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Russell Grieger Ph.D.
Russell Grieger Ph.D.

Happiness Tool 1: Live Your Passionate Purpose

The path to daily happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction

Olia Gozha/Unsplash
Source: Olia Gozha/Unsplash

Philosophers, scholars, and theologians throughout history have pondered the meaning of life. Why are we here? What are we put here to do? What is our purpose? Is there even any point to life at all?

I want to suggest these are strong arguments to support the notion that the purpose of life is to be happy. Aristotle supplied us the logic. He noted that virtually every goal humans set serves the ultimate purpose of happiness. We save money in order to secure a good retirement. But why? The answer is to end up happy. We strive to mate with a person with whom we can share mutual love. For what purpose? To be happy. We lead a virtuous life so that, after we die, we can spend eternity in heaven with God. What for? For happiness.

Every goal or desire we have, rather than being an end in itself, serves the ultimate goal of being happy. The one exception is happiness itself. There is no goal beyond itself for which happiness serves. We don't strive to be happy in order to secure a good retirement, or to find a loving mate, or even to spend an eternity in heaven. No, happiness does not have an “in order to…“ after it. It is the ultimate end of everything else.

That's Aristotle’s logic. But, there is also anthropological evidence to back him up. It seems that, if we look across all cultures and societies, all humans, no matter what race, creed, or color, share two fundamental drives. One is to survive. The second is, while surviving, to be happy. Honestly, have you ever known a person who doesn't naturally crave these two outcomes?

So, with happiness being the purpose of life, the challenge then becomes to define what happiness exactly is. Is it a feeling state? Is it a way of being in the world? Is it a condition that comes about after we have checked off all of our cherished goals, one after another? If we don't know what happiness is, how can we purposely and intelligently strive to achieve it?

I take the liberty of offering the following definition of happiness. Notice, as you read it, that happiness has to do with something much deeper than experiencing merely positive feeling states. Notice also that happiness has to do with action — doing, being engaged, purposely pursuing valued outcomes. And, notice that happiness does not refer to an accidental by-product of the circumstances in our life aligning to our liking. Rather, happiness comes from deep qualities within that provide the proper structure and direction to life. Here is my definition:

Happiness is acting in accordance with your passionate purpose, grounded in rational thought and self-discipline, and guided by personal principles.

An intriguing definition, isn't it? And, I assert, a useful one as well. Let me break it down into its component parts so that you can put it to practical use in your life. Over the course of my next series of blogs, I will coach you on how to do that.

Happiness. Pleasure refers to a positive experience at a given moment in time. For example, I might say, “I enjoyed the movie.” Or, “It was wonderful to share Thanksgiving with my family.” Or, “What a wonderful vacation we had.” These feeling states are wonderful, but transitory, coming and going over time, much like the weather. Happiness, to the contrary, is much more than a series of pleasures; it has to do with the overall quality of one's life as a whole. With emotional highs and lows a given for everyone, a truly happy person is one who can generally say that he or she finds life rewarding and satisfying, experiences a life in which he or she prospers and flourishes, lives a life which he or she loves to live. A happy person is one who finds life to be meaningful and significant.

Acting. Acting has two meanings with regard to this definition of happiness. It means, first, that a person must actually engage in the actions that are necessary to bring about happiness in life. In other words, one must do what’s necessary to be happy, rather than sitting back and hoping, wishing, or praying that happiness will come knocking on the front door. But, the second meaning of acting goes much deeper and is more profound. It means that, to be truly happy, one must be engaged in activities that have deep personal significance to oneself as a person.

Passionate Purpose. It is obvious, I hope, that not just any actions will bring about a truly happy life. After all, ants constantly keep themselves active. It is when one aligns one’s action behind a profound passionate purpose for living that one has the potential to rise in the morning full of energy and enthusiasm and to put one’s head on the pillow at night feeling fulfilled, satisfied, and yes, happy.

Rational Thought. Unfortunately, there are sinister forces arrayed against us that threaten to derail our ability to live our passionate purpose. Not the least of which is our fallible human mind that all too readily thinks irrationally, thereby creating the kinds of negative emotions – anger, anxiety, guilt, depression – that can block our path to happiness. The bottom line is that rational thought prompts happiness, while irrational thought undercuts happiness. It’s as simple – and profound – as that.

