July 6, 2011
Some years ago a friend of mine sold his successful veterinary practice in the Midwest, bought a van, and headed to California to pursue his lifelong dream of writing music. People no doubt thought he had lost his mind, or at least regressed from being a responsible adult to a frivolous adolescent searching for himself. Years later, he has had some success with his music, but most of all, he has experienced the thrilling notion that he followed his heart.
Not all of us, of course, have the opportunity to drop out of our lives and begin anew, but we all certainly have the chance to discover what gives our life meaning and follow it to our best ability. The daily satisfaction is enormous, and so are the health benefits. A study at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that people who followed their life's purpose were only about half as likely to die over the follow-up period as compared to people who expressed less sense of purpose. These findings have been replicated in other studies: following your dreams is a protective factor for your health.
For many of us, identifying our personal mission, goals, and objectives is not an easy task. There are many helpful resources, one of which is Martha Beck's Finding Your Own North Star. She outlines several steps that are useful in identifying and following through on living your dreams.
The first step is articulating what is important to you. Many experts recommend sitting down without distraction and writing freely about questions such as what makes you smile; what activities cause you to lose track of time; what do people ask you for help with; or what would you regret not fully doing, being, or having in your life. It will take time and numerous lists before a convergence of themes appears, but it will. These are your core desires.
Once you have a notion of your own purpose, it's important to compare it to how you live your life. Many of us have unconscious beliefs about ourselves that hold us back -- these need to be identified and repaired. For example, a client of mine had a childhood learning disability that affected his performance in school. He not only had trouble studying, he also believed (and was told) that he wasn't as smart as others and would never be able to succeed in school. As an adult he wanted to become a nurse, which required college courses in biology and chemistry. He took a chance and enrolled, asked for help where he needed it to overcome his learning problems and develop good study habits, and became an "A" student. He realized his core belief about his intelligence and learning was wrong.
A second critical step is to compare what life offers you with your own mission and objectives. The opportunities we accept must align with our goals. Without the guidance of our life's purpose in making choices about which to pursue and which to let go, we can become frustrated, disillusioned, or simply burn out.
With practice it becomes increasingly easy to know when our activities resonate with our life's purpose. Nurturing our intuition can be a corrective force when we temporarily get off track from the real source of satisfaction and health: cultivating and living our dreams.