Saturday, April 14, 2012

Recapturing Purpose

Psychologists tell us that people whose lives are filled with purposeful activity are happier than people whose lives are not. They say that the choice of activity isn't so important as long as it purposeful. Washing cars, curing cancer, playing with your kids, feeding the poor, it doesn't really matter as long as you find it purposeful.

I see this as really good news, at least if you'd like to be happy or happier. This may sound a little out there but all you have to do is ascribe meaningful purpose to everything you do. Finis! C'est tout. Problem solved, right?

You may be thinking something like, "Yeah, right! You make it sound so easy as if you can just decide what your purpose in life is. It takes years to establish or find your life's purpose. Some people never find it."

If so, please hang with me for a minute or two and see if we can come to a mutually acceptable understanding. We might as well throw on the last pebble and tip the cart over the edge of the cliff. I can absolutely tell you what your life's purpose is.

Ready?

You might bristle at this, but your life's purpose is: to feel good.

Wait, don't leave. Just hang in there a bit longer.

Let's start with people for whom it's easy to see. Consider anyone you know with an addiction. Whether it's drugs or food or alcohol or sex, it's all all about feeling good, typically no matter what the cost. People with addictions will sacrifice their careers, their relationships, their bodies in order to satisfy the addiction. If that's not purposeful, I don't know what is. Think of how often we measure someone's commitment to a purpose by the degree of sacrifice she's made in order to fulfill that purpose.

It's seems so oxymoronic that someone would do themselves so much damage in order just to feel good, but then we see it all the time.

Let's move to people who have a more typical sense of purpose. Consider the artists, musicians, scientists and relief workers who've dedicated their lives to their work. Their senses of purpose may be so strong that they've made sacrifices similar to those of drug addicts. You might hear them utter phrases like, "to be the best" or "to do the most" or "to be the first one to."

His purpose is to be the first one to discover a cure narcolepsy. She wants to be the greatest painter of the 21st century. He won't rest until all the until all the hungry have been fed.

When we hear phrases as these we think, "Ah, now there's someone with a purpose."

However, I would suggest that were you to grab a thread, tug gently and continue until you've unraveled it to its core, you'd find a surprise: feeling good. It might be feeling good about having done all you could. It might be feeling good about being the first or being the best. It might be feeling good about proving yourself to the naysayers or judges in your life. It might be feeling good about having been helpful. No matter where you being, you'd eventually get to feeling good.

Over the last ten years, I've spent hundreds of hours asking people about their senses of purpose and I've never found anything at the core other than feeling good or feeling better.

You might be thinking, "Yeah, but what about people who make the ultimate sacrifice. You're saying that someone would die in order to fulfill to feel better?"

I don't mean to trivialize such an action, but my answer would be, "Yes."

She would not have chosen that path given other options. She may have wished for alternatives. However, in the moment of decision something inside told her that to not make the sacrifice would lead to lifelong regret and unhappiness, or something of that order.

Again, it seems oxymoronic, but it's perfectly aligned. A child with autism (or other sensory challenges) may bang his head against a wall. Why? Believe it or not, he does it to feel better. Head banging stimulates his tactile and vestibular systems. Stimulating them significantly drowns out the noise from other systems. For a child with sensory integration challenges, visual overload can be as painful as having her hand placed on a hot stove. All she wants to do is to make it stop. It may be that the best way to do it is to bang her head against the wall.

It's akin to climbing into your car on a winter afternoon, rolling down the top, maxing out the heat, cranking up the stereo and blasting down the highway. You flood your senses with new stimuli. The air may be freezing, the music way too loud. You feel better.

I believe that if you're honest with yourself and you trace each thread to the point where its tied off, you'll find just one anchor: feeling good/feeling better.

How is this useful? If the psychologists are right, then we can all become happier by spending more time taking purposeful action. To do this, each of us must get in touch with what she considers to be purposeful. Knowing that feeling-good (about you, about your situation, etc.) lies at the core of all purpose, can make getting to that purpose a lot easier.

Happy Saturday,
Teflon

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