“Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential.”
Part of happiness is having a Higher Purpose. Something to strive for that is bigger than you. We all want to matter and to make a difference in the world, at work, or in someone else’s life. Our Higher Purpose is how we find deep meaning and fulfillment in our lives by contributing to someone or something that is bigger than ourselves.
“Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” – Helen Keller
Based on research by the Center for Disease Control only 21% of adults strongly agree that their life has a clear sense of purpose. In two other studies, 90% of alcoholics and 100% of drug addicts thought their life was meaningless. In several polls over several time periods and countries when asked what was very important, “having a purpose or meaning in life” was chosen by 80% to 90% of the respondents while money was chosen by around 16%. Having purpose and meaning in your life has been connected to happiness, life satisfaction, physical health, and self-esteem. According to recent research by Fredrickson and Cole, having purpose and meaning actually increases our health at the cellular level providing us with a better immune response profile. Purpose and meaning are important and better for us emotionally and physically, but for many of us they are also illusive.
It is that nagging feeling that you are not on the right course or that something just isn’t right. You get a sense that your hard work and effort may be directed in the wrong places. Does your work give you energy so you feel excited and pumped or suck your energy so you feel worn down and depleted? Is it possible that you believe that being unhappy today is the sacrifice you need to make to be happy tomorrow? These are all signs that you are going through the motions, but don’t have a good understanding of why. Without a Higher Purpose, your daily trudge can often feel mundane and pointless. In the Greek story of Sisyphus, King Sisyphus is forced by the gods to roll a boulder up a mountain every day, only to watch it roll back down at the end of the day. No matter how hard he works, the rock never stays at the top of the mountain and his work is pointless. Our lives often fall into the trap of becoming like Sisyphus. We do the same thing every day with very little progress.
This Sisyphean pursuit often starts after the honeymoon of our careers has ended. Initially we work to gain something for ourselves, like to buy our first car or our first apartment. Focusing on our own personal gain can be motivating for a while. But once we reach that goal, the reward and internal feeling of satisfaction are fleeting. We move on to the next bigger goal, often not even stopping to celebrate our accomplishment. After several months, or whatever timeframe it takes to accomplish those first basic goals, we lose our excitement and focus and then we fall into a routine. Over the years, we settle deeper and deeper into that routine. Prying ourselves out of that routine requires a Higher Purpose. Something we can work toward that makes us want to get up every day. That usually includes something bigger than ourselves. Focusing on giving to someone else or helping our team achieve a bigger goal actually changes our brain chemistry. We get more internal satisfaction. The feeling is consistent and on-going rather than fleeting as when we are focused on ourselves.
Also, when we only focus on ourselves, we easily move into negative thinking. The majority of people are naturally self-critical and tend to think about what is wrong with them rather than appreciating what is right with them. We often try to silence those thoughts and bury those feelings with more and more pleasurable experiences, but that voice always comes back and attempts to fill us with self-doubt and sometimes even self-loathing. If we choose to spend our time focused on helping someone else, we have an answer for those doubts. It is a like a proof point for our own internal conversation. When we naturally criticize ourselves we can counter those negative thoughts by internally referencing our good deeds related to our Higher Purpose. They are concrete examples of the good things we do. If your internal voice says “You are lazy and not good enough,” it can be countered by the example of “but I am building a life for my kids, and that is important work,” or “I contributed to my team reaching their goals, so I am working hard and I am good enough,” or “I have a reason to get up every morning because I am contributing to someone accomplishing their goals.”