The rise of “purpose anxiety” and what it means for you


Purpose anxiety may impact many college students’ ability to think about their future.

Morgan Durick

Eight colleges. Over 100 majors. 610 buildings. 900 clubs. 36,321 students. And that’s Iowa State University alone. Unlimited opportunity — contained in roughly 1,813 acres. Opportunity is often associated with freedom, but, at times, it can feel paralyzing. According to Mayo Clinic, up to 44 percent of college students report experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression. In a time deemed the best years of life, why are young adults across the nation feeling such heavy weight?

Enter — purpose anxiety. Purpose anxiety is a fairly new term, relating to the negative emotions experienced on a search for fulfillment. According to Healthline, feeling a sense of purpose is linked to happier lives, but the process of getting there sends many into a mental health downward spiral. This type of anxiety is especially prevalent in transitional times of life, making college students a large group of its sufferers. With so many moving pieces in life, college-aged adults feel the need to have things figured out. But, the reality is, that’s what the 20s are for. 

“I think we are so consumed with making the right choice; there could be many right choices,” Michelle Everitt, high school counselor in the Urbandale, Iowa community, said. “Knowing that any of those choices can be right is something I think people don’t think outside of.” 

COVID-19 hasn’t helped with this anxiety. In fact, it has only worsened it. A rise in screen time due to the virtual nature of the current world contributes to a steep climb in anxiety scores among students, according to recent studies through the American Society for Microbiology.  

“I believe with COVID, it has become even more stressful because you’re confined during the pandemic and see more social media,” Everitt said. “You see more people that seem to have found their way during the pandemic, and you start questioning yourself on ‘why didn’t I?’.”

Most twenty-somethings fill their in between time with mindless scrolling. Sophie Wallerich, a freshman in psychology, has taken measures on her own social media accounts to help with time and comparison issues. 

“I make it a big point to not follow people that aren’t doing anything for me,” Wallerich said. “I really only follow people that I personally know and spend time with.”

A highlight reel on social media may be what gets the likes, but it misses the most formative parts of life — failure. Failure seems to be erased from the happy-go-lucky nature of the perfectly planned squares that come across our screens daily. 

“I think that’s what we don’t see — the failures. Which is where the most growth is going to come from anyway,” Everitt said. 

When it comes to transitions, anxiety only worsens. Going to college, graduating, moving, getting married, going through a break up — usually, these are all things young adults experience in a very short span of years. 

“Any time people go through transition periods in life, it becomes way more stressful,” Everitt said. “And the higher the stress level, the higher the anxiety level. It’s just kind of a natural tandem. When you are in that stress level, the anxiety goes up and you start questioning more. You question everything from the color of shoes you’re wearing that day to what you’re doing for your purpose in my life. And it’s always in transitions.”

For Wallerich, her college and major decision was fairly easy. With dreams of becoming a nurse, she began taking nursing classes toward the end of her high school career. She quickly realized that path wasn’t best suited for her. Brief disappointment turned to thankfulness, as she reflected on how one wrong path led to the right one. 

“The classes I had to take for that nursing program were very hard, and I was kind of upset I had to take them,” Wallerich said. “But, in the end, I wouldn’t have taken psychology, so I was really happy I took them. That was definitely how I figured out what I wanted to do.”

For many young adults, finding ways to involve their passions in a future career is difficult. After spending some time in college, Jacob VanHorn decided it was not the best way for him to pursue his dreams. He recently launched his vintage goods business, Badger Hill Goods.

“I have definitely struggled with anxiety in relation to what I’m supposed to do with my future,” VanHorn said. “I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how my life would work in perfect harmony between my passions and my responsibilities. The anxiety came into play when I couldn’t seem to find the balance between doing what I love and doing the responsibilities that I have.”

Also an avid musician and songwriter, he recently dropped a new single, “Good Again.”

“I think a good way to figure out what you are passionate about is what you are motivated toward or naturally drawn to,” VanHorn said. “I have always been interested in words and how people choose to say things to express how they feel. I really enjoy capturing memories or feelings in the lyrics of my music so that people can possibly relate to a situation I have been through or a feeling that I’ve had.”

The 20s are a thrilling decade of life, but any conversation with a college-aged adult is going to be filled with unknowns. Behind every confident front, there is a layer of unavoidable uncertainty. Life is full of mess-ups, maybes, “uh ohs” and “I don’t knows.” It’s important to remember these things can coexist with joy, and it is possible to be present when it feels like there’s no steady ground to stand on. Take a deep breath and one step forward — you’ll end up right where you need to be. 

“What people think is that there’s got to be this big, gigantic purpose in life,” Everitt said. “Maybe, it’s just that you’re supposed to be a kind person in the world. Or, maybe you’re supposed to be the president.”