If you’ve ever faced a significant crisis in your life you’ll have experienced the power of purpose to tap reserves of energy, determination and courage you likely didn’t know you had. Your mission was clear. Your goal was compelling. Your focus was spot on. Your potential was unlocked.The power of purpose is similar to lightning. It's energy source will affectively draw it closer to something it is attracted to than it will anything else. Its source is unknown but its energy is not questioned. You can often watch it in its glory and wander why it is led to a certain area for a certain reason.
The need for purpose is one the defining characteristics of human beings. Human beings crave purpose, and suffer serious psychological difficulties when we don’t have it. Purpose is a fundamental component of a fulfilling life.
Why does Purpose have such a positive effect?
I would suggest a number of different reasons why purpose is good for our psychological health. Firstly, it makes us less vulnerable to what I call ‘psychological discord’. This is the fundamental sense of unease we often experience whenever our attention isn’t occupied by external things, and which can manifest itself in boredom, anxiety and depression. By focusing our attention externally, and giving us a constant source of activity to channel our mental energies into, purpose means that we spend less immersed in the associational chatter of our minds - the chatter which often triggers negative thoughts and feelings. Another important factor here is that aligning ourselves to a purpose often makes us less self-centered. We feel a part of something bigger, something outside ourselves, and this makes us less focused on our own worries and anxieties. Our own problems seem less significant, and we spend less time thinking about them, and so our sense of well-being increases.
Related to this, purpose is closely linked to ‘flow’ - the state of intense absorption in which we forget our surroundings and ourselves. If you have a strong sense of purpose, you’re likely to experience flow more frequently. And as Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi has shown, flow is a powerful source of well-being. The more flow we experience, the happier we feel.
Purpose can also enhances our self-esteem. So long as we feel that we are successfully dealing with challenges and moving closer to our goal, our self-confidence increases. We feel a sense of competence and achievement, an enhanced ability to deal with difficulties and challenges.
Finally, purpose is closely related to hope. Working towards a goal implies that we feel that the goal is attainable, and that our lives will change for the better once we have reached it. It implies hope - depending on our type of purpose, hope for for a better life for ourselves, a fairer and more just society, liberation from suffering and oppression for others, a healthier world, and so forth. And as with purpose itself, a great deal of research has shown the positive effect of hope on well-being. The effect is especially evident with patients suffering form serious long term illness. For them, a high level of hope brings both an increased ability to cope, and a greater chance of recovery.
Purpose is a fundamental component of a fulfilling life.
The Varieties of Purpose
There are several different categories of purpose, some of which are more satisfactory than others:
Survival: This is the most basic level of purpose, common to all living things on this planet. It means the effort to meet basic physical needs for food, shelter, or to protect one’s survival in the face of others who threaten it. This level of purpose is common in very poor countries, or countries at war, or with brutally oppressive regimes, or for members of certain castes or ethnic groups which are oppressed by the majority.
Once this basic purpose has been achieved, human beings have to switch to a different type of purpose, or else they fall into purposelessness, bringing psychological discord.
Adopting a Pre-Existing Framework of Purpose and Meaning: The most popular framework of this kind is religion. In fact, I believe that the desire for purpose is one of the main reasons why people are attracted to religion. If you are a Christian, your purpose is clear: to worship God and Jesus Christ and attempt to live a virtuous life, and attempt to convert as many other people to Christianity as you can, so that you can attain the goal of spending eternity in heaven.
Sport can have a similar function. If you follow a soccer or baseball team, you’re also part of a pre-existing framework of purpose. Your purpose is for the team to win the next match and overall, to win that season’s league or tournament, or at least to perform well, and finish in a good position in the table.
Many of the world’s spiritual traditions speak of an ‘awakened’ state in which the individual gives up their own free will, so that the divine can flow through them. They no longer strive for anything, or feel any conscious desire to attain anything, but become a channel for a greater force.
In the Taoist tradition, the term ming describes a state in which the individual no longer experiences duality and separation, and realises their true nature as Tao. In this state, he or she follows the wu-wei chih-Tao, ‘the non-striving Way of Transcendence,’ in which the Tao flows through them. They live in a state of ‘actionless activity’ (wu-wei). In the Christian mystical tradition, phrases such as ‘self-annihilation’ and ‘self-naughting’ are used in a similar way - the mystic empties himself (or herself) in order to allow God to emerge and express himself with them. Similarly, in the Bhagavad-Gita, a great deal of emphasis is placed on ‘unattached action’ - acting without being concerned about results, simply doing what is right and appropriate. While in Sufism, the ‘awakened’ state is referred as Baqa, and one of its characteristics is that the person has no will of their own, but lives in and through God, in a state of ecstasy. They no longer have a sense of planning their own life, or making things happen. Life unfolds naturally and spontaneously through them, by virtue of divine power.This state is obviously rare, but possibly more common than many of us realize.
Purpose and Evolution
Human beings are naturally dynamic. Growth is an intrinsic part of our nature. Life on earth has always been dynamic, as expressed through the process of evolution. Life has always had innate tendency to grow towards greater complexity, to become more organized, and more conscious.
So when we feel a sense of purpose - and this is particularly the case at higher levels of purpose - we’re really manifesting the creative urge of evolution, becoming its expression, which is possibly why it feels so right when we do it.
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