“I never thought I would be this person,” marvels 38-year-old Jessica Tunon. Two decades ago, the Floridian worked full time to pay her way through college and afterward leapt into a high-stress career in finance in Palm Beach. As the years passed, Jessica’s admirable drive and focus left little room for reflection, but she couldn’t ignore the signs that she needed to make some changes in her life. She gained weight and suffered chronic back pain. The two-plus hours she spent in her car every day battling commuter traffic didn’t help.
In 2001, she had back surgery for a herniated disk. The pain dissipated, but her stress didn’t. Not until she started walking. What started as physical recovery therapy ended up adding meaning to Jessica’s life. But it was a journey. In Florida she struggled to find time and safe places to walk. In 2007, Jessica moved to the pedestrian-friendly Washington suburb of Arlington, Virginia. She had been driving since she turned 16. She loved her sporty, two-door Honda Accord, the embodiment of the independence she had achieved through hard work. Giving it up was unthinkable—until she did it, and her whole life changed.
On May 12, 2008, Jessica let her Honda’s lease lapse, and she has been car-free ever since. “I learned what it’s like to live in a city with access to public transportation,” she says. “I lost weight. I saved money. The stress went away.”
Forming a community
The transformation didn’t stop there. For the first time, Jessica saw herself in a broader context. She started walking with friends. She found a like-minded community and discovered the joys of giving back by volunteering and reducing her carbon footprint. In 2014, Jessica launched Netwalking, a startup that organizes walking business meetings to get people up and moving and improve their health, happiness and productivity. Simply put, walking gave Jessica’s life purpose.
“Purpose” comes up a lot these days, but it’s far more than the latest buzzword. A growing pile of research links purpose with increased fulfillment, productivity and even longevity. For many Americans, finding purpose and meaning—at home and at work—has become central to their life plans. In a recent Gallup study, Americans rated “meaning and purpose” much higher than “wealth,” “status,” or “ recognition among peers” as important and immediate life goals. Just a decade ago, it barely made the list.
Mapping the path to purpose
Psychologists, sociologists and other experts are mapping the most fruitful paths to purpose. They’re redefining purpose as a way of life—a daily, achievable goal rather than some daunting Holy Grail. Spoiler alert: The key is making a difference in people’s lives. And increasingly, people like Jessica are willing to adjust key aspects of their lives to find purpose now rather than holding out vague hope for the future. In this story, you’ll also meet a reinvention coach who preaches what she practices and find advice for making positive lifestyle changes stick from a behavioral psychologist who studies the mechanics of habit.
Indeed, the pursuit of purpose has become so popular that AARP recently launched Life Reimagined (lifereimagined.org), a digital experience that provides guidance to the millions of midlife Americans who are exploring new possibilities in their lives. Integral to that experience is a package of interactive activities, online coaching and community connections that helps people rediscover what matters most to them.
“Americans are living longer, and this has led to a fundamental shift in how we think about career, money, health and personal fulfillment,” says Emilio Pardo, president of Life Reimagined. “We started Life Reimagined to provide tools to help people transition to what’s next in their lives. This builds on AARP’s promise to help people live their best lives, especially as we navigate an emerging life phase that encourages us to better understand our purpose and direction.”
What floats your boat
For such an important word, purpose can be hard to pin down. In The Power of Purpose, best-selling author and executive coach Richard Leider defines purpose as “the aim around which we structure our lives, a source of direction and energy.”
Simply put, says Richard, whose work provides a foundation for the Life Reimagined Institute, “purpose is your reason for getting up in the morning. It’s fundamental to happiness and longevity.” We live in a culture obsessed with money and material possessions, but study after study shows that wealth is not the path to happiness.
Finding meaning, finding happiness
A 2009 MetLife market report titled “Discovering What Matters” found that regardless of age, gender or financial status, a majority of people assign the most importance to meaning-related activities and, above all, spending time with family and friends. Those with a sense of purpose were more likely to report being “happy.” They felt more focused on the present and possessed a clearer vision of the future they wanted for themselves. And whether the purpose is a vocation or an avocation, one commonality shines through: Purpose always involves making a difference in the lives of others.
Research that backs it up
“We assume people are best motivated by money and prestige—what they’ll get, not necessarily by what they’ll give. But all studies show we’re best motivated by our effect on other people,” says Christine Carter, Ph.D., a sociologist and senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. She cites the research of Wharton School of Business psychologist Adam Grant, Ph.D., who has studied what motivates people in boring jobs, such as university fundraising call centers. Adam brought in speakers to inspire the callers and then measured the speakers’ effect on productivity.
