By Jeremy Godwin.
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast/article about improving your mental health and wellbeing by Australian author and speaker Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on one specific topic and is full of practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.
This week I’m talking about purpose – what purpose is, why it’s a huge part of mental health and wellbeing, and how to find ways to bring a greater sense of purpose and meaning into your day-to-day life while still paying the bills. Listen to the podcast now in the Spotify player below or continue reading for the article version.
Remember when you were a kid and well-meaning relatives would ask you what you wanted to be when you grew up, as though you were supposed to just figure out one thing and stick to it? I’m 43 and I still have no real idea what I want to be – and that’s great! I have worked in retail, telecommunications, insurance, banking, facilities management, and employment services; and now I do this writing and talking stuff for a living. Is this it? Is this my purpose? Who knows?! Does it matter either way? No! I don’t need to have it all figured out, because I’ve finally realised over the past few years that our sense of purpose and meaning is to be found in our day-to-day actions.
There are lots of different ways to define ‘purpose’, and for some people it’s tied up in notions of whether or not there’s a grand design in life, but ultimately it goes to the heart of one of the greatest questions we each face at some point: why are we here? What’s the meaning of life? When we think about the notion of ‘purpose’, it’s really about wanting to find some sense of meaning in the midst of all the chaos and confusion that life brings.
Whatever your spiritual beliefs and your views on the meaning of life, ‘purpose’ is what gets us out of bed in the morning. It’s what makes us want to keep on going each day because we can see that we’re making some contribution, no matter how small. Sometimes it can be a struggle to find a sense of purpose, and today I’ll be talking about different ways you can approach that.
What is ‘purpose’ and why does it matter?
First, though, why is finding ‘purpose’ so important? Well it’s important because without purpose we struggle to find meaning in our lives and that can affect our overall life satisfaction and even our life expectancy. A 2010 paper about well-being by Kobau et al (details here) found that a sense of purpose, a sense of control over your own life, and feeling that what you do is worthwhile leads to a longer life – which makes perfect sense when you think about it, because if you’re aimless and directionless then you’re going to make very different lifestyle choices than if you have a sense of purpose and can see a vision of what you’re working towards.
What that sense of purpose looks and feels like is going to be specific to you. We all have different things that can serve to create purpose and meaning for us, because we are all unique. The reason why we focus so much on this notion of ‘purpose’ is because most of us want our life to mean something, and it’s part of the human experience to be aware of our own mortality and to want to use our time in some sort of meaningful way, no matter how big or small that might be depending on your viewpoint. We can’t all be world-renowned philosophers or cure cancer, so what do we do with ourselves? How do we find ways to spend our time on this planet that feel meaningful enough to keep us wanting to get out of bed each day and not sink into despair? We often think that everything must happen for a reason because we believe that our existence is out of our control, but it’s not. You are in the driver’s seat. There’s a saying from an unknown author that sums it up perfectly:
“Life is not the way it’s supposed to be. It’s the way it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference.”Anonymous
I think that the biggest step in terms of finding greater purpose and meaning in your life starts with figuring out what it means to you to exist. This is about following your instinct and listening to your intuition, because nobody knows you as well as you know you. We all have our different perspectives on the meaning of life, so I’m going to share mine and you can decide if that fits with your core beliefs or not (and if not, that’s totally fine – however, do take some time to be completely clear about what your beliefs are).
I believe that each of us exists for two reasons: (1) to learn as much as we can (because if we learn we grow, whereas when we stop learning we stagnate), and (2) to find purpose and meaning in our lives.
Now, what ‘purpose’ and ‘meaning’ look and feel like for you is going to be different than it will for me, and for the next person, and for every single one of us… there are roughly 7.8 billion people on this planet (source: The World Counts), and every single one of those people has their own unique perspective on what life is all about. So don’t think that today I’m going to be giving you a nice and easy formula for finding your purpose, because I’m not. What I am going to do is share some thoughts with you about how to bring more purpose and meaning into everything that you do every single day, by tapping into your intuition and by really getting to understand what works for you and what doesn’t work for you.
