On Purpose

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?

Lessons from the sun

Whenever I go home to Florida, I make sure to watch at least one sunrise on the beach. It’s a natural balm to an itchy nervous system.

It also acts as a felt metaphor, with the impact absorbed first while the brain catches up with the words a moment later.

It’s paradoxical, because the sun rises every day – one of a countless many – and yet, each one is subtly different and irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind. Like a human life. Or a moment in time. Continue reading “Lessons from the sun”

Whole living

I was rereading a perennial favourite book (Rose in Bloom, by Louisa May Alcott) and the following quote jumped out at me:

Of course this could not last, and disappointment was inevitable, because young eyes look for a Paradise and weep when they find a workaday world which seems full of care and trouble till one learns to gladden and glorify it with high thoughts and holy living.

This resonates (despite a slight bristle at the religious word “holy”, preferring to think of its etymological roots of “whole” or “health”) because I live very much in a workaday world full of care and trouble. And yet, I do think it is possible to “gladden and glorify” it. That is a large part of what Happy Parent UK is about – defining the ‘high thoughts and holy living’ that make life happier.

In the book, our heroine finds her high thoughts and holy living in wise words, charitable works, ongoing self betterment, and the love and friendship of those dear to her. And in fact, this is very much the same recipe I find in my life — Continue reading “Whole living”

The Overwhelm

We’ve all been there. Or at least I hope we’ve all been there so it isn’t just me.

You’ve got deadlines piling up at work faster than you can finish them regardless of the effort and hours you’re putting in…

There’s a seemingly never ending list of admin things to do at home that you never seem able to find time to do…

Despite your best efforts at timekeeping you find it’s the kids’ bedtimes what feels like five minutes after you get home (“where did the evening go?” you ask yourself as you’re trying to gently but firmly get your kid out of the bath, teeth brushed, and bedtime stories read so he isn’t too late along asleep)…

The Overwhelm.

I had a serious case of it last week. But I’m pleased to say that I think I broke the back of it, and this week is going much more smoothly – even with a couple of illnesses in the family scuppering plans for the week.

Here are some of the things that I’ve learned along the way that really helped me last week, and I hope will help you next time you’re feeling overwhelmed by it all.

Identify the main triggers

Whilst by its nature overwhelm is often the feeling of lots of things adding up, sometimes there are a few big triggers for feeling this way (as opposed to your run-of-the-mill busy-and-slightly-stressed feelings).

For me last week, I realised it was work, money, and home routines. Sure, other things contributed, but as I reflected on this (on my commute – no fancy break to reflect on this all so do it when you can!), I was sure that if I felt more in control of my spiralling workload and my money, and if I could ease the pre- and post-work hours at home, I’d feel everything else was much more manageable.

Which leads me to my next helper…

Identify the simple steps

A simple step is something really straightforward that doesn’t take a huge amount of time and you have and know everything you need to be able to do it.

So instead of, “finish X piece of work” for my work stress, it might be, “send this email to this person.” Simple, simple, simple.

I set myself five simple steps. Really simple steps.

One, for example, was to put my out of office on my emails so I could get my head down and do a key piece of work that needed focus and time. That was it – put out of office on – but it meant I knew exactly what to do immediately upon sitting down at my desk that morning.

The simplest steps (putting out of office on, diarising time to do certain pieces of work) made way for the bigger things (shortlist the 60-odd applications for a vacancy in my team at work, finish budget planning and forecasting).

The result? I actually got everything done that I really needed to do. Which ended up being a godsend this week when I had to take a day of sick leave myself and another day of leave to look after my toddler, who is home from nursery for two days following a tummy bug.

Celebrate successes

It’s easy to skip this, but I found it hugely helpful to take a minute on the train to celebrate what’s gone well, and particularly what I have done well.

Why does it matter?

Well, for starters, it chips away rather significantly at that feeling of overwhelm. Overwhelm shrinks away from the bright light of Accomplishment, so taking a minute to feel those accomplishments and let that light shine helped me feel I could handle everything still left to do.

Secondly, I was able to identify the things I did that worked well, to repeat with the next day’s battle with the to do list. So for example, realising how well it worked for me to turn off email and knock out big chunks of work, I can decide to do this again (judiciously) in the future.

Thirdly, celebrating success helps combat the dreaded imposter syndrome, which in turn reduces the unreasonable expectations we set for ourselves.

Think about it – quite often we set really high expectations for ourselves as a way to overcome the ways we feel not good enough.

So if I feel like not a good enough manager, I respond by trying to get Herculean amounts of work done to a high standard; then no one can know what a fraud I am.

Or if I’m not a “good enough” mother, I can fool others from realising this by signing my kid up for all kinds of activities and making sure he’s immaculately dressed for school with award-worthy homework completed every night.

But when I can see that I am good enough, just as I am, I can be far more compassionate to myself and reasonable in my expectations.

This week, that has meant telling a colleague quite honestly that I wouldn’t be able to look at something until next week. It meant postponing some work that I wanted to do sooner, but which actually could wait a week or two. The urge to overperform is still there, but I haven’t felt like I absolutely had to do everything immediately, as my performance is less linked to my worth.

Ride it out

The last thing I’d like to leave you with is this: ride it out.

The wave of overwhelm can make you feel like you’re drowning, so it can help to remember that you aren’t drowning. You’ll be fine. This page in your life will eventually turn to the next page. There will be busy and overwhelming times again but there will also be calmer times. How you’re feeling right now is not permanent.

Identifying the triggers so you can take simple steps to address the root causes of your overwhelm, and then celebrating your successes and realising you don’t have anything to prove – you are enough, just as you are – will help you regain a little more sense of control, so you can ride out the storm until the sun starts to break through the cloud again.

Which it will.

Returning to workforce

As I write this, I have just wrapped up my first week back at work after a year’s maternity leave with my second (and last) baby.

And it’s been great.

It’s been great seeing my colleagues and getting myself reacquainted with all the work that’s happening. It’s been great being myself again, and actually having time by myself on the train or on my lunch break. Even having some time to focus on work without also keeping an eye on the kids so the baby doesn’t eat a book (a real possibility) has felt like a luxury.

It’s also been great seeing my 5-year-old excited about going to the childminder’s after school and playing with other children, eating new foods, and then buzzing about his day as we walk home together. It’s been great seeing my one-year-old bonding with other babies and the staff at his nursery, and then coming to pick him up and give him loads of kisses and cuddles, all the sweeter for the time we spent apart.

And I’ve thought, “This is how a return to work should be.”

But it is a million miles away from my first return to work, which was a disaster that marked the beginning of one of my unhappiest periods of work life.

So what’s made the difference? There’s some luck involved, but there’s also a few things I can’t help but think have made the difference between miserably job hunting after work and looking forward to Monday. Continue reading “Returning to workforce”