The Importance Of Having A Mission

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We’re all meaning-seeking creatures, rousing ourselves up out of bed on different days for different reasons—one day to pass a test, the next to help a troubled friend, the next to run errands—but always motivated to participate in each day by some kind of purpose. But if we plumb deeply enough into our hearts, excavating down to the most elemental parts of ourselves, invariably we’ll find only one purpose—a mission, if you will—sitting firmly embedded there, a mission against which we measure the value of everything we do. Whether we’ve consciously assigned this mission to ourselves or we’ve unconsciously accepted someone else’s assignment to us, exactly what it is matters more than almost anything in life. It may have many subsidiary branches and leaves, our mission, but only one trunk. And that trunk has perhaps more influence on our ability to be happy than almost anything else.


Self-knowledge is a tricky business. You might think the nature of your core mission in life would lie within easy reach for ready viewing, and sometimes it does. But often it lies buried under a pile of expectations we have for ourselves interwoven with those others have for us that make our mission appear to us to be one thing when in reality it’s something else entirely—sometimes something we don’t even want to admit, not just to others, but to ourselves.

One way to discover the real reason you get out of bed in the morning (as opposed to the reason you want it to be or tell yourself it is) requires first imagining that you could give up the pursuit of any goal, anything you do, or anything you are without anyone else knowing it (that is, somehow they would still think you were pursuing, doing, or being those things). Which things wouldn’t you jettison from your life? Somewhere on that list lies the real answer. To continue the thought experiment, now peel away what’s left one item at a time and pause to evaluate how its loss makes you feel. It requires a strong imagination to effectively visualize life without the things on your list, and you might not be able to do it powerfully enough to generate an emotional reaction you can evaluate. But in the same way discontinuing a medication and seeing if you feel worse is sometimes the best way to tell that it was actually helping you in the first place, being without a goal or activity can often bring you the most clarity about its importance.

So start with your goals. Which, if you never achieved, would leave you feeling the most devastated? Then move to the things you enjoy in life now. Which if you could never do again would drain the most joy out of your life? Do you live to experience pleasure? To become famous? To become rich? To amass power? To raise happy children? To help others? Core missions often change as people pass through different life stages, but what is it right now?


In no way do I mean to judge any of the purposes listed above. None of them represents an intrinsically worthy or unworthy pursuit. But I would argue that the missions most likely to create joy share the following attributes:

  1. They benefit you and others simultaneously.
  2. They involve the removal of suffering and the bringing of joy to others as well as yourself.
  3. They require you to engage in an area you find intrinsically interesting and have mastery over.

I don’t think the only way to have a happy life is to choose a mission that has these qualities. But I do believe the meaning we meaning-seeking creatures find most sustaining invariably comes from the value we create for others as well as ourselves. It doesn’t matter what form this value takes or even how much of an impact it may have on those to whom we deliver it. Even knowing a smile we gave a stranger made them feel good can add significantly to our own happiness.


Having a mission to which you’re committed will make you strong. By keeping your eye focused on the long-term ball of your life’s purpose (which of course more often than not doesn’t occur as a single life event but rather as a series of events or even more commonly as a set of continual life functions), short-term set backs will have far less impact on your life-condition. But this requires you to have a long-term ball, one you believe in your heart is more important than anything else. This is why picking a great mission (as opposed to a mission of minor import) is so crucial. You must become aware of yours so you can either confirm it’s what you think it should be or change it to something better. That way during tough times you can draw on your conscious commitment to it to sustain you.

Anyone can commit to a great mission. It doesn’t have to involve impacting large groups of people to be value-creating and therefore happiness-generating. But once you’ve committed to it, finding yourself having to make great sacrifices or face down enormous obstacles may come to seem like small things as your commitment causes you to rise above your smaller self and embrace and manifest your larger self, providing you access to power, courage, and strength you never knew you had.

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  • Much food for thought here.

  • Thank you for this heartening post on the power of commitment to overcome one’s “smaller self.”

    Looking forward to next week’s!

  • In my own search for meaning I have reckoned with the necessity of having a vision, lest I grope aimlessly in the dark and squander what precious time I have here. I especially like your use of the word mission. I am an artist and it’s easy to get caught up in a picture of where/how/what I’d like to be, but this often puts me at odds with what I know to be the singular importance of process. The word “mission” emphasizes the doing, not the pretty result and I find that distinction liberating and inspiring. Thank you!

  • Enjoyed your essay. I’ve noticed your comments on the New York Times “Happy Days” blog, another collection of thought provoking essays.

    Another way to take a look at one’s “mission” is to experience loss. In the past three years my two children moved out, I’ve lost my job of twenty years, my career and my twenty-five year marriage. While having children grow up and move out is desired, it’s still a big loss as I was very involved in raising them from the time they were born (I worked part time).

