Highly sensitive people want purpose in life. Here’s what researchers say about how to get it.
Do you know why you’re here? No matter who you ask, this is a deep question that will garner various results. And for a highly sensitive person (HSP), the answer to that question can provide great insight into their well-being. There are a few things that sensitive souls need to be happy, and a sense of purpose is definitely one of them. This has certainly been my experience.
I spent several years unsure of what I was going to do with my life, as many young people do when the end of high school draws near. My struggle wasn’t just about my future career. It was more about the impact I wanted to have on the world and how I wanted my life path to make me feel.
This lack of purpose wasn’t uncommon at all among my peers — it didn’t seem to bother them the same way it bothered me and my highly sensitive soul. When I would ask some of them why they chose to be a nurse, an engineer, or a mechanic, for instance, I was hoping to hear answers that would inspire me and help me find my way. I thought I’d hear answers like: “I want to heal people,” “I want to give the world better solutions to the problems we all face,” or “I want to help people explore the world in their cars.” Instead, I got answers more along the lines of “I want to make bank” or “The pension is good.” I was disappointed (to say the least).
I don’t mean to sound judgy about those answers. I love financial security just as much as the next person. After all, that’s how we’re able to live our lives exactly how we’d like. The thing is,
I struggle to find the drive to pursue that financial security, or do anything, for that matter, when there’s no bigger purpose behind the pursuit.
Through my research, this seems to be a sentiment I share with other HSPs. Having a purpose is one of the key things that makes us happy. What’s more? This tendency to seek meaning might make us healthier and grow as a person, as I’m about to get into more.
If you’re as purpose-driven as I and other HSPs are — and you haven’t yet determined the answer to the question I asked at the beginning — you may be wondering how you might find a purpose. Or, it might be time to reevaluate your perspective on what it means to lead a meaningful life.
But before we get into how we can find our purpose or passion in life, let’s look at the science behind high sensitivity. This way, you can see why we HSPs are drawn to seeking out our purpose in the first place.
The Science Behind High Sensitivity
While we’re all sensitive to a degree, some people are more so than others. To that end, approximately 30 percent of people are innately more sensitive — they’re born this way — and it manifests both physically and emotionally. (For reference, around 40 percent of people are average in sensitivity while 20 percent are low in sensitivity.) Researchers refer to this trait as environmental sensitivity — or Sensory Processing Sensitivity. And, not to worry — all three levels of environmental sensitivity are considered to be completely normal and healthy.
Highly sensitive people (HSPs) fall near the high end of the sensitivity continuum. They usually have high levels of empathy, are deeply in touch with their physical environment(s), and also to the emotions and feelings of others (for better or worse). In addition, they may be quite sensitive to noises, textures, and other everyday things that don’t seem to bother other people. If you’re an HSP, it doesn’t just “go away,” but HSPs can learn to manage overstimulating and overwhelming situations.
Some researchers believe high sensitivity is linked to giftedness, as well — sensitive people are deep thinkers, pick up on nuances others overlook, and usually have remarkable intuition. And intuition plays an important role when it comes to finding one’s purpose.
How Purpose Is Really Found
If you’re confused about your calling and you’ve sought advice from a trusted loved one or mentor, you may have heard the phrase: “Just follow your passion.” Sounds like good advice, doesn’t it? Like they say, “Do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
However, some psychology professors have been challenging our collective understanding of what it means to find one’s life purpose. Stanford psychology researcher Carol Dweck and her colleague, Greg Walton, conducted a study exploring how college students view their passions. This seems like the perfect sample group since university students are often taught to pursue their life purpose through their majors and future careers.
According to Dweck and Walton, there are two main approaches a person can take regarding their personal interests. Some people have a fixed mindset around their passions, a fixed theory of interests, while others are more flexible, with a growth theory of interests. According to the study, the growth theory seems more beneficial. How so?
Well, when we have a fixed theory of interests, we believe that our life purpose (what some may call their “passion(s)”) exists in its complete form as soon as we’re born, and it’s our job to find it. With this mindset, it’s easy to write off interests that don’t align with the passions we’ve claimed for ourselves. Thus, we end up robbing ourselves of valuable life experiences because they “don’t fit.”
In addition, there’s a common belief under the fixed theory of interests that finding one’s passion means finding something that makes us feel happy all the time. But, no matter how much you love a certain activity or job, there will be days where you won’t feel enthusiastic about it. A fixed theory of interests can cause you to give up on anything that fails to bring you a constant feeling of bliss — and you may end up disappointed when you find that no such thing exists.