How do you find a greater sense of purpose and meaning in life?
I want to be very clear and say that I firmly believe you do not have just one purpose in life. We live in a culture where we’re encouraged to find our purpose and stick to it, but in reality you can do or be anything you want to if you put your mind to it and learn the skills you need. If your dream is to teach people French but you can’t speak a word of the language, that doesn’t mean that it’s not meant for you – it just means it’s going to take hard work and perseverance. I think we get so caught up in the notion of finding our perfect ‘purpose’ because we want to believe that there’s a grand design for us – and maybe there is, maybe there isn’t, but either way nobody knows for sure. What we’re really doing is looking for meaning, and I think it’s important to know the distinction between the two. I keep on mentioning ‘purpose’ and ‘meaning’ in the same sentence because it reinforces the fact that you have direct control over the decisions that you make for your life – i.e. What you choose to do, say, and feel. By aligning your sense of self-determination with a focus on greater purpose and meaning in your life, you will begin to better identify what you want (and, just as importantly, what you don’t want).
There’s a whole industry that has been built up around our ongoing search for purpose and meaning – books, seminars, courses, etc. – and a lot of it feeds into our obsession to chase giant life goals so that we can all have millions of followers on Instagram and be rich and successful… but that’s all bullshit.
I think I’m getting way off track and onto a whole tangent here… but my point (at least I think I have a point in here somewhere!) is that the self-help industry is great when people act ethically, but telling you that you have one true purpose in life or you must find some grand sense of higher meaning in every single thing that you do in order to be happy isn’t just irresponsible, it’s dangerous. I think chasing big dreams is a brilliant thing – I mean, I wouldn’t be doing what I do now if I wasn’t pursuing my own dreams and passions – but I believe that our focus needs to be on bringing more and more purpose and meaning into our lives every single day.
If you’ve listened to the show/read LTAMH articles before then you’ve heard me talk a thousand times now about taking things one step at a time, one day at a time, and if you can find purpose and meaning in what you do every day then you will naturally begin to find more joy every day… because the so-called ‘dream’ that’s been sold to us – the one that says we have to have a massive house, an expensive car, first-class world travel, a huge bank account and platinum-card status in everything we do – is a lie. Money can facilitate happiness, but it cannot buy happiness (at least not lasting happiness).
I believe that we have many purposes, all of which grow and evolve as we grow and evolve. The trick is to figure it out AND to keep on figuring it out, because it will continually change as you grow. Often, though, the things that you’re drawn to will have something in common. The sense of purpose I found in my career when I was in my twenties and thirties is very different to what I gain purpose and meaning from now, however the common thread of what has brought me the most satisfaction has been teaching – when I was in the corporate world, the work I did as a trainer was when I was at my happiest and then even when I went into management I enjoyed the teaching aspects that came with coaching my staff and also training future leaders (I used to design and run an “emerging leaders” program in our Melbourne and Sydney offices for a few years, and it was the happiest and most fulfilling part of my job for the time I ran it). I then followed my ego into management full-time and even though it wasn’t right for me, I got a lot out of it – I learned just as much about my sense of purpose through what I didn’t like to do as what I do enjoy, and it taught me skills that help me today when I’m running my own business.
There is no shame in trying different things and even less shame in deciding that they’re not for you. A lot of the biggest “a-ha!” moments in my life have been a product of working out what I didn’t want rather than what I did want. If I only focused on the things that I get excited and passionate about I’d have a pretty narrow focus in life, but by being clear on what I don’t like and avoiding that, then being open to everything else and embracing new experiences, and choosing to say “yes” more often, I have gone down paths in life that have led me to where I am today, giving me skills and experiences that I would never have otherwise developed.
Five simple questions to ask yourself in relation to purpose and meaning
I think there are five questions we should all ask ourselves every day, and they are:
- What do you dislike? Do less of that.
