Books and articles about "purpose in life" often begin with, "What am I here for?" or "What's it all about?" or "What is the purpose of life?" That's fine if you know the answers, as many people of deep religious faith believe they do. But for the rest of us, the answer to "what" questions will always be less than compelling. They seem arbitrary and subject to the same consequences as the repetitious "whys" of the young child:
"Why do birds fly?" the child asks.
"Because they have wings," the parent replies.
"Why do they have wings?"
"So they can fly," the parent responds.
"Why don't I have wings?"
"Because God made you that way, now eat your ice cream!"
When we talk about "the purpose of life," we really mean a "sense" of purpose.
A sense of purpose works something like a computer program, with a set of algorithms that organize experience into coherent, sometimes meaningful parcels, which we use to create a course of thinking and doing that seems to be important. At the risk of reductionism, a sense of purpose helps guide the brain's selection from the trillion or so bits of information it's presented with at any given moment and navigate a definite course through the thousands of possible behavioral choices. It helps us know what to do, even when it doesn't "feel right."
Purpose vs. Feelings
A purposeful life sometimes doesn't "feel right." Sometimes it feels all wrong. That's because feelings are largely about comfort, based on the norm (what's you're used to), and purpose is sometimes uncomfortable and outside the norm. Unless you are an extraordinarily intuitive person, consistently acting on your feelings will alienate you from a sense of purpose and push you in endless circles, as they rise and fall, like swirling waves on a windswept pond. In other words, you'll make the same mistakes over and over if those mistakes are part of the norm.
The purpose of life lies not in what you feel like but in what you choose to make important. A sense of purpose is pursuit of what is important to you, not what merely feels good or comfortable.
Purpose Amid Emotional Contagion
The choice of what to make important has a biological constraint that makes it easy to conflate a sense of purpose with feelings. Human beings are social animals, hard-wired to react emotionally to one another. In fact, our emotions are far more contagious than any known virus. This means that every one of our interactions with other people changes us and them a tiny bit, for better or worse. If we don't try to make the change for the better, it will almost always be for the worse. A great many of the negative emotions we blame on stress, work, spouses, and children really come from an accumulation of our (mostly subtle) negative reactions to all the people we encounter.
Example One: Suppose you regarded everyone you saw today as a valuable person with a good heart. Everyone you live with, all your neighbors, coworkers, all the drivers on the road and people on the street—everyone you saw was a good person! If you valued and respected everyone you saw today, how would you feel right now? Most likely you'd feel pretty darn good. And if you regarded everyone you saw with value and respect, would that make it more or less likely that they would regard the people they encountered with value and respect? That's right, you would spread value and respect throughout the community.
Example two: Suppose you regarded everyone you saw with suspicion or mistrust or just ignored them because they weren't worth your attention. If you regarded people that way today, how would you feel right now? Most likely you would feel defensive, resentful, irritable, or depressed. And if you devalued the people you encountered, no matter how subtly, would that make it more or less likely that they would devalue the people they met? That's right, you would spread low-grade negative energy in the form of resentment, defensiveness, and irritability throughout the community.
Due to the vast contagion of emotions, even our most subtle interactions with other people help determine whether they treat their loved ones well, ignore them, or hurt them.
The Secret of Purpose in the Web of Emotion
The enormous contagion of emotions forms a dynamic, interactive Web of Emotion in which all of human life exists. If you do not contribute positive energy to the Web (in small doses), you will draw negative energy from it and be at the mercy of every jerk in the world. You'll develop a defensive, low-grade resentment, anger, anxiety, or depression, which will come to dominate your life. That is to say, your life will become defensive, not purposeful.
Emotional well being, physical health, and personal attractiveness depend on how we regard others. Every time we regard someone as valuable, we make our lives better, and every time we disrespect or ignore someone, we devalue our experience of life. Contributing positive energy to the Web of Emotion in very small doses - just by recognizing the inherent value of other people - raises self-value, improves physical health, makes us more attractive, and constructs an experience of life that is predominantly purposeful.
But we can't just "think positively." We have to appreciate that everyone is a valuable person, worthy of respect and honor and that every person is capable of love and compassion.
Appreciating that the vast majority of people we see would share their last bit of water with a desperate child in a desert invokes a basic-humanity connection with the world. At the end of the day, it provides this enduring sense of purpose:
Your most subtle emotions can make the world a better place.