So what’s the alternative?
Dweck and Walton argue that passions are not found, but developed. With a growth theory of interest, we don’t wait passively for our sense of purpose to fall in our lap. Instead, we actively create one by living life open to a variety of possibilities. In other words, there are specific ways we create that passion or purpose. They depend a lot on the attitude we have about trying things out (even if it’s difficult) and keeping at them.
Their findings have shown me a different perspective on living my life in a way that satisfies my need for purpose. It’s a perspective that encourages me to live life fully instead of frantically searching for an elusive singular passion that will supposedly make my life mean something in the end. Here’s how you, too, can incorporate this into your life.
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3 Ways to (Actually) Find Your Purpose as a Highly Sensitive Person
1. Try new things — even though they may make you uncomfortable at first.
As an HSP, it’s very likely that you have a rich inner life. Whether you like to appreciate art in its many forms or create it, your inner life might offer you a sense of identity. If your talent for painting, or your volunteer work, has become a part of your self-image, branching out and trying something new altogether may feel uncomfortable.
That’s what I’ve found, at least. Like most HSPs, I’ve always had a private activity in my life that brings me satisfaction, and to a certain degree, purpose. Those activities are drawing and writing, though I find I have little time to draw lately. Yet these activities are a part of who I am, and they both favor me staying inside by myself in a quiet environment.
For that reason, I find it a bit uncomfortable to do things I don’t typically identify with — activities that require me to leave the house (not the healthiest thing staying in 24/7, I know), being around a lot of people, or hanging out in loud environments.
I know that my dislike of certain activities, particularly those that can become overstimulating, is normal for me as a sensitive person. However, staying in my comfort zone, as cozy as it is, isn’t always in my best interest.
So you’ll be proud to know that I have made a genuine effort to leave my house in pursuit of activities that are uncomfortable for me, yet meaningful. I have become a volunteer for my local Humane Society! In actuality, this role aligns with my interests since I love animals, particularly cats, but I’ll have to work alongside quite a few people and help with public events, too.
Both duties, I’m not particularly comfortable with and wouldn’t normally do unless entirely necessary. That being said, I know that helping animals will give me a great sense of purpose. And many of my fellow HSPs know that highly sensitive people have a special bond with animals. So that trumps any of the not-as-exciting aspects of the “job” for me.
Is there an activity you’ve been wanting to try, but haven’t because it isn’t like the usual things you do? If you’re feeling a lack of purpose in your life, consider trying something outside your comfort zone. Remember, it’s up to you to carve a path to a meaningful life with pastimes (old and new) that fill you up and nourish your soul.
2. Follow your intuition — it often knows best.
When making life decisions, there’s a tendency to put more weight on the logical side of things. There’s a good reason for this: We want our choices to make sense on a practical level. However, when we ignore our intuition, we could miss out on those magical hunches and intuitive flashes that seem to guide us to more purposeful ends.
If you get a feeling that you want to try something, talk to a certain person, or sign up for a certain class, just do it. There’s a lot of noise out there that can distract you from what your keen highly sensitive intuition knows to be true.
One thing that has helped me listen to my intuition more is to remember times I made the “perfect” decision for my life at the time based on an inner knowing. When meeting my closest friends, choosing my current career (which I love), and committing to my current partner — all facets of my life that have added a significant amount of purpose to my life — my intuition was at the forefront of my decision-making.
So try not to stress too much about it — almost anything can become your purpose if you choose to use this approach and let your intuition lead the way.
3. Just enjoy life — when you least expect it, your purpose will reveal itself.
Many of us want to create meaning in our lives so badly that we make it our full-time job to discover the question discussed at the outset: Why am I here? To recap, based on Dweck and Walton’s study, we find our passion (or our purpose) through a long developmental process.
We live life and experience things that gradually add to our sense of purpose. As life unfolds, we learn more about ourselves and what we contribute to the world, and eventually, perhaps without even realizing it right away, we’ve found it! Our raison d’être, our purpose, is evident.
When looking for a loving relationship, you’ve probably heard advice from your loved ones like: “When you aren’t looking for it, you’ll find it.” The same applies to your life’s purpose. Don’t look for it, per se. Just live your life to the fullest, and when you least expect it, it will reveal itself. You’ll see.
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