The difference between purpose and goal: understanding key distinctions

Path - difference between purpose and goal

When considering how to further your development, for example by setting goals for yourself, understanding the difference between purpose and goal is crucial.

Purpose provides the underlying reason for doing something. It is underpinned by your values and the things that are meaningful to you. It therefore influences your life choices. On the other hand, a goal is a representation of a desired future state or outcome. Typically goals are specific, measurable, and achievable with a clear deadline for completion. By setting goals, you can work towards accomplishing your overarching purpose in life.

The difference between purpose and goal: key points

Understanding purpose

One of the best treatments of the concept of purpose comes from psychologists Todd Kashdan and Patrick McKnight. They propose that “the concept of purpose in life represents a higher-level psychological construct that offers insight into how and why certain people are healthy and successful in the long-term.”

According to Kashdan and McKinght: “Purpose can be characterised as a central, self-organising life aim. Central in that when present, purpose is a predominant theme of a person’s identity. Self-organising in that it provides a framework for systematic behaviour patterns in everyday life. As a life aim, a purpose generates continual goals and targets for efforts to be devoted. A purpose provides a bedrock foundation that allows a person to be more resilient to obstacles, stress, and strain.”

Purpose is therefore driving force behind everything you do and the reason behind your actions. Your purpose is usually a long-term vision that gives meaning to your life and guides your decisions. It’s the “why” behind what you do, the underlying reason that inspires you to pursue your goals.

Of course, your purpose is fluid and as you grow and change, so too might your purpose. You might find that your reasons for pursuing your passion are much different now than they were when you started, or that your vision of the ideal destination has evolved over time.

To embrace your purpose, think from a long-term perspective. Your purpose is the ultimate destination you’re trying to reach, while your goals are the stepping stones leading you there. As you work towards your purpose, remember that the journey can be just as rewarding as the destination itself.

Understanding goals

Goals can be defined as internal representations of desired states. They represent the state or outcome we want to achieve and can be used to achieve our purpose in life.

In fact, as noted above, purpose inevitably generates goals.

It is important to understand how goals work to provide motivation and a sense of direction. Goals allow you to track your progress and determine success.

Goals tend to be short-term and oriented toward specific achievements. You can easily break down goals into steps or stages, making it easier for you to put in the necessary effort to reach your desired result. With a clear goal, you can establish deadlines, motivating you to stay focused on the task at hand.

With regular evaluation of your progress towards your goals, you’ll be able to make adjustments when necessary. In fact, one of the critical aspects of pursuing goals successfully, is the need to evaluate progress, take on board feedback and adjust the goal accordingly.

In terms of planning and strategy, purpose serves as your overarching vision or mission statement, while goals are the concrete objectives that help you fulfil that vision. To ensure you stay focused and motivated, it’s essential that your goals align with your purpose.

Both long-term and short-term goals are essential for personal growth. Long-term goals keep you focused on the bigger picture, while short-term goals break the journey down into manageable steps. This balance offers a sense of progress, guiding you towards your overarching purpose.

The difference between purpose and goals: FAQs

How does purpose differ from goal in a research context?

In a research context, purpose conveys the overall intent or direction of the study, while goals refer to the specific research outcomes you want to achieve. A research purpose sets the foundation, while goals are more focused and help to shape your research design and methodology.

How does purpose influence setting goals in business?

Having a clear purpose in business helps you articulate the core reasons for your organisation’s existence and sets long-term direction. With a well-defined purpose, you can establish relevant and meaningful goals that drive your business towards success. Moreover, a purpose-driven workplace can increase employee satisfaction, engagement, and overall productivity.

Can you differentiate between purpose, vision, and aim?

Purpose is the fundamental reason for your existence or the motivation behind your actions, while vision is a big-picture view of the future you aspire to create or achieve. On the other hand, the aim refers to targets or milestones you set and work towards along the way. In a nutshell, your purpose defines ‘why’ you do what you do, vision is ‘what’ you want to achieve, and aim is the steps you take to get there.

How does one’s life purpose relate to life goals?

Your life purpose serves as the overarching theme that guides your actions and decisions, providing a deep sense of meaning and satisfaction. Your life goals emerge from this purpose and act as milestones that help you fulfill your purpose and move closer to your desired vision. When your life goals align with your life purpose, you experience a sense of harmony and motivation to live a fulfilling life.

How do purpose and meaning differ in a philosophical context?

Purpose typically refers to the deeper reasons behind your actions or your underlying motivations, while meaning signifies the value or significance you assign to various aspects of your life. Philosophically speaking, purpose is more about intention and direction, whereas meaning revolves around interpretation and understanding. In other words, purpose drives your actions, while meaning stems from your experiences, beliefs, and values.


McKnight, P. E., & Kashdan, T. B. (2009). Purpose in life as a system that creates and sustains health and well-being: An integrative, testable theory. Review of general Psychology13(3), 242-251.

Austin, James & Vancouver, Jeffrey. (1996). Goal Constructs in Psychology: Structure, Process, and Content. Psychological Bulletin. 120. 338-375. 10.1037/0033-2909.120.3.338.

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