Find our purpose

Latest News Thursday, 02 Dec 2021

Finding our Purpose

Many young people during lockdown were dealing with tremendous uncertainty after losing employment and found themselves languishing to the extent where they felt they could not aspire to much. For many, it was debilitating. Many people could not see a sense of purpose as they searched for something beyond the COVID Delta horizon.

Anthony Burrow studied purpose and the cultivation of purpose. He is the Ferris Family Associate Professor of Life Course Studies in the Department of Psychology, director of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research.

Right now, post COP26, many people feel deflated and struggle to be able to find their sense of purpose in a world that appears increasingly polarised. We live in a culture that talks about goals, but goals and purpose are different. Goals may be thought of as milestones that can be accomplished whereas purpose is defined as intentionality - always in front of you. Purpose may be an organiser of our goals – it is purpose which tells us what goals we should be pursuing next.

There is literally a constellation of studies that correlate having purpose with, and are a predictor for, much better physical and psychological wellbeing. Research consistently demonstrates that having vision, purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression.

These are very testing times for many and challenging many people’s sense of hope. However, history has taught us that people who have been severely tested have often survived or ‘come through the other side’. What were the differences between those who did and those who didn’t?  And is there a lesson to be learnt?

Victor Frankel’s story is illuminating. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man's Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the Holocaust death camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to meaning and purpose, an insight he came to early in life.

In 1991, the Library of Congress listed Man's Search for Meaning as one of the 10 most influential books in the United States. Now, over 30 years later, the book's ethos - its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self - seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning and purpose.

In a similar story, James Stockdale survived as a prisoner of war and survived periodic torture for 7 years in Vietnam. The Stockdale Principle (as it became known) states: "You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."

Stockdale noted that those who survived had a sense of being able to project what will be beyond the horrors of their depraved conditions. Those who survived imagined life after imprisonment. They had a sense of realism in coming to terms with the fact that their current reality was dreadful, but they had to keep their focus beyond that. (Those who perished early kept setting goals for their release which were never met). The current brutal facts defined many as they bunkered down without purpose during lockdown.

When Andre Agassi played tennis, the former number one had no sense of purpose. His goal may have been simple – to win as many Majors as he could – but he hated the game until he found his purpose! He realised late in his career that he was giving so many people so much joy and that became his purpose and meaning for playing tennis. Your purpose may be to be a good father, a good husband, to live a life dedicated to a major cause, to bring happiness to an adoring tennis-loving audience etc.

Perhaps one of the pathways out of the state of despair is to try to cultivate a sense of purpose. Having purpose is a subjective state – it is about having your eyes on a horizon. It is entirely internally driven and is an internal quest. Having purpose is a long-term aspirational endeavour. 

Quite understandably, many young people may be experiencing lack of purpose as uncertainty or confusion takes hold of their lives. Many adults may be experiencing tedious routines and a sense of ennui and can see no purpose to what they are doing. Put simply, life without purpose is a life languishing.

The really good news is that purpose can be cultivated in various ways. People can find purpose:

The really good news is that purpose can be cultivated in various ways. People can find purpose: 

  • Proactively – by engaging in an attempt to work with a topic or opportunity
  • Reactively – by arriving at it through a ‘calling’ higher than ….
  • Social learning pathway – learning about the purpose by watching how other people cultivate and arrive at theirs.   

Have a look at the Hannukah Fun booklet sent last week particularly age 2 - Reflection Questions as You Light the Menorah. Questions like these help us and our children to develop a sense of purpose.

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