“I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult.”
What gives your life purpose and elevates your actions above the mundane?
What are you passionate about?
‘Purpose’ does not come from rational analysis but is emotional and something that you almost cannot resist. I would urge you to be wary of analytically trying to find your life’s purpose. Viktor Frankl, a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, said that meaning is something we
“discover rather than invent”
When your purpose is rational rather than emotional, it is more likely to create a sense of ‘having to’ do things. When you operate from a feeling of ‘I ought to’, perhaps even a sense of guilt, rather than desire you are likely to create stress, not joy.
Although I am writing in the singular about finding your purpose, I want to dispel the idea that you are seeking a single special calling and only when you find it can you be happy. In your closest relationship, you may find ‘a special one’ but, unless you are very peculiar, the reality is that there were many others with whom you could have been happy.
And so it is with your search for meaning in your life; you have many options.
Must Your Purpose Be A Noble Quest?
It would be disingenuous to suggest that all life missions are of equal merit in terms of increasing the overall wealth of human happiness. Ending world hunger must be higher up the scale than Sir Richard Branson’s quest:
“To have fun in [my] journey through life and learn from [my] mistakes.”
Yes, the vast majority of us feel sadness for those people who are suffering in the world and probably contribute to charities. But few people are driven to take real steps and devote their lives to making a difference. For those who do, that is their mission. They do it because they feel compelled. It is emotional and if you personally don’t have that same compulsion, don’t feel guilty.
The philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that all acts, however, benevolent, are grounded in self-interest. His argument in a nutshell: if you do something voluntarily, then you must want to do it, which means that you are acting in self-interest.
Selfless acts make us feel better about ourselves – and so are not selfless.
Many people who devote their lives to others have experienced a transformational emotional event such as the loss of a loved one coupled with a near-simultaneous rescue by another person. Their selfless acts are a way of balancing the books. So are they truly selfless? Interestingly there appears to be some shared characteristics between altruists and sociopaths, pertinently: low impulse control, little remorse for their actions and a willingness to break rules. They are not good from a considered choice; they are wired that way. It is as if they have a compulsion to ‘do the right thing’. And if there is no choice, then are they any more laudable than Richard Branson with his mission to ‘have fun .. and learn’?
I write this because many people when searching for meaning feel that they ought to have some ‘noble’ quest. My answer is that it is more important to find your true passion, one that you don’t think about but simply feel. Draw on this passion and you are likely to be happy and successful.
And then, should your conscience dictate, you share your success with others less fortunate.
"It's not like you go in there because if I don't do this I'll die."
How to Find Your Purpose At Work
Once you are free of the moral burden, you will be able to find meaning in many aspects of your life. Yale psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski has found that people have one of three “work orientations,” or mindsets about their work:
- Job – “I do it for the money”
- Career – people with this mindset work for advancement, pay and prestige. Their happiness is conditional on how they compare to others; they are only happy if they are ‘winning’. Their career is a means to an end.
- Calling – their work is a positive end in itself and comes before monetary rewards. Their emphasis is on ‘craftsmanship’ (or mastery) and service.
As you might expect, people with a calling orientation not only find their work more rewarding but work harder and longer because of it. As a result, they tend to be more successful. And the good news is that this can apply to any job.
Having a calling is not about the job itself; it is about one’s attitude to the job.
Call Centre Calling
Consider the work of Joan, a customer service representative in a large telecommunications company. Every detail of her work is measured: how many rings to answer a call, the number of seconds a caller is placed on hold, the number of calls handled and on and on. Calls are monitored by supervisors and failure to make a sales pitch during a call leads to a reprimand. Hardly an environment where one might expect to find purpose and passion. And yet Joan says:
“I really enjoy my job … I am a customer service professional. [Joan's emphasis.] When customers call, it’s often because they have a problem that is frustrating to them. I know how to solve every request or problem customers might call with, and I know how to do it in a way that makes them feel good about their call. I resolve the problem so it’s no longer stressful for them.”
Joan’s purpose is derived from her skill mastery and the way that she can use it to help others.
Joan’s comments bring to mind the words of Hunter S Thompson:
“To put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.
But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors—but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal.”
I believe that, underpinning everything else, there is one fundamental purpose for you:
to become the best version of you
This purpose is valid whatever your situation. But defining the ‘best version of you’ is not easy and requires deep reflection. The objective is not to create some vision of perfection but rather a clear, attainable image of yourself that incorporates your values, character, skills and attitudes. It will help you not only to make the important decisions in life, particularly when there are trade-offs to be made, but will also guide you day-to-day.
Whatever you do in life there will be obstacles that stand in your way. So why not choose a meaningful path where overcoming obstacles will leave you feeling fulfilled rather than merely relieved. On such a path, you are more likely to find the resilience and energy to succeed. And when faced with difficult choices, being in touch with what really matters to you will enable you to make decisions with confidence.
Finding Your Purpose Is Good For You
Having a purpose behind the things that you do in life creates a deeper kind of happiness. In fact, so deep that it can affect your genes. A recent study distinguished between ‘hedonic’ happiness arising from doing pleasurable things and ‘eudaimonic’ happiness that results from striving toward meaning and a noble purpose beyond simple self-gratification.
“We can make ourselves happy through simple pleasures, but those ‘empty calories’ don’t help us broaden our awareness or build our capacity in ways that benefit us physically. At the cellular level, our bodies appear to respond better to a different kind of well-being, one based on a sense of connectedness and purpose.”
Those with higher levels of ‘purpose’ had stronger expressions of antibody and antiviral genes.
How will you ensure that those things that are meaningful to you are incorporated into your life?
“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”
 E. B. White
 Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl
 Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin group of companies
 Altruism born of suffering: the roots of caring and helping after victimization and other trauma; Staub E, Vollhardt J. Am J Orthopsychiatry. 2008
 Addicted To Being Good? The Psychopathology Of Heroism
By Andrea Kuszewski. http://goo.gl/LZnHG
 Crafting a job: revisioning employees as active crafters of their work. http://webuser.bus.umich.edu/janedut/POS/craftingajob.pdf
 Quoted by Monique Valcour in HBR blog article: https://hbr.org/2013/08/make-your-work-more-meaningful
 Professor Barbara L. Fredrickson. A functional genomic perspective on human well-being, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol 110, 2013