Why Choosing a Life Purpose is Important If You Want To Be Truly Happy
Being able to choose your life’s purpose is a luxury. Throughout human history, until very recently, only a tiny handful of people had the opportunity to choose want they wanted to do with their lives. The rest of us struggled with raw survival. Even then, if you were able to assure your survival, the culture you were born into dictated your position and purpose in life. There was very little room for choice.
It is only since societies industrialized and became wealthier that the general population had the economic and cultural freedom to choose their life’s purpose.
Yet, even though we have the freedom to choose our way in life, many of us don’t or do so only haphazardly. If we were to put a little effort into it, we could conjure a bouquet of flowers, but, instead, we carelessly end up with whatever burrs cling to our socks as we walk through the weedy field of life.
This essay will dig into the benefits of having a life purpose—why it is worth putting the work into creating and committing to one. Later essays will look at how to create a life purpose and, once you are living it, how to nourish and extend it.
What is a life purpose?
Your life purpose is your existential reason for being in the world. Or, said differently, it is the central motivating drive of your life. Or, said perhaps more prosaically, it is what you consider is worth spending your time doing.
For some, their life purpose is an action—such as wanting to be an astronaut, end hunger, or play drums in a jazz band. For others, it is a way of being—such as love, service, or adventure.
We tend to think that a life purpose should ignite our passions. Sometimes it does; at other times, it ignites our sense of caring, duty, or service.
However you individually define it, at bottom, your life purpose is what has you get out of bed in the morning, it is what gives your life meaning, it is what makes what you do important; it is what lifts you out of the grayness of your day to day.
At some level, we all have a life purpose, even if it is only to feed and clothe ourselves. This may be enough for some people. However, the less articulated and less nourished your life purpose is, the more likely you will be left with a corrosive feeling that you are wasting your life.
The evolutionary function of meaning
Note: I use life purpose and meaning interchangeably here. Our purpose in life gives our life meaning; you can’t have one without the other.
I am guessing that assigning meaning to the events in our lives was an evolutionary innovation to increase and broaden our behavioral capacity to engage the world. The behaviors of most animals are genetically determined. Social animals, such as beavers and gazelles, may learn some of their behaviors from other animals, but by and large, their behavior is genetically fixed. Drop down to reptiles and insects and it is even more so. But human behavior is widely culturally (and individually) determined.
The way in which culture trains us is through meanings that are attached to our behaviors: that’s good/bad, awesome/shameful, or nice/nasty. Waving your left hand at a person in the western world won’t provoke a reaction; waving it in an Arab culture will provoke one. Same action, different meanings, and thus the culture influences the actions we take.
The adaptive benefit of culturally influenced behaviors is that they can be changed in a generation. Think of gender roles in the past half-century: from “women belong at home” to a woman vice-president—that radical a change would have taken hundreds or thousands of generations to evolve if our behaviors were fully genetically determined. But we did it within a human life span—just by changing the meanings we culturally assigned to gender roles.
Said differently, without meaning, our lives would be as automatic—driven by genetic impulse—as the lives of ants and jellyfish.
Even though evolution has blessed (or saddled) us with the capacity to create our meanings—and specifically to create our life purpose—why bother? What do we gain by going through all this effort?
Why have a life purpose?
As I noted above, it is a curiosity of us humans that we impute meaning to everything that happens to us in our lives. There is almost nothing that we experience, both in the outer world and within ourselves, that we don’t cloak with meaning. Someone says something and, without conscious thought, we experience the person’s words as nice, mean, funny, sarcastic, beautiful, nasty, or any of a thousand different meanings, when the words were only vibrations in the air.
Meanings drive emotions, which, in turn, drive actions. So, for example, if someone says something that you find nasty, you might feel hurt or anger, and respond by sulking or saying something nasty in return. But someone else might find those same words as slyly ironic and respond with laughter.
Thus the meaning we give to events and circumstances influences our actions in the world. Your life purpose gives your life meaning; the meaning you give your life determines how you feel about it and the actions you take. Choosing the right life purpose then becomes critical to the quality of your life.
Life purpose as guiding light
Your life purpose will focus your life—helping you to decide what is and is not important. If your purpose is to be, say, the best doctor, or to end hunger, or to provide for your children, then it is easier to resist opportunities that will pull you in other directions.
Similarly, a life purpose can also keep you from being seduced by instant gratifications: is it more important that you click on Netflix or finish another chapter of your novel? Is it more important to read the blogs or hang out with your kids?
Limiting the “non-life purpose” projects you might otherwise take on can help reduce your sense of overwhelm—of having too many things to do—and less overwhelm generally leads to less anxiety.
But most importantly, when you are tackling a project that fits within your life purpose, you are left with a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment—you are doing what you were meant to do, which makes it all worthwhile.
All humans suffer. Everyone’s life has pain, heartbreak, loss, and, always, death.
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl found that even in the most soul-crushing environments—in his case, Auschwitz—those who were able to create meaning or purpose, even in a concentration camp, were better able to survive psychologically. Those who could not find meaning were less able to bear their suffering and often lost their will to live.
Few of us will suffer horrors as brutal as the holocaust, but there will be pain in our lives. A purpose can give you the strength to push through those rough patches.
The evidence is clear that humans live better, richer, more fulfilling lives if we live for something important to us.
Barry Schwartz, in his book Why We Work (see an abstract here), tells of a study of janitors working in hospitals. Those janitors who saw it as just a job, a means to a paycheck, were far more disengaged, bored, and unhappy with their work than those who saw themselves contributing to the health and quality of life of the hospital’s patients.
Same job but with very different outcomes. The only difference among the janitors is the meaning in which they invested in their jobs.
People without a life purpose often descend into cynicism and resignation, believing that there is nothing of value in life or that there is nothing that they can do to improve their life. From here, it is an easy step to nihilism—the belief that, because life has no intrinsic meaning, there are no moral and ethical values.
Nihilism is destructive—if there is nothing of value in the world, then there is no reason to act in a manner that benefits yourself or others.
It is true that there is no intrinsic meaning in life—that is, no meaning that is not given by humans. If you stop there, however, you are on your way to nihilism. The fact that there is no intrinsic meaning in life gives you the power (the gift actually) to create meaning. You get to create the life you want to live.
Purposeful or default
To zoom out a bit. All of us, even those who have never once thought about their purpose in life, have a life purpose. There is something, regardless of how unconscious or unarticulated, that has you get out of bed every morning and make your way into the world.
My point here is that the more you tend to and nourish your life purpose, the more joy and fulfillment you will have.
Life purpose is an act of self-creation. It is requisite for a happy, healthy, and vibrant life.
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You have one life—there is no possibility of a do-over. The opportunity you have in this one life, however, is to create a life purpose that floods your life with meaning. The meaning you bring into your life, if brought with care and deliberation, will lift you and ring you like a bell.
If you are ready to be rung, let’s chat. Contact me today.