Inspired by ancient wisdom and modern science.
Everyone needs a reason for being, a purpose, usually believing that fulfilling one’s purpose leads to happiness. One person finds purpose in raising a family. Another sees a purpose in achieving a spectacular career. Someone else finds purpose in championing a political or a social cause. Some compete in the Olympics. Others grow a massive real estate empire. But are we defining “purpose” by looking outside of ourselves and measuring our accomplishments by who we please, how much we make, what we own, how well-known we are, what influence we have, and so on? If so, no matter how well we do, we never seem to find happiness.
Sometimes we feel happy for a few hours, or even a few days and then somehow the intensity and the joy of that happiness fades away. What are we to do then but try harder, work longer, do more and see if we can get another one of those rare moments of happiness. Yet, happiness proves very elusive, fleeting, and more or less, just a dream. So, what gives?
First, perhaps, we mistaken happiness with instant gratification and feeling good. Research shows that happiness is more like an enduring contentment, having meaning in life, and the capacity to return to positive emotions regardless of negative circumstances.
Second, purpose should be that meaningful pursuit in which you feel driven intrinsically, not just by social and economic pressures. You feel motivated, energized, and inspired by the process itself, not just the final outcome. We feel connected, interested, intrigued, and willing to continue on the path.
It sounds great until you start searching for that purpose and can’t seem to find it. That’s probably because you think of it as an occupation, something you have to do. Instead, it is more about who you are, and how you are when you do what you do. And it is about what you do with what you get from what you are doing.
I’ll elaborate. We usually define purpose and build our hopes for happiness on the shaky foundation of an impermanent reality. We ignore the constant of change. We identify with our roles. If something happens to you tomorrow and you no longer have the capacity to fulfill the roll you identify as your purpose, what will become of your hopes for achieving happiness? If your boss gives that promotion to the new kid in the office, what will you do? If the new house you just built falls in an earthquake, what will it do to you? If your kids turn out to be rotten and unruly despite your best efforts, how would you feel? What if your significant other leaves you after your many years of service and devotion?
If you mainly base your idea and experience of happiness on what you can get out of being someone, having something, or doing something, then the unexpected, unpleasant, unwanted circumstances of your life will devastate you. We also know from research in the area of happiness, that even if everything works out to people’s best specifications, when they do get what they want, and when they do end up where they want to be, often people flatline. It feels less exciting than expected. Less rewarding than anticipated. Less amazing than dreams about it.
Achievement and attainment do not necessarily equal happiness.
If you sit and examine your life, asking honest questions about yourself, you may be able to discover something very interesting – your conditioning. You may be shocked to discover that you are living a life scripted by what the yogis’ call samskaras – or subliminal impressions upon your consciousness left from previous experiences and previous scripts programmed on to your brain from your parents, to your teachers, and your culture. Those things seem to lead you in a certain way producing seemingly similar results. You always do what you’ve always done and you always get what you’ve always gotten. Ask yourself: How do all your relationships end? What is the nature of your conflicts with your co-workers, or family members? What kind of shoes do you mostly buy? What kind of people are you generally attracted to or associate with? Who did you vote for in the last election, and really why? The fact of our programmed minds leads some scientists and philosophers as far as to make a case against having a free will. In a way that’s true, for as long as we choose to make decisions and to live life on autopilot, never questioning our assumptions, actions, and choices, and always gravitating towards what’s familiar and easy.
There is a way out of the cycle. Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita that everyone is destined to be active, for life is action. The challenge is to be active in such a way that our actions are not dictated by ignorance or delusion but by liberating wisdom. World-renowned neuroscientist Beau Lotto will tell you that paying attention to yourself and purposefully deviating from your habitual responses, exposes you to new experiences. These new experience, become information available in the search space of your brain’s decision-making processes and gives you an opportunity to make original (for you) decisions in the future. Perhaps, we do have free will after all.
It seems we can stumble on purpose and happiness if we chose to honestly stay self-reflective, willing to experiment, and pay attention to what we do along the way. First find out who you are – your personality type, proclivities, strengths and weaknesses, your abilities, habitual behavior, beliefs, and nuances. This helps you steer clear of experiences you will not appreciate. It shows you what you can improve and refine in yourself and what harms you. The rest of what is available to you in life is potential purpose material. You literally sort yourself out and then act and get involved accordingly. In the process you are likely to find out, like millions of others, that you are good at many things and have many interests, but you cannot attend to all of them to the full capacity necessary to become the best at all of them. Then, choose one or two areas of interest and ability where you can focus and maximize your contribution and expertise. The rest becomes the supporting background of your balanced and fulfilling life.
So much simpler, isn’t it.
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