The psychologist Robert Emmons writes that focusing only on having positive experiences is quite meaningless and that setting goals is what gives our lives meaning.
He states that when asked what makes for a happy, fulfilling, and meaningful life, people usually start to discuss their life goals, wishes, and dreams for the future. Yes, for some people the main goal is to be happy – but the research shows that participating in projects and activities that are worthwhile can increase happiness, even if happiness wasn’t their main intended outcome.
“Meaning” can refer to the goals and ambitions you have in relation to your work and career, but it can also reach a much deeper level. A spiritual meaning, for example, can include your sense of being connected to something higher (e.g. God, the Universe) or a feeling that you have a destiny to manifest. For some, meaning comes from acting towards making a positive difference to the world (Emmons, 2003).
To keep things simple, let’s say that your meaning is anything that gets you up in the morning with enthusiasm. It’s everything that is most important to you – relationships, hobbies, interests, making the world a better place, keeping healthy, and working towards your career goals, developing your strengths.
When you’re overwhelmed by life (perhaps because you’re so busy juggling work and responsibilities) you can lose track of what really matters to you. Thinking about the future, or about things you’d love to do now if you had the chance, can seem almost selfish or childish. It can be hard to convince ourselves that we are not just robots running through a list of tasks and that we only have this life to make the most of. So, when somebody tells you to do the things that are most meaningful for you, you might have no idea where to begin.
Another barrier to finding your purpose can be the idea ingrained into us that each of us has one true calling, that one destined job that will light us up and make our lives complete. This is a little like the Hollywood idea of The One. While it can be nice to fantasize about, it can stop us from really appreciating what’s out there or following opportunities that could lead to something greater because we’re too infatuated with the idea that one day, everything will click into place and make sense.
In How to Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric, he says that people may confuse the expression ‘life’s purpose’ and miss out on the fact that life’s purpose can involve many curiosities and occupations, either simultaneously or one after the other. So, your life’s purpose might not be your job at all, it might be learning French, growing your own vegetables, writing a book, volunteering with orphans, mastering a skill you’ve never even tried before, or all of those things. Of course, it’s great if you can make money from doing something you love, but if you’re not quite there yet it doesn’t mean you can’t find purpose in other activities. People ask “what do you do?” when they meet each other as if our jobs were the only thing that defined us; but what you “do” can include all the things that you’re excited to learn about and pursue.
- What does the word “purpose” mean to you? For some, it’s the idea of destiny, for others, it just means the things that light you up inside. Do you have any inkling as to what your life’s purpose might be? It can be multiple things and not just one, quick answer.
- How close is the life you’re living now to the purpose you’ve identified?
- What’s stopping you from moving closer to living it?
In order to find your passions and life’s purposes, you may need to take time out from your usual life and from being bombarded by the media and external influences to really take the time to explore your own interests. Turn off the TV, stop with the social media dare to tune into yourself: what you feel inside, what you really want? This might be dangerous or unpleasant at first, especially if you have drowned out your true feelings for years by turning up the television.
What about all those things you’ve wondered about, in passing: have you ever thought about what it would be like to restore your own motorbike or studying how not to lose money on the stock market. Your passions could involve making a little money on the side or they may result in you taking action in your community. Your first steps could be as simple as beginning to research possibilities based on interests you may have heard of but don’t fully understand.
Curiosity is something that many of us seem to lose after childhood, however, it is usually more a case of it being buried by the demands of adult life. If you can invite your curiosity out to play again, who knows where it might lead you. Nothing will change if you don’t at least try to take some action, get out there are have real experiences in the real world, meeting real people, learning new skills, and discover the many passions and life’s purposes that are waiting in store for you.
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- Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of personality and social psychology, 84(2), 377.
- Pic: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wwarby/10510572023/