The first group consisted of former call-center employees who spoke about how the work helped them advance their own careers. Their words produced no measurable effect on the fundraising outcome. Next came a group of scholarship recipients. They didn’t connect the dots between the fundraising and their own opportunities; they simply spoke about what the chance to attend college meant to them. Their testimonials inspired an uptick in calls and a 171 percent increase in money raised.
We are tribal animals
The results do not surprise Christine. “The most consistent finding about happiness throughout sociology, psychology and neuroscience across the last 150 years of work—as far back as people have been studying well-being and happiness—is that personal happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one’s connection to other people,” she says. “We are tribal animals. Our nervous system has evolved to feel safe and at ease in the presence of others. We understand the connection between what we do and why it matters to other people.”
In her book, The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and at Work, Christine defines the sweet spot as those moments when great strength overlaps with great ease. We’ve all experienced those times when all our faculties and skills align with our effort, and we find ourselves exceptionally intuitive, productive and energetic. “The fastest way to find the sweet spot,” Christine says, “is through meaning, in particular social meaning. Your belief about your purpose in relation to other people improves both power and ease.”
Long road to reinvention
More than a dozen years ago, Pamela Mitchell found her true calling by helping others after years of focusing on herself. Her journey involved a couple of risky leaps of faith into unknown waters.
Fittingly, she’s now the founder and CEO of the Miami-based Reinvention Institute, a coaching firm that helps successful professionals “transform their careers, themselves or their world.” Raised in Milwaukee, the first in her family to attend college, Pamela fulfilled an early dream by landing a job on Wall Street. Almost right away, she realized the job wasn’t a good fit, but she stuck it out. “I was taught to get an education, get a good job at a company and stay there,” Pamela says. “Nothing about finding purpose or even happiness.”
After five years, she quit with no job plan. Deciding she wanted to start over with a career in media, she looked for a book or coach who could help her make the switch. “All the career advice was about how to climb the ladder in your sector but nothing about how to switch ladders,” Pamela says.
By trial and error, she worked her way up to executive leadership roles at several media giants, including Discovery Channel. Then 9/11 happened. She was home at the time, three blocks from the World Trade Center. The intense external shock caused a seismic shift in Pamela’s view of her life’s trajectory. She enjoyed her work but not the office politics. “I was good at fighting corporate budget battles, but that didn’t make me happy,” she says. “I decided I wanted to do something that would make more of a difference in the world.”
The 'burning bush' moment
Reflecting on her career, Pamela realized how many colleagues relied on her for advice. People admired her values and the courage she had shown in seeking fulfilment. While on a sabbatical, Pamela experienced what she calls her “burning bush” moment. “It dawned on me how rare it is for people to know what they’re meant to do on this Earth,” she recalls. “If I can help them discover their purpose, that’s what I should do.”
For Pamela, reinvention is a “practical life skill that takes you through the ages and stages of life. It’s something you keep in your toolkit for helping you navigate life’s uncertainty.”Reinvention can be voluntary, or it can be thrust upon you by circumstances, often painful, such as job loss or illness. So how do you go about reinventing yourself to live a life of meaning, whether from choice, necessity or a combination of the two?
Making lasting change requires identifying what gives your life value and then focusing your actions on that goal. The following tips can help:
Think of “purpose” with a small “p”
Purpose doesn’t have to be a single calling or a big, selfless commitment to altruism. In fact, “Purpose” with a capital “P” often scares people away. “Purpose is a choice we make. It’s not a particular job,” says University of Wisconsin School of Human Ecology sociology professor and Life Reimagined Institute thought leader Christine Whelan, Ph.D.
“Purpose is how we act on a day-to-day basis.” Think of it, instead, as living purposefully. To illustrate her point, Christine W. tells a story of three bricklayers working on the same job. Each is asked what he is doing. The first man gruffly replies, “I’m putting one brick on top of another.” The second says, “I’m putting up a wall.” With enthusiasm and pride, the third says, “I’m building a cathedral.” Research shows that the more you see meaning in the work you do, the more fulfilled and happy you will be. The same goes for your home life.
