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Feeling like Barbie? Here are tips for finding purpose in the real world, based on science
August 30, 2023


In this summer's blockbuster movie of the same name, Barbie stares down an existential crisis. For humans in the real world, Center for Healthy Minds has some well-tested guidance for cultivating well-being.

Thanks to Barbie, the new live-action film that’s setting box-office records globally, Barbie is not only making us think pink — she’s really making us think.

Without giving away spoilers, the film tells the story of the beloved — and, at times, controversial — children’s doll, who wakes one morning in Barbie World with a sudden-onset existential crisis. A day of spoiled milk, flat feet and more set Barbie on an epic journey from Barbie World to the real world in search of answers. Her journey may be resonating so deeply with movie audiences because, like many of us in the real world, Barbie can’t rest until she uncovers her purpose. But she’s at a loss for where to begin.

Sound familiar?

By Carolina Cinemas, Fair use.

Veiled in light-heartedness and bubble-gum pink visuals, Barbie’s journey takes on serious questions of purpose, meaning and connection. These are also questions faculty and scientists take on in their research at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

If only Barbie could learn about the Healthy Minds Framework for Well-being.

What is the Healthy Minds Framework?

Created from research at the center and built on decades of research, the Healthy Minds Framework helps those of us in the real world understand how to flourish as humans.

To live a healthy life, science points to nurturing four major pillars of well-being:

  • Awareness
  • Connection
  • Insight
  • Purpose

Research has shown that specific networks in our brains can work to strengthen our awareness, connection, insight and purpose. One way to build that strength is through meditation and other forms of mental training.

Why is purpose important to well-being?

Going back to Barbie’s journey, why is it important for all the Barbies, Kens and everyone in between, to have a sense of purpose? Understanding how the research defines purpose is a starting point.

The center’s research defines purpose as “being clear about your core values and deeper motivation and being able to apply them in your daily life.”

Neuroscientist and Center Director/Founder Richard J. Davidson recently explained that purpose is about finding your “true north” in life.

“It’s not so much about finding something more purposeful to do, so to speak, but how can we derive meaning and purpose from that which we are already doing,” Davidson said in a 2023 episode of Wisconsin Public Radio’s University of the Air podcast.

A strong sense of purpose is associated with real-life improvements to well-being and health. The research, including a 2020 published paper, points to:

  • Increased physical activity
  • Decreased incidence of stroke
  • Fewer cardiovascular events
  • Reduced risk of death
  • Lower health care utilization
  • Better financial health

For those of us without a set storyline like Barbie, understanding how to start building purpose can prove perplexing.

One way to start building a sense of purpose through the Healthy Minds Framework is to use the free mindfulness app called Healthy Minds Program. The app leads you through a guided path with practices rooted in the pillars of awareness, connection, insight and, of course, purpose.

Using neuroscience, contemplative traditions and skill-based learning methods, the app helps you develop the skills for a healthy mind.

So, no matter if you feel like Barbie, Ken or just a human being, one thing’s for sure: Out here in the real world, understanding your purpose is more than a far-off concept. It’s vital to your well-being. Hey, Barbie! What are you waiting for?

For more updates on well-being, research and neuroscience, sign up for the Center for Healthy Minds newsletter.

By Victoria Vlisides