- What gets you excited? Do more of that.
- What feels risky to you but makes you excited? Do more of that – way more.
- What makes you feel like you would rather sink to the bottom of the ocean than do it ever again? Do less of that – way less.
- What do you want to be known for? Definitely do more of that.
Whatever your answers are to those five questions, it doesn’t matter if they’re big or small. You don’t have to chase the big things to find purpose and meaning – I hate to break it to you, but a 60-foot yacht isn’t the be-all and end-all of life! We live in a society where we’re sold the idea that meaning is only to be found in things with monetary value or social status, but that’s just not true. It’s to be found in the little things.
If you find joy and purpose and meaning in coming home from work and spending time with your kids or your partner, or pottering around in your garden, then I take my hat off to you because I think that’s amazing. My partner loves to garden and it’s fantastic to watch someone be so at peace and find such enjoyment from such a simple activity… and it helps that I get to enjoy the fruit and vegetables that we grow!
How you find meaning, how you approach life, is your choice – you have no control over the circumstances that have led you to where you are today, but you have full control over where you go to from here. As Voltaire said;
“Each player must accept the cards life deals [them]. But once they are in hand, [they] alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game.”Voltaire
Yes, that all sounds great… but I still have to earn a living!
How do you find purpose and meaning while you’re paying the bills? Well – paying the bills and doing meaningful work aren’t mutually exclusive. You can either choose to reframe how you see your work (i.e. I’ve talked a lot about choosing a “work to live” mindset rather than living to work) or if it makes you totally and utterly miserable then for pete’s sake go and find a new job. You only ever have three choices in any situation: accept it, change what is within your control, or let it go. I know a lot of people who do their work hours and then leave work and do something they’re truly passionate about, and that enables them to gain much more satisfaction in life.
Your job does not have to be what you find purpose and meaning in. It can be – and if so then that’s fantastic! – but we also don’t have to buy into this idea that it’s only by doing something noble or exciting for our paycheques that we can live our purpose. Find what you love, find what you’re good at, and do more of that… if that means doing more of that at work, great; but at least find a way to do more of that stuff you love and are good at outside of work, because then your work becomes a way to pay the bills rather than a way to define yourself as a person. You can choose to see work as a means to an end so you can earn the money you need to pursue a life outside of work that feels meaningful (and hopefully you’ll find that being more satisfied with your home life will lead you to feeling more satisfied with your working life!).
I have one caveat on that which is: if you hate your job – I mean, really hate your job (or your employer or industry) – then make a change. You cannot go on with that negativity in your life – because negativity attracts more negativity, and before you know it you’ll feel like you’re stuck in quicksand. Don’t just think that doing stuff outside of work is going to make things better if you find that your work is absolutely sucking the life out of you. Like I said before: find a new job, or career/industry. Stop wasting your time and your energy on something that is wrong for you. And don’t make excuses – you have complete control over what you do or don’t do, so nobody can make the change but you.
Regardless of what you might be passionate about or what your focus is today, finding purpose and meaning is a choice that we each make, and nobody can make it happen but you. If you get excited about something specific (or even something general), take the first steps to make it happen – as I often say in this podcast, if it doesn’t harm anyone (including yourself) then do what you like. If you have a passion to make a positive difference in the world, start by volunteering your time in a field that you’re passionate about and work outwards from there. Get involved in your community, spread kindness, and give more than you take from this world. Find a reason to get yourself out of bed every day, no matter how small, and do something about it every day (again, no matter how small).
Don’t waste your life counting down the days until the weekend or the holidays, because all you’re doing is wishing away your precious time. Purpose and meaning are not just some grand magical concept that only people who hustle every minute are able to achieve – it’s something that can be found every single day in every single action; from the decision to chat to a neighbour to the smile you give to a stranger in the street; from the choice to pay for the cup of coffee for the person behind you to the gift of giving your time to listen to a friend in need. Every single act of kindness and compassion is an act of purpose and meaning, because that is what it means to be alive. To be alive you have to live, and life is a series of choices you make to either put out negative energy or positive energy. When you choose to put kindness, compassion and positivity out into the world, you not only attract more positivity to you but you also set off a chain of events that can lead you to discovering more purpose, more meaning, in every single thing that you do.