    For me, it takes me back to what I figured out in my twenties and renewed periodically throughout my life: the meaning, the goal of life is just to live it as fully and best you can where you are. To experience as fully as you can all aspects, to take risks, to recognize gratitude.

    As I put it when I was twenty:

    another day,
    bringing with it
    the significance,
    the beauty,
    of living in our world.
    Not just another day -
    another day
    of life.

    Rick: Thanks for sharing your poem. I couldn’t agree more with its sentiment!


  • The mission question. I think Frankl’s hierarchy of needs applies here. Someone operating in survival mode can’t just will themselves to having a higher-order mission. I like the angle of “what would you stop doing if everyone would still think you did it?” but I’m not sure what that means. If I could give up my job while still getting the paycheck? If I could eat junk food and never exercise without my appearance or doctor noticing a difference? A guy might ask if he could be unfaithful without it ever impacting his marriage? The value I apply to these choices IS based on the consequences I expect.

    There’s also an amorphous mission I call balance. Work and relaxation; community and solitude; growth and usefulness. Does that count?

    RG: Though survival must certainly be considered an important mission itself, if we only live to survive we won’t likely enjoy nearly as much happiness as if we set forth a higher-order mission. Even in times where survival becomes paramount, if that higher-order mission is already in place, survival then becomes the means by which that higher-order mission is accomplished.

    My point about imagining what you’d stop doing if everyone still thought you did it wasn’t to suggest you actually give those things up but to help you identify which things you do predominantly because others demand/expect it or because you must and which things you do because they’re precious to your heart.

    Balance seems to me a healthy attribute to have but not necessarily a reason to live. Do you imagine yourself feeling a great sense of satisfaction when you reach the end of your life thinking to yourself only that you accomplished the living of a balanced life? I certainly don’t mean to judge that as a life’s purpose if you do, but for me, that wouldn’t be enough.


  • I understand that for you, personally, it would not be enough. And you may not “mean to judge” but I read a lot of judgement in your post, as well as your reply. I think that was my point, in a way. I used to buy a lot of this navel-gazing, looking for my mission in life at 20, a la Stephen Covey. New Age, self-actualization, my true self. To me, having a “mission” can be useful in a career (cure cancer, explore topological manifolds of degree 5) but a detriment in real life. What’s the “mission” in raising kids? If you’re a sane parent, it’s not “to produce the next Miss America” or “the next Bill Gates”; maybe it’s to produce self-sufficient adults, but I hope not. I hope there’s an element of enjoying the time you have to share with the child, here and now.

    “A great sense of satisfaction when you reach the end of your life”—yeah that was the typical Covey exercise, imagine your funeral. There is also that stock phrase that no one ever says on their deathbed that they wished they’d spent more time at the office. Balance is the middle ground between these two extremes, not just “satisfaction” at having checked off your life-list of things to do, but having enjoyed the days you were given. I think that would be a great accomplishment, actually. And, coincidentally, much more in line with Eastern religion, IMO.

    RG: Point well taken about my implied judgment. I guess I really do think having a well-defined reason to live is important precisely because it makes the journey more enjoyable (which I agree is a large part of the whole point) and that some kinds of missions do lead to happier lives than others.


  • Hi RG,

    I think it is funny, I’ve also read the books you have, from Frankl to Covey. They had a very large impact on me when I was younger. At the time, and for many years thereafter, I was trying to understand actualization without having met basic needs. I suppose, you could say, I put the cart before the horse.

    Then I went through a period of time where I also felt developing a mission was bunk. But I kind of think you’re tearing into Alex’s post out of a great deal of cynicism and personal frustration. A mission doesn’t have to be (and probably shouldn’t be) a to-do list of concrete accomplishments, in my opinion. I think a lot of corporations and motivational speakers have bastardized the idea. If you consider self-reflection naval gazing, I think you may have a fluffy-fiber problem with your own umbilicus.

  • Thank you for your post. It has me thinking about how easy life seemed when I first graduated from college. I knew what my mission was, or “passion” as I called it, was…where I was headed, how I wanted to impact the world, one life at a time. That was 25 y/o. After 25 years in health care, I still have that same “passion” I had when I graduated from college, it’s just I’m not that innocent, gullible new grad. I get frustrated with the system, saddened and sickened with how some of our elderly are treated, and how some family members just don’t step up to the plate. But I will say that most days my “passion” gets me up in the morning to do it all over again. With that said, I can also say that some days my “mission” is to get up and take care of my dogs, because they can’t take care of themselves.

  • Hello all. I think all of you are arriving at the same conclusion but you just don’t know it. Like Alex says, your mission can be one single thing and that one single purpose is our mission. Like RG says, a “mission” might not be feasible with having kids and living in a competitive working environment. But isn’t it our mission in life just to find our mission? We’re all here for a purpose. Some are here to cure cancer, some to entertain, some to be a good husband and father, some may be here just to be a nice person and a good friend to others. How many of you actually now with 100% certainty your mission right now? I know I don’t!! (That could be because I’m a young buck though). I believe our mission is to try and be true to ourselves and learn our purpose in the world because like Frankl says, once a man ceases to have meaning in the world, he loses hope. The mission is a never-ending journey.