Create a purpose statement
Make an honest assessment of four key life aspects: your gifts, values, your passions and the impact you want to make on the world. Combine them to create a powerful statement of purpose. Like a corporate mission statement, your personal purpose statement gives you a clear, concrete foundation on which to base decisions so that your actions feed your inner purpose and help you become your truest self.
“About 15 years ago, I decided I wanted to learn to play the saxophone,” says University of Texas psychology professor Art Markman, Ph.D., author of Smart Change: Five Tools to Create New and Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others. That sounds pretty specific, but it’s not. Specific means figuring out where to buy a sax, finding a teacher, budgeting costs, scheduling precise days and times each week for lessons and setting aside time and space for practice at home. Reaching that level of specificity allows you to head off all the conflicts that might arise down the road and force you to quit. “You have to become mindful of all the obstacles that might get in your way and plan for them in advance,” he says.
Art spent 10 years learning and practicing before he was any good at the sax. But the wait was worthwhile. Art is in a band and gets much satisfaction both from playing and the happiness his music brings other people.
“There’s always this idea that reinvention is immediate, something you go off and do. But it takes time,” Pamela says. “A lot of internal struggle and growth has to happen before you get to the point where you can say you’re willing to follow a new path. It took me a year to say I was going to leave my media career and go to executive coaching school.”
Search for true happiness
Short-term gratification is not the same as true fulfillment or joy. Using brain scans, scientists have shown that gratification and joy register in different parts of the brain. Christine Carter cites a series of studies showing that in order to match the well-being from seeing a relative or close friend on a regular basis, the average participant would require a $100,000 salary increase. “You need a lot more money to move the needle on well-being,” Christine C. says. “You do not have to have a lot more friends.”
Refresh your point of view
You might be living more purposefully than you realize. Since fulfilment is so closely tied to helping others, clarify what your life means to other people. That’s exactly what the puckish guardian angel in Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, helps George Bailey discover after George suffers one too many of life’s hard knocks. “If you don’t know if you’re making a difference, ask people,” says Christine C. And make connections any chance you get—at work, in the neighborhood or even on an airplane.
“When we look at the accumulation of research, what we find is that people who are more connected live longer, healthier, happier lives,” she adds. “When I shop at my neighborhood grocery store, I see employees who I’m friendly with, and their eyes brighten. That tells the nervous system, ‘These are your people, you can feel secure here.’ ”
Take time to reflect
Pamela identifies two levels to reinvention: outer, or the tactical steps, and inner, emotional growth. Humans are wired to favor routine and avoid ambiguity. Reinvention involves breaking routine and establishing new, ambiguous patterns. Most people leap straight into tactics and start making to-do lists. But without the emotional growth to undergird your commitment, you’ll be vulnerable to fear and more likely to return to your comfort zone of routine.
Pamela encourages emotional growth in a number of ways, including training clients to face their fears. She asks them to analyze past successes to identify the inevitable moments of fear they overcame. She chunks the process into small, achievable steps and goals, proposing mini-reinventions. If they’re not very athletic, for instance, she’ll encourage them to take up a new sport.
“Reinvention is a journey,” she says. “It comes together if you’re committed to the journey.”
Lean on others
Major change is hard. Research shows that you’re likely to fail if you go it alone. Throughout your reinvention journey, it’s critical that you surround yourself with supportive people. “You don’t get a gold star for doing it by yourself,” Art says. Prepare for “challenge moments.”
As soon as Pamela decided to become a coach, she was offered the biggest job of her career—head of international brand strategy for one of the planet’s largest media companies at the time. In London. Where Pamela had been trying to relocate to for years. She said “no.” “That was a very scary moment,” she says. “Yes, it was a dream job, but it wasn’t in alignment with my purpose, which was to help people. A lot of my clients are surprised to learn that purpose sometimes forces you to give up certain dreams.”
Embrace the fluidity
Purpose can develop gradually. As an example, Pamela points to a client who came to her because she wanted to become a writer. She had a corporate job with a stable salary and health insurance. Her husband was an entrepreneur. The couple’s children would soon graduate from high school and go off to college. “Her purpose at that moment was to launch her children into independence,” Pamela says. Once the kids flew the nest, her purpose might change to align with her dream. “Purpose is an expression of what’s important to you in a given moment, and that can evolve.”
Logan Ward has written for The Atlantic, Popular Mechanics and many other magazines. His memoir, See You in a Hundred Years, chronicles his family's immersion into 1900s-era farm life in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.