07/28/2014 10:40 am ET Updated Sep 27, 2014

How to Pinpoint Your Purpose

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For a long time I thought my purpose in life was to write. So imagine the panic when I stopped writing for a bit, to raise our young daughter. Who was I if I had no life purpose?

Truth is, my purpose isn't dependent on the writing. Or the parenting, or anything else I do. My purpose is not limited by a single expression, and neither is yours.

What is Purpose?

Purpose is sometimes described as the thing we are meant to do. It is an expression of our desires and talents and authenticity. It is our life's mission. The way we show up and contribute to the world.

It's a big deal according to Patrick Hill, of Carleton University, because purpose not only influences the quality of our lives and how we connect to others, but it also helps us live longer.

With data from more than 6,000 participants over a 14-year period, those who had the strongest sense of purpose in life, lived the longest, according to Hill's research. Other research shows that people with a clear purpose also tend to be more resilient and have greater meaning in life, all of which promotes well-being.

Purpose is good for our bodies and our souls.

Purpose is Vast and it is Within You

Yet we must broaden our perspective of purpose. We tend to think of it as one thing, one right way, one life mission, and if we don't know what that is, if we can't declare our purpose, then, we freak out. We feel scared, as though we aren't doing enough.

Don't worry. Right now you can express your purpose even if you can't define it. It is within you, it seeps out of you all the time. So maybe we need to back up and search for our purpose in what we are already doing.

In my case, I was so tied to the notion that writing was my sole purpose in life that I never stopped to look beyond. The writing was simply a way to express my purpose. It wasn't my sole mission.

My purpose, as I know it now, is to inspire, guide, support people to live better lives. I feel most connected to my work and my family and my friends, most grounded, when I'm doing this.

But how I express this purpose happens in all kinds of ways. I still write, but I write the things that help me stay on purpose. And my direction is broader now. It comes through, not just when I'm at work, but in how I parent and when I speak to groups and while I'm hanging with friends.

You see how this works? We get caught up in the thing we are doing and we think that's our purpose. So when we change spouses or lose jobs, or when our kids grow up and move out and no longer need round-the-clock parenting, we feel bereft, as though our purpose in life is over, gone. Kaput.

Purpose is Not Limited

But that is not it. Purpose is not finite. It is not contained by a single duty or job description or activity. It is not limited by a single expression. It is vast like the universe and the oceans. It is as expansive as we are. And it is revealed by passion.

While your purpose will probably remain the same throughout your lifetime, how you express it will flex and shift and change dozens of times. Make room for that expansion.

Pinpointing Your Purpose in Three Steps

1. Notice when you feel connected and inspired. Uncovering your purpose starts by paying attention. Start noticing what you are doing when you feel really good. When you feel connected to life and others. When you feel engaged and passionate, as though you are making a difference. Notice what excites you.

Or think back to a time when you felt fired up and excited and recall what you were doing, in vivid detail.

2. Identify what you have to offer. Then consider your talents and abilities. What unique things do you add to those situations when you feel excited and enlivened? What are you offering and contributing in those moments? Consider how you communicate, your skill set, your attitude, your knowledge all those things factor in.

3. Find the patterns. Now, look for the pattern among those things. When do you see these abilities and talents and skills matching up with the moments you feel passionate and in flow. What skills are you using during the meaning-filled moments when you feel like you are making a contribution?

If you are able to comfortably negotiate a business deal at work, are those communication skills something you also use at home to keep peace between family members?

If you are a corporate trainer, do you also find yourself teaching others as a volunteer in your child's classroom? If you are a counselor, do you also find yourself empowering and encouraging others at the gym?

Discover the qualities, skills, roles, emotions and responsibilities that seem to coincide with the moments you feel most connected in the world.

Uncovering the Patterns Help You Find Purpose

These patterns are an expression of your purpose. Your purpose, then, is the over-arching quality that brings them altogether.

Once you know this you'll see that there are a bajillion ways to express your purpose at work, at home, in your community, no matter how life shifts and changes. And you'll probably recognize that you've been doing it all along.

Your purpose is already within you and when you realize what it is you'll find even more opportunities to live it, longer.