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The Power of Purpose

Why is a sense of purpose so essential for our well-being?

Source: JohnDaws/Flickr

The need for purpose is one the defining characteristics of human beings. Human beings crave purpose and suffer serious psychological difficulties when we don’t have it. Purpose is a fundamental component of a fulfilling life.

In recent weeks, newspapers in the UK have featured stories about a famous ex-professional soccer player, Paul Gasgoine, who has been struggling with alcoholism. Gazza — as he is known affectionately — was the most famous sportsman of his generation, in the 1990s. However, since the end of his career, he has been in and out of rehab, arrested for assaulting his wife, and in the most recent headlines, found staggering through the lobby of a hotel, asking strangers to buy him a drink.

One of his ex-teammates, Gary Lineker — now a successful broadcaster — suggested recently that his real problem was that Gazza had never found a new purpose in his life to replace his football career. "Hopefully he can find some sort of goal," said Lineker. "He needs a reason to want to get better."

This is a good example what can happen when we don’t have a sense of purpose in our lives. It makes us more vulnerable to boredom, anxiety, and depression. Having an addictive personality, like Gazza, can make us vulnerable to substance abuse. Alcohol or drugs are, of course, a way of alleviating psychological discord, but at the same time, they can be seen as a way of gaining a very basic sense of purpose: to satisfy your addiction.

On the other hand, having a strong sense of purpose can have a powerful positive effect. When you have a sense of purpose, you never get up in the morning wondering what you’re going to do with yourself. When you’re ‘in purpose’ — that is, engaged with and working towards your purpose — life becomes easier, less complicated, and stressful. You become more mono-focussed, like an arrow flying towards its target, and your mind feels somehow taut and strong, with less space for negativity to seep in.

A powerful example of this comes from Victor Frankl’s famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he describes his experiences in concentration camps during the Second World War. Frankl observed that the inmates who were most likely to survive were those who felt they had a goal or purpose. Frankl himself spent a lot of time trying to reconstruct a manuscript he had lost on his journey to the camp — his life’s work. Others held on to a vision of their future — seeing their loved ones again or a major task to complete once they were free.

Why does purpose have such a positive effect?

I would suggest a number of different reasons why purpose is good for our psychological health. Firstly, it makes us less vulnerable to what I call ‘psychological discord.’ This is the fundamental sense of unease we often experience whenever our attention isn’t occupied by external things, and which can manifest itself in boredom, anxiety, and depression. By focusing our attention externally, and giving us a constant source of activity to channel our mental energies into, purpose means that we spend less immersed in the associational chatter of our minds — the chatter which often triggers negative thoughts and feelings.

Another important factor here is that aligning ourselves to a purpose often makes us less self-centered. We feel a part of something bigger, something outside ourselves, and this makes us less focused on our own worries and anxieties. Our own problems seem less significant, and we spend less time thinking about them, and so our sense of well-being increases.

Related to this, purpose is closely linked to ‘flow’ — the state of intense absorption in which we forget our surroundings and ourselves. If you have a strong sense of purpose, you’re likely to experience flow more frequently. And as Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi has shown, flow is a powerful source of well-being. The more flow we experience, the happier we feel.

Purpose can also enhance our self-esteem. So long as we feel that we are successfully dealing with challenges and moving closer to our goal, our self-confidence increases. We feel a sense of competence and achievement, an enhanced ability to deal with difficulties and challenges.

Finally, purpose is closely related to hope. Working towards a goal implies that we feel that the goal is attainable, and that our lives will change for the better once we have reached it. It implies hope — depending on our type of purpose, hope for a better life for ourselves, a fairer and more just society, liberation from suffering and oppression for others, a healthier world, and so forth. And as with purpose itself, a great deal of research has shown the positive effect of hope on well-being. The effect is especially evident with patients suffering from serious long term illness. For them, a high level of hope brings both an increased ability to cope and a greater chance of recovery.

The Varieties of Purpose

There are several different categories of purpose, some of which are more satisfactory than others. I will list these very briefly:

Survival: This is the most basic level of purpose, common to all living things on this planet. It means the effort to meet basic physical needs for food, shelter, or to protect one’s survival in the face of others who threaten it. This level of purpose is common in very poor countries, or countries at war, or with brutally oppressive regimes, or for members of certain castes or ethnic groups who are oppressed by the majority.

Once this basic purpose has been achieved, human beings have to switch to a different type of purpose, or else they fall into purposelessness, bringing psychological discord.

