying it for a little bit will help you get there, I certainly recommend that. But if it’s feeling like another should.
Purpose is not. Another should. Purpose is that light inside you that you want to share with other people. And my hope is that exercises like this take it out of the realm of the scary and bring it into the realm of the possible and the, um, pleasurable, the joyful in our everyday lives.
Host: So someone’s asking, um, I know you talked to Christine earlier about college-aged children, but someone is asking for your advice on introducing this concept to middle or high school-aged kids. Any recommendations there?
Guest: Yes, I think that is an absolutely wonderful idea, and I am actually giving a talk, uh, to the middle school where my children attend on this very topic next week because I think there is a growing idea that as we’re focusing on character education and as we’re talking to kids about values and strengths and making a difference in the lives of others, pulling back and helping students think about the larger why is important.
One of the things that I, I often stress when I’m talking to young people is that investing in yourself and in your social capital and in your human capital and prioritizing you and your growth, that’s okay. Uh, and that’s a good thing to do. We need a balance between, uh, between those inner focused purposes and the outer focused purposes.
So you can really, you can really do both, uh, at, at various times in your life. And I love thinking about helping young adults think about purpose because it can particularly derail one of the moments that is very common in the lives of, uh, you know, 18-year-olds in particular, if you are taught in high school that your purpose is to get into college.
When you get into college you’re happy, but you feel a little bit let down because you say, now what, and that is because your purpose was never to get into college. Your goal was to get into college. Your purpose is unfolding in something much bigger than that, and it’s about using your gifts and keeping with your values to positively impact the lives of others.
So making sure that young people don’t mix up purpose and goals is a real gift so that people can understand why it matters and how to make it happen. Wonderful. Someone is asking, um, how you break the cycle of expectation of purpose of the world. Leave you as in you have to get a degree, a job, get married to your own personal expectations of purpose without feeling guilty for not doing enough in life, like not fulfilling what the world sees as values and goals.
It’s so hard because we are so well socialized in a particular. Particular value system that to turn away from it has costs. And yet if we don’t feel fulfilled by the value system that we’re supposed to be living, then we’re spending so much time in that angst state that we’re not freed up to live our purpose.
So I would look at the things that you feel are shoulds in your life and can you reframe them as values? And if you can’t reframe them as values, how can you put them aside? If you can’t put them aside right now, how can you put them aside? Later and really commit to doing it when a particular change has happened.
So, for example, if you need to continue to work at a particular job so that your kids can stay in the house and um, and you can have the money to pay for things, while your job itself may not be purposeful, you can know that the purpose that you are enacting in your life right now is providing for your family.
And that’s incredibly purposeful work on its own. So thinking about this potentially in, um, in another way, if you feel trapped where you are, and then making a really conscious and purpose-based commitment to try to make a change at first opportunity.
Host: Wonderful. Um, someone who’s really interested in learning a little bit more about, um, meditation. You talked about the beginning of the talk. Um, so if you want to share anything in particular of what you have found works for you, whether what comes to mind in a state of meditation or, um, any ideas to, to get started there.
Guest: Oh, I would love to claim that I am an expert meditator, but I’m really not. I can tell you that. What I do instead is journal. And I kept a daily journal starting at age 12, and I love writing in my diary. And in a sense that is a type of meditation because what you’re doing is you’re writing out your thoughts and you’re clearing your head, uh, and putting them on paper. . Now what I do is really more think about this, around these purpose statements and try to make sure that my to-do list is guided by the, the purpose and the values that I want to live in my life.
One thing that I will, that I will say, and this is less about meditation and more about um, making sure that you’re using your time in keeping with your values, is that keeping a time diary has been incredibly helpful for me. And I don’t do it all the time cause it’s really sort of time consuming and nitpicky.
But for one week to write down what you do, everything you do, brushing your teeth, you know, putting away your clothes in 15-minute increments for an entire week, and then look back on how you spend your time and are you spending your time in keeping with your stated values. This is something that you might then meditate on.
Because when I often look at my time diary, I say, oh, that’s why I was beating myself up for not doing that. Turns out I wasn’t doing that. I was spending all my time doing other things. Now are these other things that I’m doing what I want to do? Well, yes. If they are, then I need to let go about of the should that says that I should be doing this other thing.
I’m spending time and keeping with my values. So, uh, I can see meditation and quiet reflection really as a time to process some of these questions of purpose and meaning. And if you have ideas on how to incorporate purpose into a meditation practice, I would love to hear them as.
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