One of the most common themes in self-development literature, as well as a sentiment echoed by numerous psychologists and philosophers, is the importance of living with purpose. Finding a purpose, and structuring one’s life around its pursuit, can be life-altering. In this article we will examine what it means to live with purpose, why it is so beneficial to our well-being, and how we can find a purpose for our own life.
What Does It Mean to Live with Purpose?
“Gradually, man has become a fantastic animal that has to fulfill one more condition of existence than any other animal: man has to believe, to know, from time to time why he exists. . .” (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science)
One who lives with purpose is one who has found what Nietzsche called a “why” to their existence. Rather than merely drifting through life, reacting to whatever comes their way, the purposeful among us are far more proactive. They have a clear sense of what they want to accomplish, which is reflected in the lofty goals they set, and they structure their days around the pursuit of such goals. If they sustain this way of life for an extended period of time, making progress toward their aims, they can be said to be living with purpose.
Why is Living with Purpose Important?
“Are you doing today exactly what you have done for years? If so, then you are stagnating, and it means little that you may be doing very well whatever it is you have been doing for years. Your days are just going by, each like the others, none of them adding anything to you except the accumulation of the days themselves.” (Richard Taylor, Restoring Pride)
Many people hold to the illusory belief that a fulfilling life is to be found by reaching some idealized end state. If we can just earn a certain amount of money, reach a perceived level of status, live in a nice house and find the right spouse, then most of our troubles will be behind us. The problem with this idea is that it is well-established that our satisfaction with life is much more dependent on the direction we perceive we are going, i.e., is our life getting better or worse, than it is on the absolute conditions of our life – no matter how “high” these may be. If we are not hopeful of a better future, we are likely to be miserable whether we live in a mansion or a one-bedroom apartment. This idea is known in psychology as the adaptation principle and the sentiment behind it was recognized by Confucius over 2000 years ago:
“The one who would be in constant happiness must frequently change.” (Confucius)
What is the best antidote to the adaptation principle or to the fact that stagnation breeds misery? A life lived with purpose. Having a purpose requires that we continually strive to actualize our potential, a necessary condition if we are to accomplish our goals, and in so doing we cannot but help feel optimistic about our future. Having a purpose, in other words, is the greatest tool for effectuating the consistent improvement in our life that is required to stave off the effects of the adaptation principle.
How do We Find our Purpose?
While some of us are fortunate enough to know what we want to do from a very early age, many are uncertain about what they are “passionate” about and struggle to find their “true” calling. If we find ourselves in this situation it is helpful to keep a few things in mind. Firstly, one’s purpose does not necessarily stay static over the course of their life. Often it will change or evolve as time goes by. We may accomplish all that we desire in one field and so shift our attention to something else. Or perhaps in the pursuit of our initial goal we are introduced to a great opportunity we had up to that point not even considered. Realizing that our purpose is never set in stone is important as too often people obsess over, and delay in making an initial choice, as they think it must define the rest of their life.
The second thing to keep in mind for those who don’t know what they are passionate about it, is that you will probably not discover your purpose just by sitting around and contemplating the question. You must go out into the world and try different things, or as the ancient Greek poet Pindar wrote: “Become who you are by learning who you are.” In other words, you are most likely to discover what you would like to devote your life to by actually experimenting with different activities.
In making our choice, however, it is crucial that we bear full responsibility. We must not gravitate toward something merely due to familial or societal pressures. If we are doing something to please others or primarily because we think it will lead to a life of great wealth, status, or fame, over time we will likely regret our decision. Whatever we choose it must be intrinsically rewarding – we must derive enjoyment from the process and not just from the end rewards that may or may not come as a result. If we do something solely for the end rewards, if such rewards do not come quickly, as is usually the case, we will soon tire of what we are doing, cease to put in the required daily effort, and struggle to remain on a purposeful path.
A final point to emphasize with respect to finding a purpose is that very often we don’t become passionate about something until we have developed a modicum of proficiency. Therefore, when searching for a purpose, given the brevity of life, we should not forestall in making a decision for too long. Rather as Richard Taylor expressed it in his book Restoring Pride: “Your task is simply to find the one or few things that you can excel in, and then make it your primary business in life to excel in those ways.” Finding a purpose is not overly complicated and usually if we are honest with ourselves what holds us back is not a lack of options, but fear and laziness.