Today I want us to talk about purpose.

Why purpose

There may not be a unified meaning of life, but I don’t think we can think about happiness without thinking about purpose.

As psychologist and author Paul Donan writes in Happiness by Design, happiness is experiences of pleasure and purpose over time. Everyone needs both pleasure and purpose, though the particular calibration of the two can vary person to person and over time. I’m naturally inclined to need a hefty dose of purpose, which is why I carve out “spare” time and use it to coach, or write, or volunteer. My husband, on the other hand, probably needs a bit more pleasure in the mix. But we both need both to be truly happy.

Happiness writer Gretchen Rubin had a similar observation in her book The Happiness Project, in which she said to be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

I think the emptiness of pleasure without purpose is depicted well in the movie Seeking a Friend for the End of the Worldin which a comet is coming to destroy Earth and nothing we can do can stop it. Faced with impending doom, a lot of people go into full-on party mode with orgies and drugs. A scene in which a massive party is happening and someone offers heroin to kids (because why not?) is particularly illustrative to me that pleasure for its own sake seems awfully unsatisfying and depressing.

A study showed that students literally walking up a fairly steep hill estimated the hill’s steepness and difficulty more accurately when they reflected on their purpose,  whereas those who didn’t tended to overestimate the challenge. The challenge was still there for both, and all participants acknowledged it, but having a purpose made it more bearable.

So we need to feel good / experience pleasure. We want to avoid feeling bad / experiencing pain. And we need to feel purpose / growth and avoid pointlessness and stagnation. And doing so makes the necessary challenges of life feel truer to size and worth overcoming.

An example of defining a purpose

But what do we mean by purpose? And how to we go about finding in a modern life?

Purpose needn’t be an all-consuming calling. It can be the work we do, which also brings us an income, or it can be raising our kids, or writing a book.

During a recent bout of illness, I binge-watched Call the Midwife and reflected a lot on what my calling is (spoiler: it’s not to be a midwife). I realised I craved the sense of community the characters shared as they fought against injustice and needless suffering, and I wanted to help people, but beyond that, I struggled to feel like I had much of a clear-cut purpose.

When I returned to my daily life, I saw many opportunities to nurture this vague concept of a calling – caring for my kids, listening to their smallest cares (as the things that seem small to me now are actually quite big in their worlds).

Even at work, I felt purposeful when I was doing work that was helping make a colleague’s life easier or helping a supporter.

I even noticed a feeling of purpose whenever I connected with a wider community, in small ways such as a brief conversation with someone on the train, or making eye contact and really listening to a colleague at work talk about something bothering them.

I also felt when the opposite was true – meetings at work that meant nothing and led to no change or decision… the hubbub on the class parents’ WhatsApp group… the time wasted on work that never would see the light of day.

How, not what

My purpose, I realised, would never be an all-consuming singular passion. The closest thing I’ve ever had to a calling is the deep-seated desire to be a mother, which I don’t take for granted having known the possibility of it never happening. Yet even as powerful as that calling has been, it has never been so all-consuming that I saw it as my only calling.

Sometimes, purpose can be as much the how we live as the what we do. My purpose is to help people, to bring more compassion and kindness and love into the world. And I am happiest when I can do this, even in small ways, every single day. I don’t feel a prescriptive need to help people by doing a specific job or being just one thing, but wherever life takes me, I know I must infuse my life with love, compassion, and helping others.

Questions to reflect on

What is your purpose? Is it a ‘what you do’ kind of purpose or more of a ‘how you live’ kind of purpose?

How can you build more of this into your life?

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