Without Your Life Purpose, What Are You?

On the importance of self-directed values.

Photo by Evan Krause on Unsplash

What constitutes “a good life?” What would need to happen for you to believe that your life was worthwhile?

Some of the world’s greatest thinkers have been grappling with this question for years:

  • around 290BC, Epicurus identified the good life with finding happiness and inner tranquillity
  • and in 340BC, Aristotle identified the good life as aligning with living virtuously.

Naturally, most of us think that happiness defines a good life. For those that commit to certain versions of Utilitarianism, happiness is the only intrinsic good — and anything else is only worthwhile in so far as it leads to it.

As it turns out, what determines how well feel our lives have gone has nothing to do with happiness. According to Psychologists, what causes feelings of despair isn’t a lack of happiness — it’s a lack of meaning and purpose.

Have we been chasing the wrong thing all these years? Why do we crave happiness so badly, when we could live quite contently without it?

“It’s not enough to have lived. We should be determined to live for something.” ―Winston S. Churchill

The Power of Purpose

According to Steve Taylor (Senior Lecturer in Psychology,) meaning and purpose are an essential part of our mental and physical well-being. As humans, we crave it — and we suffer immense psychological difficulties when we don’t have it. Taylor lays out its importance as follows:

  • A lack of meaning and direction leaves us susceptible to boredom, anxiety, and depression.
  • On the other hand, having a sense of purpose has a strong positive effect. You’ll never wake up wondering what to do with yourself. When you’re working towards a desired end or purpose — life becomes more straightforward, as you are able to focus your efforts entirely on that one thing you find important.

Here in the UK, lockdown has made it difficult to maintain our purpose. We’re stuck indoors 24/7. Each day blurs into one. Without a clear direction, I find myself completing random tasks that don’t achieve much and leave me unfulfilled.

Our actions and purpose often feel confined to the four walls we live in.

But, according to Taylor, one of the main reasons carrying a purpose carries positive psychological effects is because it makes us less vulnerable to psychological discord: the sense of unease we experience when our minds aren’t occupied by external things — which leaves us vulnerable to states of anxiety, boredom, and depression.

Sadly, during lockdown, very little is going on in people’s lives, we are more prone to psychological discord than ever before. To overcome this problem, we need to get creative and find our purpose while the world is on pause.

Focusing on Your Values

It’s easy to get bogged down in the daily chores of life. Ironing your clothes, mowing the lawn — or even going to a job you hate to pay the bills. When that happens, we often lose sight of the things we value the most.

This isn’t pursuing your purpose, it’s simply surviving. Like a cog in a machine, we’re stuck doing the same thing day in, day out, all to sustain that life.

According to Professor Steven Hayes, a lot of us naturally accept the beliefs and values of the people around us. We follow our friends and family, scared to deviate from the norm. But that makes us lose touch with the things we care about. We yearn for meaning and purpose, yet let other people and circumstances dictate our lives.

When searching for purpose, Hayes indicates that our values should be at the center of our quest.

Identifying Your Values

Your values not only tell you what to focus your energy on, but also provide an additional drive for your actions. In the words of Hayes:

“Whatever pain you have to endure along your journey becomes much easier to bear when it’s in the service of your goals and values. And acting in line with your heart’s deepest desires brings a sense of fulfillment and vitality that no material wealth is able to match.”

But what are our values?

Psychology defines them as things that we’re willing to invest significant amounts of time and effort into. Those you’d be willing to sacrifice objects, people, and values for.

To identify these, Psychologist Kelly Wilson states we should rank the following on a scale of one to ten:

  • Family.
  • Friends/Social Life.
  • Work.
  • Education.
  • Spirituality.
  • Self-Care.
  • And much more

By ranking each, we create a hierarchy of values. When the going gets tough, which takes precedent? If you could choose one thing, which would you be prepared to drop everything else for?

“The heart of human excellence often begins to beat when you discover a pursuit that absorbs you, frees you, challenges you, or gives you a sense of meaning, joy, or passion.” — Terry Orlick

Working on Neglected Values

In gaining a life purpose, Wilson highlights it’s important that none of our values are left behind. Otherwise, we might experience a disillusionment that comes from not living authentically.

To do so, Wilson encourages us to individually reflect on each of our values and ask ourselves:

“How consistently do we work on those values?”

If you rarely work or reflect on them, then take that as an indication — that area of your life is being neglected.

Neglecting your values is quite common. In lockdown, for example, I found myself neglecting my friends and social life, as it was increasingly difficult to stay connected with people outside my house.

Finding your purpose means finding a direction, goal, or task that aligns with who you are. If you’re lacking one, you can find your purpose by working on your neglecting your values — using them as a tool to guide your future.

Something Bigger Than You

According to author & Psychologist Emily Esfahani Smith, purpose isn’t about what you want, it’s about you give. In her words:

“The key to purpose is using your strengths to serve others.”

Utilizing your strengths in this way helps you make a positive impact to the world around you. To your friends and family, or in some cases — something much bigger.

Your purpose will help bring about real change to things that you deeply care about.

Who Do You Admire?

Your values and purpose shape the things you do, the person you are, and who you become in the future. In shedding light on this fact, author Robert Taibbi argues we should work backward. We should ask ourselves the sort of person we want to be, and then assess the sort of actions we would need to arrive there.

A more important question is who do you admire? Why them? What is it about them? What admirable qualities do they have? How can you bring those qualities to bear on your own life?

Your purpose is to be the person you want to be. Identifying which qualities you find admirable reveals a lot about your values and desires — using them to guide your actions will help you become the person you want to be.

Final Thoughts

The question of “what constitutes a good life?” has been widely disputed for centuries, but philosophers and psychologists can agree on one thing — having a purpose and clear direction plays a vital role in achieving one.

In fact, according to psychologist Steve Taylor, meaning and purpose are essential for mental and physical well-being.

But sometimes, finding your purpose is easier said than done. During lockdown, for example, it’s become increasingly difficult to find meaningful and worthwhile tasks when you’re confined to four walls.

A lot of us get caught in a routine and are scared to deviate from the norm. But that often leaves us neglecting the things we care about. Instead, we should strive to find a purpose based on the things we care about. To do so, you should:

  1. Identify our values. What one thing would you be willing to drop everything else for? In identifying these, Kelly Wilson suggests creating a value hierarchy.
  2. Find your purpose by working on your neglected values.
  3. Recognize that finding meaning means working on something that’s bigger than you. As Smith indicates, “the key to purpose is using your strengths to serve others.”
  4. Finally, ask yourself who you admire and the sort of person you want to be. Your purpose will shape your direction and who you become — so work backwards — identify the qualities you want to have, and pick a purpose that will help shape them

Just remember, whether it’s going to school, running a business, or raising children — we all need a purpose. So go out and find one.

I write about Self-Improvement, Life Lessons, Philosophy, Psychology & Business — to help you reach your full potential. To stay in touch, and to receive free and exclusive content, sign up to my mailing list.

Asking questions, seeking answers. I write articles that help you better understand the Universe and your place in it. Let’s chat → jonhawkinswriting@gmail.com

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