Have you ever noticed this phenomenon? Two people living in almost identical circumstances, but they have dramatically different energy levels, perspectives, zest for life, satisfaction levels, happiness, and outcomes.
Yes, things like brain chemistry and personality differences play a huge role. But the subjective feeling between the two people comes down to purpose. All things being equal, the person with higher energy levels, a better perspective, more zest for life, greater life satisfaction, more happiness, and better results will be the person who feels a greater sense of purpose.
So, can we intentionally create the feeling of purpose? And if so what would it take?
What is Purpose?
As much as we know it would improve our lives, we struggle to live with purpose. It comes down to a problem of internality versus externality. You can't go out and get purpose like you can go to the store and get a jug of (almond) milk.
You can hustle harder to make more money. But you can't hustle harder to get more purpose. Because purpose is a feeling. Yes, there are external manifestations of purpose that will play out in your actions. But overall, purpose is a state of being not doing.
This distinction is easy to lose. Oftentimes, people will start out with purpose. It drives us towards something we love. We practice art, or we want to have a family. Yes, these are just manifestations of the feelings we desire. But practicing them feels purposeful. But then life happens. We get caught up in the practicalities. We forget the experience and end up just doing the thing.
Before we know it, we're just going through the motions. There's no purpose left in our actions. From there it's a brief but precipitous drop to total emptiness and lack of fulfillment. We chase money. We grit our teeth through family dinners. We get lost in empty, shallow pleasures like Netflix, Instagram, alcohol, and porn.
We need to know that what we do matters, because it does. The world becomes slightly better or worse on every choice we make. And choices based on a deep sense of purpose make the world dramatically better.
And there is a way back from the purposelessness chasm. So how do we get back there? Or, for many people, how do they get there for the first time?
The Basis of Purpose
In seeking a life of purpose, it's important to understand the mechanics. Yes, we are talking about a subjective experience. So it's not like repeating a science experiment. Each person will require different concrete actions.
But the discovery process is repeatable and reliable. It's a set of steps that anyone can use to uncover their own purpose.
And it all begins with what we value.
We live in a society of self-actualization. We prize individuality. Yet, we have a deep need to be part of a community. In eras past, the communal identity was paramount. The needs of the individual secondary at best. Eventually, individual liberties have become enshrined in law.
We have the legal right to be ourselves (at least we're supposed to). But that doesn't mean most (or even many) individuals are claiming that right. Instead, most of the time we inherit our values from society. Sources like popular, academic, religious, or corporate culture exercise enormous influence.
Or, we inherit our values from influential family members. For example, our parents want us to become doctors or lawyers and we abide.
Of course, nobody is saying people can ever be totally free of external influence. But an integrated adult will treat these outside voices as counsel, not law.
The first step to choosing our own purpose is to identify our own values. We must become consciously aware of them so that we may align our lives with what matters most to us.
Unfortunately, this word is on the verge of overuse. But it's not just a fluffy Instagram feel good quote. "Alignment with what?" you might ask. The Instagram gurus will tell you it's a matter of 'trusting your gut.' And there's some truth to the importance of intuition. But it's not a satisfactory answer.
The alignment that leads to the subjective feeling of purpose is the alignment with our deepest values. Most of us know at least one person who is completely out of alignment. They wear their discontentment on their faces like battle wounds. And they feel completely trapped by their life's course.
Individuals who feel completely beholden to their parents' wishes best exemplify this. Mom and Dad's dream was to be a doctor, for example. So they do it. But they find out quickly they hated it. Thus every action they take every day is out of alignment. Commuting 30 minutes to go the medical school is misaligned. Eating cafeteria food in the school where you study medicine is misaligned.
Alignment is a second-order problem. Knowing your deepest values makes you much more likely to live in alignment with them. It's difficult to hit a target when you don't know where it is.
But there are still plenty of people who're well aware of their values yet don't live them. They lack alignment with their values, and thus they lack purpose. Most people have one or both of these problems. That's a bold statement, but keep in mind only 33% of Americans report themselves to be happy.
Make a Plan
Yes, there are specific steps anyone can take to identify their own values. But living them is much more difficult. Most courses of personal development focus on the identifying piece.
But making a plan based on your values and sticking to it are extremely rare. Make no mistake, humans are masterful at making plans, just not plans based on your own values.
It feels great to know that a plan is in place. But is it the right plan? And will you stick to it once it's in place? Most of us go from one plan to the next our whole lives:
- Plan #1: An enriching childhood that lays the groundwork for,
- Plan #2: A primary education that lays the groundwork for,
- Plan #3: A secondary education that lays the groundwork for,
- Plan #4: A good job that lays the groundwork for,
- Plan #5: An early and relaxing retirement.
So you see, the standard life plan is already made for us. There are parallel sets of plans for other major dimensions of life. Relationships, family, and health come to mind.
It's not even that there's anything wrong with any of these plans. But without your deepest values built into these plans, none of them will lead to towards fulfillment and away from deathbed regrets. Instead, it will be a series of empty accomplishments and landmarks.
Making a purpose plan is like making other types of plans. You'll still set goals and chunk those goals down into smaller bite-sized pieces. You'll have to identify the price you're willing to pay to achieve your goals. Then you'll have to pay that price, over and over again.
But here's the biggest difference: purpose plans are oriented towards your deepest values. Most plans have targets, but plans based on purpose are always aimed at meaning. This doesn't mean practical concerns like money won't play a role in your plan. They will if they are part of your deepest set of values.
It's a subtle shift. But the result is dramatic.
How to Stick to a Purpose Plan: Review and Revision
A plan based on your deepest values will result in the subjective experience of purpose. That alone makes it far more likely to avoid deathbed regrets. But it's not enough in our loud world.
With powerful external influences like popular culture and family, it's easy to stray. Our own values get easily drowned out. Our internal voice, as strong as it feels when we first make the plan, weakens.
That's why, once your values-based purpose plan is in place, you make an agreement with yourself. You'll set a schedule to review and revise your purpose plan at regular intervals.
This achieves two things. First, it ensures that your own voice remains the foremost voice in your life. By regularly reminding yourself of your deepest values, you think of purpose first.
Second, it ensures your purpose plan is up to date. Remember that your purpose evolves. Purpose means living in alignment with your deepest values. But 'deepest values' doesn't mean 'eternal values.' You may (in fact certainly will) shift your values as life progresses.
This makes sense, because life changes. For example, when you're young and single you might value freedom above all else. But when you get married and have children, stability might become more prominent.
For these reasons, it's vital to regularly update and revise your values and purpose plan.
Do People Actually Do This?
Yes, in fact this kind of intentional shift towards purpose is becoming more and more common. And it's probably just in the knick of time. With today's massive shift towards automation, and perhaps the end of the jobs economy we've all been raised on, finding purpose for ourselves is becoming ever more important.
So, don't just let this article be another thing you see on the internet then forget about. Take the time out of your life to identify your deepest values, then set a plan in place to live in alignment with them.