A journey to find happiness…
What is purpose? And how do we live with it?
These are questions we have all probably asked ourselves at one point or another in our lives. Whether it has been at the very start of our careers, at an important juncture in our lives or in a moment of weakness and despair. It plagues all of us.
The question is also subjective because it’s very personal to each of us. No one’s purpose will be the same as anyone else’s. It’s unique to each of us, because each one of us is unique.
But the premise behind it all will be universal. Why? Because in our journey to find happiness (which is made up of living with purpose) we are influenced by a number of external factors, influencers, mitigators and experiences. Things that influence how we see the world and our place within it.
It is the human condition – living not only through our own experiences but through the experiences and teachings of those around us. We grow as we learn, and through this gain perspective into the things we genuinely want for ourselves.
Finding purpose is one thing. An important step along the way (something we covered in our article Beyond Motivation) but truly living a life with purpose is something more than that. It goes way beyond that.
It was Fyodor Dostoevsky, author of The Brothers Karamazov that said –
“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”
And it is this “something to live for” that is the focus of this article.
What is purpose?
While there are slightly different definitions for what a person’s purpose is, they all have one thing in common – and that is a reason for doing something.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “purpose” as –
“the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists” (like aspiration, intention, function or usefulness); or
According to the Greater Good, one’s “purpose” is described as –
“an abiding intention to achieve a long-term goal that is both personally meaningful and makes a positive mark on the world. The goals that foster a sense of purpose are ones that can potentially change the lives of other people, like launching an organization, researching a disease, or teaching kids to read”.
And this gives us a rather insightful look into what a person’s purpose is and with that understanding we can turn our attentions to actually living a life with purpose.
“The purpose of life is a life of purpose” (quote by Robin Sharma)
Why do we do the things we do?
A summary –
a) “human beings are motivated by a hierarchy of needs.
b) needs are organised in a hierarchy of prepotency in which more basic needs must be more or less met (rather than all or none) prior to higher needs.
c) the order of needs is not rigid but instead may be flexible based on external circumstances or individual differences.
d) most behavior is multi-motivated, that is, simultaneously determined by more than one basic need”.
But it’s Maslow’s self-actualisation level (the highest level) referring to the realisation of a person’s potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences that are important to this discussion. Because this speaks to one’s purpose – a desire to be something or do something, to achieve something where we are the best we can be. The achievement of a desired goal in life.
Human motivation is based on people seeking fulfillment and change through personal growth. Self-actualised people are those who are fulfilled and doing all they were capable of. The growth of self-actualisation refers to the need for personal growth and discovery that is present throughout a person’s life. For Maslow, a person is always ‘becoming’ and never remains static in these terms. In self-actualisation, a person comes to find a meaning to life that is important to them.
As each individual is unique, the motivation for self-actualisation leads people in different directions. And that is the point here – finding meaning and purpose in your own life is a unique journey, ever-changing and evolving as each person changes and evolves.
Arguably one of the most famous names in psychology, Freud developed the psychoanalytic theory which has formed the basis for many current psychodynamic theories. He was also the first to discuss the unconscious mind and its role in human behavior.” Analyse this” is synonymous with Freud. And even though his ideas may have been abandoned by modern psychology, they are still far- reaching.
Freud stated that one’s personality is composed of three elements known as the id, the ego, and the superego. Certain aspects of your personality are more primal and might pressure you to act upon your most basic urges. Other parts of your personality work to counteract these urges and strive to make you conform to the demands of reality. But they are not always in balance.
The id is entirely unconscious and includes instinctive and primitive behaviors. It is driven by the pleasure principle, which strives for immediate gratification of all desires, wants, and needs. If these needs are not satisfied immediately, the result is a state anxiety or tension.
The ego develops from the id and ensures that the impulses of the id can be expressed in a manner that is acceptable in the real world. The ego operates based on the reality principle, which strives to satisfy the id’s desires in realistic and socially appropriate ways. In many cases, the id’s impulses can be satisfied through a process of delayed gratification—the ego will eventually allow the behaviour, but only in the appropriate time and place.
The superego holds the internalised moral standards and ideals that we acquire from our parents and society (our sense of right and wrong). The superego provides guidelines for making judgments and tries to perfect and civilize our behavior. It works to suppress all unacceptable urges of the id and struggles to make the ego act upon idealistic standards rather than upon realistic principles. The superego is present in the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious.
Of course (and as stated by Freud) the key to a healthy personality is a balance between the id, the ego, and the superego. But that is not always the case. There is a constant battle between the id, the ego and the superego, often with drivers such as sex, aggression and the need to succeed immediately and more than anything else propel us forward. And not always in a way that ultimately serves us.