    If you like to tell yourself you are here for one reason, and that one reason is why you get up in the morning, then great, no harm done. But our missions always change.

    Like always, Dr. Alex, very thought provoking and beautiful writing.


  • I think part of it has to deal with the term “mission.” To me, at least, two different concepts come to mind. #1 – as in a military mission. A predefined goal to accomplish. #2 – as in a church mission. A predefined dedication to serving some higher purpose. Both of these leave out the inherent uncertainties of life. Looking backwards at life, much of the source of great joy came out of the blue and certainly not planned as a goal. Perhaps the term “calling” applies more to me.

  • I would say that my calling is to work as an artist, but I regularly struggle with what that means—what is “my” work. Sometimes I feel an exquisite, clear connection with my calling, but lots of times I don’t because of the huge amount of mundane work that has to be done in order to practice my craft. So I have found the need to develop a vision so that I have something to work toward when I’m overwhelmed by the various dirty chores that need doing. For me, this “vision” is a mix of mental images of what I’d like to see in my work and, more importantly, a sensation in my body, how I want my work to feel. This helps some, but I often get caught up in the visual image, get disconnected from the physical sense, and then I am no longer connected to the process. I’ve put the cart before the horse. When I read this post I appreciated the subtle difference of using the word “mission” because it is a call to action, to being personally engaged; I didn’t register an emphasis on an end result or goal. And to answer the question regarding what mission does a parent have—my mission as a parent is to try each day to do a better job of being present when I’m with my child.

    Perhaps I’m reading into the use of “mission” only the meaning that suits me, but happily I find it useful.

  • Thanks for discussing missions and their connection to happiness.

    Throughout my life other people have commented on my mission that they could see when I wasn’t seeing it. I found it strange for them to say “This is your mission,” when I operating a gift basket business, for example. I equated a mission with a spiritual calling, only to be used when referring to certain types of careers.

    As I’ve grown older I’ve gotten a clearer picture of my mission: to empower people who don’t believe they have a voice and choice to create happy and fulfilling lives. Now I realize that my mission was at the core of every job, project, and business I’ve ever had. Wow.

    Flora: Now you’re talking!


  • Hey Doc,

    SO, we’re all on a mission. Or should be. Yeah, I agree that people who live w/o any sense of mission are really lost, subject to neurosis and decay, including health decline and early death. As an MD, you’ve probably seen that more than once.

    But what happens when you really feel called to something great, something noble, but in the end you just can’t make it? You tried, gave it your best, but you finally realize that it just ain’t gonna happen. (Not that it was a stupid idea, although it’s always tempting to look back on it that way; just that the world can be a cruel and fickle place). I would guess that this is a cause of much human suffering. It’s a world of broken dreams. Wasn’t that one of the Buddha’s first great truths?

    I will say that the ancient Eastern myth of reincarnation offers some consolation. I’m not a Buddhist (although I’d like to think that deep down…), but I’ve heard that many Buddhists embrace the idea of reincarnation. So perhaps a Buddhist could say to the person who dreamed of becoming a concert pianist but got swept away by the demands of life and wound up managing a local chain restaurant or pushing papers in a government agency, hey, cheer up! You’ll get another chance (although one does need to ask the well-intentioned Buddhist, just what do you mean when you say “you”? I’ve read that the Buddha and his followers often have weak concepts regarding personal identity, more akin to Hume’s “bundle of sticks”).

    Although I don’t consider myself to be a Christian (although that was the tradition I grew up in), I do often assume the role of Christian apologist. There is a lot of good to defend about Jesus and the movements and traditions that were set off by his life, despite the bad things that also resulted (what huge historical movement is bad-thing free, though?).

    But regarding life-mission, Christianity can be a little rough. The good Christian is supposed to have the mission of living like Jesus did; at least that’s what some of the more fundamentalist Christians might say. But even the most pious person will eventually have to face up to their realities. The high-standards Christian may well conclude that she or he did not succeed in meeting the Jesus-goal. And sometimes that convinces them that they are going to hell. Being convinced that you have failed your life-mission in fact IS HELL.

    I myself like the strong personality-identity that Christianity implies, the strong sense of personal dignity that comes from there being a God and our being children of that God, being worthy of relationship with that God. But I don’t like the Christian idea (this didn’t come from the mouth of Jesus, by the way) that our lives are the one and only chance to get it right, that we will be go to heaven or hell based on how things go in our 60, 70, or 80 years here.

