In your twenties or thirties? Here’s why you’re preoccupied with life’s meaning.

“For two and a half years I worked at Starbucks, at a hotel, at a restaurant, got my real estate license, and worked as a lifeguard, trying to figure out what to do. I moved back home, retook the SATs, and read a bunch of books to try to figure things out. I read What Color Is Your Parachute? and Who Moved My Cheese? and took several Myers-Briggs tests. I pursued any avenue I could think of, but none of that advice seemed like it was relevant for me where I was in my life.” So a young woman named Maria told me as I was writing my book The Big Picture.

I’m no ordinary self-help book writer. I’m an applied sociologist in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the self-help industry. I’ve studied who buys self-help books, what advice is popular, and why. I’ve crafted rigorous content analyses of bestselling titles to uncover the formula of their success. I catalogued the advice of hundreds of guides to find the ones that had real research behind them (and the ones that were mostly made-up garbage). I’ve explored the assumptions, sociology, and psychology of personal improvement. And along the way, I’ve combed through the advice to find the nuggets of enduring wisdom in these popular paperbacks.

If you’re in school or recently out, you probably feel like your real life hasn’t yet begun. Yes, you are busy—taking classes, working a part-time job, volunteering, putting time and energy into extracurricular activities, feeling caught up in the drama of friendships and relationships—but somehow it all seems like a practice round for real life, which will start . . . later . . . when you’re an adult. Right?

That was my line of thinking for many years. I was going to be an adult after I graduated from school and had a job, a house, and a spouse. Then real life would begin. Then I’d have to take things more seriously. But now? In school? Not yet. I was on the roller coaster of life, putting in the effort just to chug-chug-chug up the tracks.

After college I went straight to graduate school. For another few years, I still felt like I was putting off real life. I watched my friends live their real lives—turning their potential energy into kinetic energy, their day-to-day decisions moving them forward—while I just hung out in school, not actually living.

So I thought.

Research has found that between the ages of seventeen and thirty, we have a distinctive way of making meaning and laying the groundwork for our futures. According to Sharon Daloz Parks, there are three steps to such meaning-making: 1. Become aware that you are creating your own reality. 2. Embark on a personal search for truth. 3. Cultivate a capacity to respond and act in ways that are satisfying to you and that you feel are just.

In my own case, I needed to take that first step. What’s more, I encourage you to take it right now. Understand that you are creating your own reality and co-creating it with the world around you. You are producing and directing the movie of your own life. Wherever you are, you are living real life right now. What you do and say matters. The choices you make have long-term consequences. You might not feel like an adult yet, but you’re making choices like one—and the consequences are certainly real enough.

One day in my early twenties I realized, with the force of a boulder dropping from the sky, that this was my real life. Two of my close friends had attempted suicide. I was immersed in big existential questions.

I came to understand that the weeks and months were passing by, and I could choose how to treat them—either as some separate and unreal time horizon or as my real life. I could keep screaming inside, or I could take action.

If you’ve wondered what you are here to do and what the point of your life is, welcome to the human race: It’s the number-one question that people of all ages want to answer. A few years back, USA Today asked adults what they would ask God or a Supreme Being if they could get a direct and immediate answer. The most popular question from the list they offered wasn’t “Will I have life after death?” (that was number two) or “Why do bad things happen?” (number three) The top question adults would ask a God or Supreme Being was, “What’s my purpose here?” Think about that. People are more interested in their purposes now than what will happen to them after their deaths.

I replicated this question in a survey of nearly one thousand young adults, mostly clustered in the sixteen-to-thirty age range, and the results came out the same way. Whether you think that purpose and meaning come from connecting to something that is bigger than you—something that transcends yourself—like God or a quest for justice or beauty, or that purpose and meaning come from pursuing goals that are valuable and important, your journey to find your purpose is an adventure to seek something intrinsically important.

In the last few decades, psychology has given a lot of attention to the study of happiness and well-being. In a nutshell, research has found that the things we think will make us happy—money, stuff, new relationships, different environments—actually do little to affect our happiness. The tough stuff we do in pursuit of a purposeful life is what’s necessary to have good mental health down the line.

Why? Because there are different kinds of happiness, research finds. There’s happiness that’s about pleasure and happiness that’s about meaning. While new toys and fun experiences can bring us pleasure, it’s personal purpose in the service of a larger vision that brings long-term satisfaction. That’s why when psychologists talk about good mental health, it’s usually defined to include benefits that give a person the feeling that there is purpose in and meaning to life. To be a mature person, then, means having a clear understanding of life’s purpose, a sense of directedness, and intentionality.

Living purposefully means finding the realm where doing what you love—doing what makes you happy, what comes naturally to you, the kinds of things that make you excited and lose track of time—meets a need that is greater than your own individual pleasure.

Your purpose isn’t to get a certain type of job. It isn’t to marry the right kind of person or have a house in the best neighborhood. It’s also probably not about selling all your worldly possessions and becoming a missionary (although for a few that might be the path), and it’s certainly not about saying no to fun.

Living purposefully isn’t about glamorous work or important sounding titles. Seemingly mundane jobs can be full of meaning when approached from a purpose mindset. So can high-profile positions that earn lots of money and things you do outside of paid work. Your purpose might be fueled by faith, or it could be a secular pursuit. And since you are starting to think about these concepts at a relatively young age, your purpose will probably change over time, too.

Purpose is a key ingredient in achieving the good life, argues bestselling purpose author Richard Leider. He defines the good life as being in the right place, with the right people, doing the right work, on purpose. “Living on purpose is a choice,” writes Leider in The Power of Purpose. “It is a way of living in which you are aware each moment of each day that you have a choice about what to say and do and how to be. Every situation presents you with a new purpose moment—an opportunity to show up on purpose—and you are conscious of the opportunities.” In other words, living on purpose means becoming aware of who you are and what you are bringing to life each day as you create your good life.

I don’t have a hidden agenda to steer you into a do-goody profession. I do, however, believe that your purpose will be bigger than just making yourself happy.

As it happens, your personality is shaped more during your twenties than any other time in adulthood, and the experiences you have and the choices you make during these years will have a disproportionate influence on the life that you will lead. Indeed, according to psychologist Meg Jay’s inspirational book, The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—And How to Make the Most of Them, 80 percent of life’s most significant events take place by the age of thirty-five, so to leave thoughtful consideration of these questions until a midlife crisis seems backward. Your late-teens and twenties are the years when you are creating yourself in relationship to the world, and it is rightfully a time for asking big questions and formulating worthy dreams.

Just as kids effortlessly learn whatever language they hear before age five—but struggle to do so as they get older—your young-adult years are a window of opportunity to create the life you want by making conscious choices about what’s meaningful to you . . . now.

Studies find that people who set and achieve goals in their twenties are more likely to report a sense of purpose, mastery, agency, and well-being in their thirties, but you don’t have to lock yourself into one particular path or singular purpose for the rest of your life. Instead, research suggests that getting into a purpose mindset—identifying how your specific talents and values intersect with the needs of others—is the first step toward living a purposeful life.

Christine B. Whelan, Ph.D., is an applied sociologist in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. This article includes excerpts from her recent book The Big Picture (Templeton Press).

Photo Credit: Erin Woody Photography