Self-Discipline. Isn’t it ironic how life finds ways to devil us, often without bothering to give us fair warning? One is the choice between indulging in some immediate pleasure or delaying for more rewarding, long range happiness. When these two conflict, many people opt for the immediate, thereby damaging their chance for happiness in the long run. Think of the couch potato who stuffs his face with pretzels and beer, all the while putting on weight and clogging his arteries on the way to heart problems. To be happy, it is absolutely imperative to possess the ability to put aside immediate gratification when it jeopardizes greater rewards in the long run.

Ethical Principles. The German Nazis acted passionately on what they thought to be a sacred purpose. They brought a tremendous commitment to reaching their goals. Yet, the principles upon which they based their actions were so abysmal that words fail to capture their cruelty and depravity. To be happy means not only to act mightily to live one’s passionate purpose, but to do so in a manner that is guided by moral and ethical principles of the highest order – with compassion, generosity, and honesty.

The above is what I have come to understand about happiness. One experiences happiness when he or she consistently acts in accordance with his or her passionate purpose, grounded in rational thought and self-discipline, and guided by ethical principles. From both my personal and clinical experience, I can guarantee you that, by mastering the components of this definition of happiness, you will find yourself filled with energy and enthusiasm each day, increase your productivity across the breadth of your life, and regularly experience satisfaction, fulfillment, and, yes, happiness. Now, let’s tackle the first happiness tool: Living Your Passionate Purpose.

Happiness Tool 1: Live Your Passionate Purpose

To introduce the happiness tool of passionate purpose, let me share with you a personal story. Some fifteen years ago, I came to a crisis point in my life. Though I maintained a vibrant clinical psychology practice, I nevertheless felt frustrated and unhappy. Instead of being a big fish in a little pond, I craved being a big fish in a big pond – a Tony Robbins, a Dr. Phil, a Stephen Covey, all rolled into one.

So I decided to take action to do something about it. I arranged monthly telephone sessions with a personal coach named Margaret who lived in Colorado. To this day, I have no idea what she looks like, nor do I know anything about the details of her life. I only know her by her voice – deep, bordering on husky, clear and precise and straight arrow. But, because of a conversation we had on one September night, she has become one of the most significant people in my life.

It started with what sounded like an innocuous question. “So, let me ask, what’s unique about you?”

I thought for a moment, then answered honestly, “Nothing, really. I have talents, but none unique. Other people have the same ones I do.”

“There you have it,” she said, her voice deeper, her pace measured, emphasizing each word almost as a separate thought.“What?”

“What you just said is so limiting. You have no chance of reaching your goals until you figure out what differentiates you from the thousands of others out there who have your same aspirations.”

I sat silent, not knowing what to say.

Finally she broke the silence. “Now listen carefully. I want you to interview six people who know you intimately. Ask them: ‘What do I bring to the table that is unique about me? What distinguishes me from all the others?’ Will you do that?”

The next evening I sat in my living room and called each of the six people I identified. I told them the reason behind my call and made my request, emphasizing that I wanted them to be brutally honest, even if they had negative feedback.

The first five promised their answers within a week. The sixth, Jim, whose company I had consulted with for the past two years, didn't hesitate. He simply said, “Get paper and pencil and I'll tell you exactly what's unique about you.”


"Yeah, now. Get the paper and pencil.”

I did and settled back in my recliner, my notepad on my lap, my pencil poised. “Go,” I said.

“Okay, here goes. What’s unique about you is that you take a solid stand to make people’s lives perfect, as they define it. That’s what you do. It runs through everything. It's so inspiring that it's unusual for anybody to not participate with you.”

I sat amazed, stunned actually, for the second he said it, I realized that’s exactly what I try to do with every one of my patients and clients.

I said nothing. Neither did Jim. Finally I rallied. “Damn, Jim, you nailed it, but never in a million years could I have put that into words without you saying it to me.”

“Well, it's true. I’ve seen you in action. You simply don't veer from that.”

