We all want fulfillment, some of us more so than others. Some of us want simplicity and comfort; others want extravagance and more money than they can handle. For decades, psychologists studied how long-term, meaningful goals develop throughout our lives. The goals that foster a sense of purpose are ones that potentially change the lives of other people, like launching a charity or business, helping the community or those less able than ourselves. It’s a spirit of willingness that is the driver – and of course a head full of ideas.
Alas, sometimes there are those with both drivers and ideas, but they are not for the greater good, and these individuals cause hurt harm, and despondency at the least. Let’s stick with the positive.
A sense of purpose has evolved in humans so that we can accomplish big things together, well actually most things - which is why any sense of purpose combines with better physical and mental well-being. People donating time to work at a charity can be life-changing. If they climb a mountain in a group and raise funds or if they do anything that involves high-level purpose. Purpose helps both us as individuals (and us as a species) to survive. Without purpose, nothing would ever happen or get done.
Many seem to believe that purpose arises from our special gifts and sets us apart from other people - but that’s only partially true. It also grows from our connection to others and our willingness or needs to connect with others. Once we find a direction, we’ll almost certainly find others traveling in the same lane, hoping to reach the same destination or result. But of course this, like most things, is easier to write about than solve. So let’s have a look at what can be done to sharpen purpose and an opportunity to find our individual ‘why’.
Well, some solutions are simple. Reading connects us to people we’ll never know, across time and in situations, we’ll never experience, but from which we’ll learn how others progressed. Reading allows education in behaviour, in what and how it can be achieved — reading fires up the imagination. Reading allows us to know about others who have the same kind of thinking as ourselves. Or different thinking that opens up different points of view. Reading builds confidence. Reading provides us with a sense of meaning and purpose. Purpose is a part of meaning; meaning is a much broader concept that usually also includes value, efficacy and self-worth. Books, articles and social media can (if chosen with care) give depth and width from which we can learn a great deal about purpose.
Reading fiction might allow youngsters, for example, to consider the whole lives of characters, giving them specific insight into an entire lifespan without having any parallel experience. By seeing the purpose in the lives of others, we are more likely to see it in our own lives. In this sense, the purpose is as much about imagination as it is about deciding to do something. That something has to arrive from somewhere, doesn’t it? TV, cinema, theatre and other staged entertainments also add to the process by which we suddenly say to ourselves, “this is a direction I want to travel.” That may be a life-changing move or a small step change. Many people find pivotal ideas and inspiration from articles and books. If we find books that matter to us - they might help us to see what matters in our own lives. Of course, finding purpose is not just an intellectual pursuit; it’s something we need to feel and need to know is right for us even though there may be risk involved.
Sometimes, another person’s pain can lead us to purpose. When we see suffering, unfairness and hurt, it can spur us on to improve the situation or to help those affected. Sometimes, emotions push us towards a purpose. If we are in awe of a cause, for instance, or we show gratitude, or we feel altruistic, then these things can push us forward to purpose. Of course, it’s not enough to feel like we’re a small part of something big; we also need to feel driven to make a positive impact on the world, however small or large that ‘world’ is.
Having a winning mindset is important, and we may need help to pull together the good things that can benefit from thinking proactively about our lives, fearing failure less and sometimes taking a risk or two. Research has it that children and adults who count their blessings are much more likely to contribute to the world beyond their immediate selves. That is because, if we can see how others make any part of the world a better place, we’re more motivated in giving something back.
One aspect of gaining proper purpose is to listen to what other people appreciate about you. Seem strange? Well, it shouldn’t. You may have qualities that you feel modest about, but others may find those qualities admirable drivers to purpose – both socially or professionally. Artists, writers and musicians often describe how their appreciation from other artists, writers and musicians fuelled their work. Sometimes this helps people understand that they have a purpose or calling that meets their talents. Gratitude strengthens relationships too, creates a bond, and that inspires a purpose to change direction or find a new one. Those closest at home or work may often have a far better knowledge of that which you might achieve than you have of yourself. So listen.
If you’re having trouble remembering or considering your purpose, look at the people around you. What do you have in common with them? What are they trying to be? What impact do you see them having on anything? Whatever it is, do you admire it or is it inconsequential as far as you’re concerned? Can you contribute to making that impact? What do they need? Can you give it to them? If the answers to those questions don’t inspire you relating to whatever it is that you’re considering, then you might need to find a different purpose - and with that thinking, a new purpose may come. But, and this is important, finding a purpose isn’t something that necessarily will take five minutes. There is a myriad of examples where people find a true purpose (big or small, but always big to them) later in life.
Whatever our age, we feel energised, motivated and expanded when we have a sense of purpose. People who consider their work or activity to be a calling — in other words, if they feel that their work or activity had a purpose — well, these people tend to be more satisfied than those who think of their work or activity as just a job or something to do. Having a calling is not restricted to people in executive positions or religions. A calling is a purpose which can be as modest as it can be high-level. Remember that in 1969 the janitor at NASA believed with absolute conviction that he had as much to do with putting a man on the moon as the astronauts or anyone else.
Nothing gives a person inner wholeness and peace like a distinct understanding of their trajectory. Fulfillment is a right that we should all enjoy; it’s not a privilege. Finding fulfillment in life starts with understanding exactly why we do what we do. If we can understand this ‘why’, then we’ll also understand what it is that drives our behaviour when we’re doing the things we like most and at which we are best. That, in turn, gives us a reference point for everything that we might choose to do in the future. We can make more deliberate choices – career, business, home, social. And others may want to join in. The ‘why’ is the definition of your end goal. The sooner that’s clear; the more defined will be everything else about your ambitions.
At some point in life, you’re going to have to stop thinking about taking action and act. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the writer, said famously, “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.” Our own particular ‘why’ can’t be forced. It needs focus. Once you’ve defined your aims and what you want, it’s easier not to get distracted from what is important. And it’s vital to remember that people who’ve made genuine changes in their lives and managed to attain difficult goals are not necessarily stronger, more intelligent or less afraid than you. The only difference is that they decided to ‘do’ something and not just thinking about doing that something. And here’s the thing. Create a vivid mental image of your purpose once achieved – whatever that means to you, no matter how modest. This image should be as vivid and sharp as you can make it. Keep seeing that ‘picture’. That’s your ‘why’.
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