In the 1960s, American neuroscientist Paul MacLean formulated the ‘Triune Brain’ model, which is based on the division of the human brain into three distinct regions, which are:
(a) Reptilian or Primal Brain (Basal Ganglia) – in charge of our primal instincts i.e. when we are in danger and must respond quickly, the reptilian structure is aroused, preparing us for action by initiating the release of chemicals throughout the body;
(b) Paleomammalian or Emotional Brain (Limbic System) – in charge of our emotions or affective system i.e. when we receive an upsetting message, the limbic system is stimulated and, again, chemicals are released, which create our experience of emotions, and
(c) Neomammalian or Rational Brain (Neocortex) – responsible for rational or objective thought – when we are making decisions, solving problems or reasoning, the neocortex is engaged. And it is this neocortex which understands that a person needs a purpose and needs to find meaning in life.
While modern advances in brain-imaging have shown that various regions of the brain are active during primal, emotional and rational experiences concurrently, leading to a rejection of MacLean’s notion of a triune brain in neuroscience, this theory still provides a useful way of assessing human analysis of sensory information.
Maslow, Freud and Mclean’s theories may not be in use today (entirely), but they do explain, at least on a basic primal level, what drives us. What causes us to do the things that we do and how we can find meaning and purpose in that.
Because of all the things that hold true amongst the theories discussed above, it is this – a person needs to find meaning in life. A person needs to live with purpose.
Victor Emil Frankl (1905 – 1997) was an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who created a school of thought called logotherapy. According to his theory, our dominant force is to find meaning in life. In fact, he devoted his life to studying, understanding and promoting “meaning”.
After being liberated from the concentration camps, he wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning which tells the story of “how he survived the Holocaust by finding personal meaning in the experience, which gave him the will to live through it. Man’s underlying motivator in life is a “will to meaning,” even in the most difficult of circumstances”
He discusses the following in his book –
1. We always retain the ability to choose our attitude –no matter what life throws at us, we will always retain our own inner-freedom to decide our own attitude, to remain true to our character and to our duties.
2. There will be suffering but it’s how we react to the suffering that counts – one finds meaning in life in three ways. Through work (especially when that work is both creative in nature and aligned with a purpose greater than ourselves), through love (which often manifests itself in the service of others) and through suffering (which is fundamental to the human experience). The test then for all of us is how we respond to the suffering in our lives.
3. The power of purpose –Frankl refers several times to the words of Friedrich Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”. It is finding our meaning, our greater purpose in life -despite the atrocities we face – that keep us alive and keep us going.
4. The true test of our character is revealed in how we act – Frankl concluded that there is no general answer to the meaning of life. Each person must answer the question for themselves. We find our own unique meaning based on our circumstances, our relationships and our experiences. Life is essentially testing us, and the answer is revealed in how we respond.
5. Human Kindness can be found in the most surprising places – Frankl claims there are really only two types of people in the world – decent human beings and indecent human beings. Both can be found everywhere. They penetrate every group and every society. Its your actions and decisions which dictate which category you fall into.
Frankl’s book emphasises the importance of finding and cultivating meaning in our daily lives. In fact, he strongly emphasises that it is the duty of each and every one of us to find that meaning for ourselves and pursue it.
Having a purpose is powerful. It can supersede anything and everything else. It gives us the strength to carry on, if not through dire conditions, then through difficult changes, transitions, relationships, and activities.
Again, re-emphasizing the quote from Nietzsche (repeated by Frankl throughout his book) –
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
Living a life with purpose
We owe it to ourselves to search for and find meaning and purpose in our everyday lives (on an ongoing basis) to truly live a life with purpose. Keeping in mind Frankl’s teachings – it is our attitude and how we react to the experiences around us that will help us endure.
When truly living a life of purpose, we need to see our life on both a “micro” level and a “macro” level. At a micro level, you need to know what your values are, and then you need to aim to live a life in line with them. Because when you know what you stand for, what you believe in and what is core to your inner-most -self, your confidence and sense of self-worth will soar, regardless of how difficult a situation may be.
At a macro level, your purpose is something different. It’s the bigger picture. It’s your search for meaning. It’s your ultimate goal. It’s waking up in the morning knowing that you’re on the right path. You feel it deep inside of you. Everything feels like it has fallen neatly into place. And when this happens, you will find true happiness.
“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” – Viktor Frankl
So please, for Maslow, Freud, Maclean and Frankl’s sakes – don’t do things that don’t fulfill you.
Instead, act and align your values with your purpose, finding joy and meaning in everything you do.