What it all boils down to is this: finding your purpose doesn’t just happen because you take a quiz or read a book; it’s not an overnight thing, and a lot of people spend their whole lives figuring out what brings them a sense of purpose and meaning. I think we tend to overcomplicate these things because we have built this whole industry up around finding ourselves and living our best lives, which is a great notion – however, it’s a journey, not a destination. Finding yourself isn’t a race that you need to complete so you can tick that box, get your medal and then finally start living your perfect life; it’s about discovering little things about yourself every day, and doing less of what makes you feel like crap and more of what makes you feel like you’re doing something with your life every single day. Even if you’re positive that you’re on the path now that makes you feel all warm and tingly, understand that it just might change because you are never the same person today that you were yesterday. I’ve used this before but the Karen Kaiser Clark quote (“life is change, growth is optional”) is always something I keep front-of-mind, so choose to focus on what you can do each day to feel more excited about life – even that five minute chat with a total stranger can be enough to set you on a path that leads to greater purpose and greater life satisfaction.
Summary and three main points to consider
To summarise: finding purpose isn’t just a case of working out what your destiny is, because the future isn’t written – it’s shaped by your actions. You can do and be anything that you want, and you can have a thousand different purposes in life. It doesn’t matter if what you do is big or small, worldwide or local – purpose and meaning is about making your life mean something; whether that’s to one person or to a million is irrelevant. Make choices that nurture your dreams and your passions, and if it doesn’t harm anyone then do whatever makes you feel fulfilled – and remember that you don’t have to settle for just one thing. Your purpose is to live, so get out there and start living more!
To wrap up, here are my three main points for you to consider:
- You are in control of your destiny. The choices you make, the words you speak, the things that you do or don’t do – these all shape your future.
- If you are looking for a greater sense of purpose and meaning in your life, start by exploring what life means to you and look at the things in your life now that you enjoy, and focus on doing more of those.
- You can chase big-ticket things to achieve a greater sense of purpose, but there is just as much meaning and joy to be found in small day-to-day actions. You don’t need to be Gandhi or Confucius to make a difference in the world.
As always, I’m going to close out with a quote I’d like to encourage you to reflect on and consider what it means for you. This week’s quote is from American writer Leo Rosten, and it is:
“The purpose of life is to matter – to count, to stand for something, to have it make some difference that we lived at all.“Leo Rosten
So, that’s it for this week! For more content, go to:
- Website: Head over to www.letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for more information about Let’s Talk About Mental Health and to sign up so that new posts/newsletters will land in your inbox, and you can also find all past episodes on the website (click here to jump to the Episodes page)
- Podcast: You can listen to the Let’s Talk About Mental Health podcast via your preferred platform (Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and others) as well as an audio-only version on the LTAMH YouTube channel
- Social Media: Connect with me on social media – you can find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamhofficial (I post extra content daily)
Next week I’ll be talking about opinions – I’ll be talking about how opinions (both our own and other people’s) can impact on our mental health, and how you can make choices that have a positive impact on your wellbeing and others’ wellbeing. I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning Australian time.
On Friday I’ll be sending out the next issue of the Mental Health Talk newsletter, which is a weekly round-up of articles and resources focused on good mental health and wellbeing – sign up at the Subscribe page on the website to have the newsletter land in your inbox every week.
If you’re looking for a coach, I offer coaching services to clients anywhere in the world via video conference – have a look at the ‘coaching’ section of the website for more information and my rates. Visit: www.letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/coaching
Have an absolutely fantastic week! Until next time, look after yourself and make a conscious choice to put some positive energy out into the world – because you get back what you give out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.