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“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” ~ Viktor E. Frankl
As a psychotherapist, I have noticed that the one factor which most accurately predicts increased feelings of satisfaction in my client’s lives is a sense of purpose, and that the lack of it equally accurately predicts the opposite—depression, hopelessness, and anxiety.
The remarkable thing is that it doesn’t seem to matter what this sense of purpose is, merely that it is.
For one person, it might be caretaking—I had one remarkable client who cared for two aging parents who both had dementia and a granddaughter all at the same time and found herself able to achieve seemingly superhuman feats like carrying her charges up a long flight of stairs despite severe back problems.
For another, it might be making art, or picking up trash in the forest, or becoming more physically fit at 65 than you’ve been your whole life, or traveling to every baseball stadium in America (two more true examples). As long as there is something before us, it seems, something to work toward that has meaning to us—whether it has meaning to anyone else or not—our lives will certainly not be perfect, but they will be vastly better than they would be otherwise.
In short, purpose makes life worth living. And the absence of it, in my opinion, is the modern world’s greatest undoing.
I’ll tell you a little story about myself (as I probably too often do!). When I was a teen, I lived in a middle-class neighborhood with enough to eat, two parents, and decent clothes. All my basic needs were provided for. I was too young and naïve to be grateful for any of this, of course, and was instead consumed with first world ennui.
Nothing seemed to matter to me. Maybe because I am cursed with a mind that likes to look more deeply into things, the mandate to just get good grades (the should-be priority for any American teen) wasn’t exactly lighting a fire under my ass. The things that sometimes energize and motivate adolescents—sports, music, art, grades-as-competition, even friends—also did nothing for me, mostly because I didn’t particularly excel in any of them, including relationships. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew I wasn’t getting it.
Oh, I was jealous of the people with natural talent! Didn’t matter what the talent was; I was equally enamored of a talent for singing as a talent for climbing the social ladder. Those were the people that I knew…I knew held the secret to life. They were headed in a direction, they woke up every day knowing what they were doing and why, and their lives had shape and, yes, meaning, because of it.
And in one sense, I was right. Natural talent can bestow upon people an unbidden knowing of their purpose. But what about the rest of us? What if we aren’t Adele or Tom Brady or Georgia O’Keeffe?
What I’ve come to realize in the many (many) years since adolescence is that we don’t have to be special to have purpose. What we need is first to know ourselves, then to accept ourselves, and finally to work hard to grow our finer parts—whatever they may be.
Let me be careful to say that this is not a recipe for happiness. Happiness as a purpose or a final goal will get you into trouble quickly. Happiness is a by-product of purpose, and we will often not feel it as we work toward our goal. Indeed, we may experience great hardship as we try and conquer our fears or our lacking. Think Mozart as he wrote his final requiem.
But moving in the right direction—a direction that we choose, for intentional reasons—increases the moments of happiness that we will feel, as well as an overall sense that our lives have value, and that we have contributed something that had an impact in some way, to someone, somewhere.
Wondering how baseball-stadium guy and middle-aged, gym-rat guy fit into this picture? Just seeing the excitement on their faces as they inch toward their holy grail changes the energy in a room in a way that would never ever happen if they had opted for a life of inaction—for example, Netflix, a dark room, and a big doobie. Even the most trivial seeming goal when deeply committed to can be transformative.
Alright fine, so how do we pull this off?
First things first, we must accept things as they are, not as we wish them to be. By this I do not mean that we should like the way things are—certainly not! In fact, not liking the way things are is a great reason to put your mind to changing them. But we must be realistic about the ways things are so that we can create goals that are attainable.
I, for instance, need to accept that I am tone deaf so that I don’t follow my dream of becoming a famous singer. This is important because not only am I guaranteeing my own failure if I do choose to follow that dream, I’m denying myself the opportunity to do something I really can achieve.
Second, we must establish what we really value. (I’ve included the link to the wonderful Steven Hayes The Valued Living Question Questionnaire to help with that here.)
Values can be aligned with all sorts of things and are intensely personal. This is not something that can or should be dictated by anyone but you. As baseball-stadium guy could attest, the things that interest or drive us may seem ridiculous, but you’re the only person you can authentically answer to. In his case, as we dug deeper into the value system that propelled his interest, we discovered that it was his belief in the importance of understanding all different types of people as well as wanting to be open to adventure that made this a great fit for him. In gym-rat guy’s case, it was the relationships he developed as a function of going to the gym and a wish to be an example of aging well that were the true motivators.
Our final task in enacting our values is to come up with concrete steps that are in line with our goal or purpose and commit to doing them. For many, this is the tough part. I have watched clients master the first two pieces of this plan only to flail around and make things infinitely worse by not following through. Doing so teaches us that we can’t trust ourselves and does a real number on our self-esteem.
To avoid this, make your concrete steps realistic. It doesn’t matter how small the step is as long as it is congruent with your purpose. If your values dictate that you want to strengthen family relationships, and the reality is that you are estranged from the family members you wish to be close to, a first step toward correcting that might be—not flying out to wherever they live and demanding a heart-to-heart conversation, but writing down how you wish those relationships could be.
If this feels too overwhelming an undertaking, a great therapist can help. In fact, finding your purpose is one of the great reasons to begin therapy, and beginning therapy can be your first concrete step!
All human beings have a need for something “more.” Just waking up, punching the clock, coming home, and zoning out, only to repeat it the next day does not feed anyone’s soul, and let’s face it, our souls are the best parts of us.
Dare to look deep inside your heart and honor what you find there.
You’re just one concrete step away from getting closer to it.
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