Blog #36 – Meaning and purpose
It should not surprise that this series regularly refers back to the ‘three happy lives’, first elaborated on in one of our earliest posts, as the ideas expressed therein resonate with just any topic you can think of related to happiness and well-being.
Without engaging in a lengthy re-tread, leading positive psychology voice Martin Seligman developed this three-part demarcation to capture the different aspects of happiness and the various ways in which we can seek to capture it. The first of these happy lives, ‘the pleasant life’, relates to the pursuit of pleasure, with an emphasis on happiness as a passing emotion, something we seek out and enjoy experiencing, but which by its very nature is temporary. The second, ‘the good life’, emphasises discovering your key character strengths and finding ways to incorporate them into your daily life, with the logic being that this facilitates ‘flow’ states, i.e., the absorption and sense of time stopping we experience when engaging in activities that synch well with those strengths. The third, ‘the meaningful life’, builds on the second, in that you will have identified your key strengths, but instead of merely putting them to work for yourself, you will have identified something or some cause external to yourself you deem important and worthy of your time and effort. The logic of this latter form of happiness is that it lends itself to the cultivation of meaning and purpose. It is that point which will be the main focus here.
We all strive to lead a live of purpose, a life that has meaning. What that looks like may vary from individual to individual, in that you can never prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach to living a meaningful life. However, while what constitutes a life of meaning will vary depending upon the individual, there are certain key markers that we see across the board when someone has achieved this third level of happiness.
Passion is a universal here. You will be passionate about whatever it is that lends meaning to your life, what drives your sense of purpose. People in this zone don’t hit the snooze button when their alarm goes off in the morning, they don’t go through the motions, they aren’t clockwatching in an office, waiting for the working day to end so they can throw themselves on a couch at home and channel surf for the evening. There’s nothing wrong with taking it easy, of course, but if that is the highlight of your day every day, then that would suggest that you are not tapping into the passion that we associate with living a life of meaning.
It is easier said than done, in some respects. It is not realistic to simply decide to find your life’s purpose and tap into the passion that comes with being on that track. Some of us don’t experience the good fortune of stumbling onto the activity or cause that truly motivates us, what allows us to tap into our greatest strengths and use them for a purpose above and beyond merely serving ourselves. On a practical level, it can relate to time and economics, i.e., there are only so many hours in the day and, unless this purpose can help us pay the bills, it is not necessarily realistic or advisable to prioritise it over everything else. For example, if you decide that your purpose and meaning comes from writing, and you set yourself the goal of writing a great work of fiction, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you should quit your day job and seek to devote all your time to that endeavour. It may prove satisfying… until the money runs out, and then what? Seeking out purpose and meaning should not have to mean abandoning our lives and falling off the grid. And it doesn’t.
Russell Grieger has written extensively at the Psychology Today website and elsewhere about this topic. He recommends a three-step process to help individuals identify what their true ‘passionate purpose’ may be. First, you need to ‘Reflect on Your Purpose’, and do so with a pen and paper while thinking about key question prompts such as: What are you doing when you experience flow? What is unique about you? What are you most enthusiastic about? What could you do that would provide the most value, make the biggest contribution, and have the most positive impact?
Step two seeks to help you ‘Create Your Purpose’. Here, Grieger advises that you reflect upon whatever insights you discovered in the previous step, perhaps even for as long as a week. The logic here is that people can be overcome by enthusiasm and spend less time on this part of the process than is advisable. When seeking to create purpose, he stresses that it must “reflect your passion and spark your drive and fulfilment”.
Step three marks the point where you ‘Live Your Purpose’. Here, you seek to move beyond merely having identified your purpose in a general sense, and instead take it to the point of action, with this requiring a plan for how you will express it at the heart of your life.
We will address tis third step in detail next time out. We will also attempt to outline why this matters and what benefits are associated with living a life imbued with a sense of purpose and meaning.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.