    Since I’m now quickly ripping through my fifth decade and approaching my sixth, I’ve come to believe that there just isn’t enough time to do all that you are called to, that we all are called to. There’s got to be more time, more chances. If we were created by a loving God so as to grow and be able to have an increasingly close, increasingly co-equal (if never perfectly co-equal) loving relationship with that God—if that is our ULTIMATE MISSION—then it’s going to take more than one life.

    I do feel that I’ve made essential and existential progress in my life; it’s not a case of Groundhog Day. But the road is so long, there is so far to go, there have been so many personal failings; there is so much wisdom yet to be realized, perhaps over the far horizon. So, I say to you reincarnationists: we shall meet again, you and me. And when I say me, I do mean ME. Essentialism lives!

    Thanks again, doc, for some really good food for thought.

    Jim Gerofsky

  • […] came across this great post on identifying your passion on Happiness in This […]

  • I’ve been searching for a “mission” by research, reading and self-discovery for years and can’t seem to figure it out. I have no idea why I was brought into this world as it seems that my life has been in disarray since I was 9. The only thing that gives me purpose, or as I would say may be the reason I’ve been through so much, has all been for my kids, to do the opposite, ensuring that their lives are better, more stable and secure. However, I wish I had a “side hobby, a skill, or natural talent” to provide me with fulfillment, joy and happiness which would bring the same to my family…and money into the home, as we are broke now because I don’t know what to do with myself…and as Gerofsky mentioned, it’s true: people who live w/o any sense of mission are really lost, subject to neurosis and decay, including health decline and early death. It’s been years of searching for a mission, I’m lost and decaying, but I’ve been digging for years and maybe because of my childhood instabilities and never having my own self interests because of everything going on through my entire life that I just don’t know how to find it!

    Breann: One great benefit of going through a trauma is that it puts you in a position to encourage others who are going through similar traumas like no one else can. There are many women out there who are waiting to be inspired by someone they can relate to. No mission gives you as great a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment as one aimed at helping others suffer less.


  • Alex, I remember a quote or two from Ted Rosenthal’s book: “How can I not be among you?” which he wrote as he was dying from leukemia. One thing that stuck with me is “my ambition is to have no ambitions.” He meant that to really live in the moment and be in the joy, we must cast off our “missions” or at least that is my interpretation. “Whatever it is you have, you’ve already got. Right there. And it makes that moment an eternity.” It is a beautiful poem of a book and was made into a film in 1970. I learned about it in medical school at McGill in 1990 Montreal with my professor, Dr. Balfour Mount, a surgeon interested in palliative care and who later died of cancer. I struggle with the balance between making life meaningful and productive while leaving time to be in the moment, smell the roses. I wish I had more patience and time for meditation and prefer reading about Buddhism to practicing it. I enjoy your writing. Thank you.

    David: I think the key, as you point out, is balance. Being skilled at living in the moment is necessary for us to fully enjoy our lives. And yet having an underlying mission—in essence, a fully embraced, self-determined reason for everything we do—charges everything we do with meaning and grants us a sense of satisfaction I believe isn’t possible from simply moving from one pleasurable activity to the next.


  • Beautiful post! I’m sending this to some friends! Thank you!

  • […] on your greater mission.  As I wrote in an earlier post, The Importance Of Having A Mission, finding and embracing a mission in life will defend you against the sense your life is […]

  • […] and, even more importantly, what not to prioritize (or even agree to do).  Knowing your most basic mission in life is critical.  If asked to commit significant time and energy to something, how else can […]

  • […] not only to define the meaning of our lives by adopting, whether consciously or unconsciously, an over-arching purpose, but also to understand the reason for almost everything that happens in the course of each day.  […]

  • I will say my comment in the most blunt and direct way I can:

    Ah, crap, this got me crying.

    Reason for this bluntness being that I’m landing on this post several years after its publication because I’m looking for encouragement for my brother. I’m working on trying to find ways to make him feel better about everything he’s going through. While reading though, I realize why I can never get a start on my own life. I’m 24 and I still have no idea what I want to do! I’m at the beginning of my 3rd education, without having finished the first 2 yet! Sure, I love the things I studied—well for the most part at least. Now I decided to just put everything on one card and apply to an education in Mathematics, because I thought that “I’d never get in anyways,” and ofc then I did. So I HAD to start, because I was “obviously meant to” since I’d gotten in despite everything. And I would love to study it with all my heart, since it’s one of the loves of my life.

    My point? I AM studying it, and I really want to, but I’m doing it for all the wrong reasons:
    —mom thinks I should
    —I DID get in after all
    —It’s my last chance to do something with my life
    —and so on….

    The only reason that should be there, isn’t:
    I freaking LOVE math!

    Thanks, Alex, for opening my mind over 5 years after posting this article!

    Julie: It’s never too late to change course. All it takes is courage. There’s an entire chapter about finding one’s mission in my book that you might find helpful.