Adopting a Pre-Existing Framework of Purpose and Meaning: The most popular framework of this kind is religion. In fact, I believe that the desire for purpose is one of the main reasons why people are attracted to religion. If you are a Christian, your purpose is clear: to worship God and Jesus Christ and attempt to live a virtuous life, and attempt to convert as many other people to Christianity as you can, so that you can attain the goal of spending eternity in heaven.

Sport can have a similar function. If you follow a soccer or baseball team, you’re also part of a pre-existing framework of purpose. Your purpose is for the team to win the next match and overall, to win that season’s league or tournament, or at least to perform well, and finish in a good position in the table.

Personal Accumulative — attaining wealth, status and success: Many people in our individualistic and competitive modern societies derive their sense of purpose in these ways. Encouraged by the consumerist ethos of our societies, their main purpose is to accumulate: to make money, to attract attention, to become famous, or rise to positions of status and power.

Altruistic/Idealistic: At a higher level of personal development, the desire for personal gain recedes, and one’s sense of purpose becomes much broader, not to improve one’s own situation but to try to improve the situations of others. There are possibly two different subgroups here: firstly, a sense of concern for one’s society or for the world in general, which creates a sense of idealism — a desire to improve society, to overcome injustice and oppression, or more globally, to work for the environment, to try to halt ecological destruction. Secondly, there may be a more human-centered desire to help other people, to alleviate their suffering and further their development.

Personal and Spiritual Development: Again, I think there are two sub-groups here. Firstly, there is personal development in the sense of self-exploration and creativity. This could be an artist whose purpose is self-expression, or a person who is continuously absorbing new knowledge or interests, or developing new skills. Secondly, there is personal development in the sense of spiritual development — a person who feels a strong motivation to transform their state of being to a higher level through practices like meditation or by following spiritual paths such as Buddhism, Sufism, or the Kabbalah.

Of course, in some people, these two sub-groups can overlap. And in fact, this is true of this category as a whole and the last. Whereas ‘Personal Accumulative’ and ‘Altruistic/Idealistic’ largely exclude one another, the latter and ‘Personal/Spiritual Development’ often include and enhance each other. (There is also a clear overlap here with Maslow’s need for ‘self-actualisation.’)

Transpersonal Purpose

Many of the world’s spiritual traditions speak of an ‘awakened’ state in which the individual gives up their own free will, so that a spiritual principle or force can flow through them. In the Taoist tradition, the term ming describes a state in which the individual no longer experiences duality and separation, and realises their true nature as Tao. In this state, he or she follows the wu-wei chih-Tao, ‘the non-striving Way of Transcendence,’ in which the Tao flows through them. They live in a state of ‘actionless activity’ (wu-wei). In the Christian mystical tradition, phrases such as ‘self-annihilation’ and ‘self-naughting’ are used in a similar way — the mystic empties himself (or herself) in order to allow God to emerge and express himself with them. Similarly, in the Bhagavad-Gita, a great deal of emphasis is placed on ‘unattached action’ — acting without being concerned about results, simply doing what is right and appropriate. While in Sufism, the ‘awakened’ state is referred as Baqa, and one of its characteristics is that the person has no will of their own, but lives in and through God, in a state of ecstasy. They no longer have a sense of planning their own life, or making things happen. Life unfolds naturally and spontaneously through them, by virtue of divine power.

This is what we might call 'transpersonal purpose.' Here we move further beyond a self-centred orientation, and begin to uncover a deep, authentic purpose. We align ourselves with this purpose, moving beyond personal desires, interests and fears, and connecting a larger superconscious source. We become the channel for a purpose which flows through us. Rather than them us carrying the purpose, the purpose begins to carry us. At this point, purpose becomes effortless. Rather than pushing, we simply flow with it. There is often an intoxicating sense of momentum, as if we're swimming with the current of a fast-flowing river. This state is obviously rare, but possibly more common than many of us realise. (My research into this area is described in my book The Leap).

Purpose and Evolution

Human beings are naturally dynamic. Growth is an intrinsic part of our nature. Life on earth has always been dynamic, as expressed through the process of evolution. Life has always had an innate tendency to grow towards greater complexity, to become more organised, and more conscious.

So when we feel a sense of purpose — and this is particularly the case at higher levels of purpose — we’re really manifesting the creative urge of evolution, becoming its expression, which is possibly why it feels so right when we do it.

Steve Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK. He is the author of The Leap: The Psychology of Spiritual Awakening.

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