The need for purpose is one the defining characteristics of human beings – the Power of Purpose is immense.
Human beings crave purpose and suffer serious psychological difficulties when we don’t have it. Purpose is a fundamental component of a fulfilling life.
My dad was a big Paul Gasgoine Fan
I’ve been thinking about my dad recently, he died in 2017. He was a big Gazza fan. Gazza struggled with alcoholism. He was the most famous sportsman of his generation, in the 1990s. However, towards the end of his career, he had been in and out of rehab. He had been arrested for assaulting his wife and found staggering through the lobby of hotels, asking strangers to buy him a drink.
One of his ex-teammates, the gorgeous Gary Lineker, suggested that Gazza’s real problem was he never found a new purpose in his life to replace his football career. In fact Lineker was quoted as saying “Hopefully he can find some sort of goal. He needs a reason to want to get better.”
On the other hand, having a strong sense of purpose can have a powerful positive effect.
I know it’s extreme, but Gazza’s story is a good example what can happen when we don’t have a sense of purpose in our lives.
It makes us more vulnerable to boredom, anxiety, and depression. I know, I have experienced anxiety and depression myself. Having an addictive personality, like Gazza, can make us vulnerable to substance abuse. Alcohol or drugs are, of course, a way of alleviating psychological discord, but at the same time, they can be seen as a way of gaining a very basic sense of purpose: to satisfy the addiction.
On the other hand, having a strong sense of purpose can have a powerful positive effect. When you have a sense of purpose, you never get up in the morning wondering what you’re going to do with yourself. When you’re ‘in purpose’ – that is, engaged with and working towards your purpose – life becomes easier, less complicated, and stressful. You become more mono-focussed, like an arrow flying towards its target, and your mind feels somehow taut and strong, with less space for negativity to seep in.
A powerful example of this comes from Victor Frankl’s famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he describes his experiences in concentration camps during the Second World War. Frankl observed that the inmates who were most likely to survive were those who felt they had a goal or purpose.
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. This 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 time consumed by our negative head chatter.
- When we align ourselves to our purpose, it 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.
- 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 Csikszentmihalyi suggests flow is a powerful source of well-being. The more flow we experience, the happier we feel.
- Purpose can also enhance our self-esteem. So long as we feel that we are successfully dealing with challenges and moving closer to our life’s-direction, 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 in the right direction 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. Hope, depending on our type of purpose. Also hope 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 from serious long term illness. For them, a high level of hope brings both an increased ability to cope and a greater chance of recovery.
What do you hope for? What is your purpose?