How Does a Sense of Purpose Contribute to Our Lives?

In difficult times, such as the ones we collectively find ourselves in now, there are certain things that can help us as human beings.  A good sense of humour is one – the capacity to laugh even when there might be tears.  This is certainly why we chose humour as our wellbeing theme for Term 2 at our boys’ campus.  But another is a deep sense of meaning and purpose –  and it is this that we will explore in Term 3, a term we are entering as Melburnians in lockdown once more.

Purpose has the capacity to help us in many ways – and when I introduce this wellbeing theme to the boys this week, I use the words of famous writers to help clarify it.

I begin with Nietszche – he who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how. This quote is perhaps best known for its inclusion in Viktor Frankl’s classic Man’s Search for Meaning.  You can find my review of the book here.

Frankl was a psychologist who found himself in a Nazi concentration camp in World War II.  Instead of giving up hope, Frankl was determined to study and assist the men around him to survive – and found that those who came to see their suffering served some kind of purpose, were the ones who were never defeated by starvation, humiliation, inhumanity and hopelessness.  Perhaps their purpose was to reunite with beloved family overseas, or to finish important work that they had been undertaking before the war – whatever it was, if they saw their lives and survival and meaningful, they tended to conquer the mental battle. A clear sense of purpose helps us through any difficulty – and even helps us now as we are all asked to remain in our homes to stop the spread of this pervasive virus.  Knowing we do so to help others and protect the elderly and immune compromised, gives our current sacrifices meaning.

This sentiment is echoed by classic Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky who wrote that the mystery of human existence lies not just in staying alive, but in finding something to live for.  Knowing we work toward something, that we work to achieve something great or small adds direction and guidance to our lives, and allows us to determine them on our own terms.

Thankfully Ryan Holiday also assures us that purpose can protect us from our own egotism.  In Ego is the Enemy,  a book littered with examples of triumphs and tragedies, Holiday tells the story of Katharine Graham, who took over the Washington Post after her husband’s suicide, and persevered through an exhausting list of obstacles to save her company and publish some of the most important journalism of our time, namely the Pentagon Papers. Her perseverance and commitment to protecting her family’s newspaper legacy buoyed her through many challenges and mistakes.  It helped her endure.

The final word goes to Richard Branson, entrepreneur and author – and many other things as well.  What a perfect person to link purpose and living a passionate, progressive existence – Purpose spurs passion, which fans the sparks that light the fires that fuel change.  Without the passion a clear sense of purpose brings, we can progress nothing and change nothing.

Purpose doesn’t have to be a lofty ideal, nor fixed in stone.  Your purpose can change several times throughout your lives.  Passions shift and wane and expand into new ideas.  New things enter your life and you become passionate about them.  Being a good parent, or a kind neighbour, are as important a purpose as curing COVID19 or ceasing climate change.  You might find today you and focussed on one thing, and tomorrow another.  The thing is to be passionate and focussed and to seek meaning in all that you do.

Supermarket shopping is nourishing your family.  Grooming your pet ensures he is healthy and loved.  Doing your homework gets you one step closer to a law degree.  One letter to the editor sparks debate about a topic you think needs more discussion.

Only then can we feel we live lives of purpose and meaning – and the emotional and psychological benefits that come with it.