Wired, I couldn’t sit still or make small talk. Nothing else needed to be said. I said my goodbyes, then walked from the living room into the kitchen, opened and closed the refrigerator door, then returned empty handed to my recliner. I rolled around in my mind what Jim had said as if it were a piece of caramel candy that I wanted to savor without swallowing.

Sometimes a truth comes in layers, one layer building on top of the one before, until the whole of it is so obvious that it seems like it had always been there. As I sat there that evening, the rest of truth came to me, clear and whole.

I understood that what Jim said, though true, was only half of it. I also understood that all that really mattered was that I act on my purpose – to do my best to help people make their lives perfect. All the rest – the fame, money, glamour – were mere trappings. I understood that the only thing that I needed to change was my perspective, not my practice, or my consulting.

Fast forward to today. Each morning before I go to the office, I take a minute to reconnect to my passionate purpose for doing the work I do – that is, to make people’s lives perfect, as they define it. I can honestly say that, when I am aligned with it, magic happens. I care deeply about the person I’m with. Time seems to both slow down and to pass bullet-fast. I feel alive, empowered. I persist through frustration, resistance, even resentment. I'm filled with enthusiasm and wonder. I feel satisfied and happy.

So too can it be for you. I now strongly urge you to create your own passionate purpose, then live it daily, by engaging in this three-step process.

Step One: Reflect On Your Purpose

With paper and pencil, thoughtfully reflect on the following five questions. These questions can provide a basis for getting in touch with your deepest, most cherished values and desires. They can spawn the material for creating your life's purpose. Take your time, think about them, even ask trusted others for input.

(1) What am I doing when I am in the flow?

(2) What is unique about me?

(3) About what am I most enthusiastic?

(4) What could I do that would provide the most value, make the biggest contribution, and have the most positive impact?

(5) What kind of person would I like to be?

Step Two: Create Your Purpose

Now that you are armed with this introspective information, your second step is to create your life’s purpose. One of the mistakes people often make is to rush this step. Instead, take your time to reflect on your answers to the five questions posed above. You might want to carry the answers with you for a week or so and make additions or corrections as you go along. You might also want to make notes about themes or phrases you want included in your purpose before creating it.

Your purpose can be written in any format that communicates to you. It can be a single phrase, a poem, a sentence, a brief paragraph, or even a song or a picture. The point is that your purpose must reflect your passion and spark your drive and fulfillment.

Step Three: Live Your Purpose

Now you have your life’s purpose in hand. While it hopefully inspires you, it is most likely too general to be of much practical use. To take it to the level of useful action, you need to plan exactly how you will express it throughout the fabric of your life.

Stephen Covey (1989) wisely suggests that the major roles we play in life can serve as vehicles through which to live out our purpose. I, for example, took my purpose and articulated how I would express it through the following five roles:

My wife and sons,
My extended family and friends,
My clinical and consulting practices,
My teaching.

The question I asked myself was: “How can I help the person or people in each of these roles make their lives perfect, as they want it?” In asking this question, I was surprised in that the answers stimulated me to create additional work activities that excited me even further and gave me additional opportunities to express my purpose

So, your next step is to clearly articulate ways can express your purpose through each major role you play in your life. You can borrow my categories or articulate your own. By connecting what you do to this purpose, how can your days not be filled with passion, drive, and satisfaction? How can you not be driven to act out your purpose? How can you not create the extraordinary results you define as significant?

Going Forward

Remember that happiness is the purpose of life. But, a significant part of being happy is to see each day as an opportunity to express your life’s passionate purpose. This blog explains why this is so and how to create it. Please use it as the first tool in your toolbox to bring happiness to every day of your life.

Till my next blog, in which I will provide you with another tool, remember that you can contact me at anytime. Till then, live healthy, happy, and with passion.

Russell Grieger, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia. The author of several self-help books, all designed to empower people to create a life they love to live, he invites you to check out his new relationship happiness book, The Couples Therapy Companion; A Cognitive Behavior Workbook, his latest personal and organizational success book, Developing Unrelenting Drive, Dedication, and Determination and a memoir of his years on a winning NCAA basketball team, The Perfect Season. You may contact Dr. Grieger for questions or for more information at

About the Author
Russell Grieger Ph.D.

Russell Grieger, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, an organizational consultant and trainer, and an adjunct professor at The University of Virginia.

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