Purposing Happiness in the Old Grist Mill
Saturday, February 4, 2017
Existential questions—what is the meaning of life? What is my purpose? What makes me happy?—have generated thousands of exploratory books and papers that sit on the real and cyber shelves of bookstores and academic journals under categories such as Philosophy, Psychology, and Self-help.
A recent conversation with a client, Leandra, got both of us thinking more deeply about ‘purpose.’ How do we find it? Is it even something to be found? How do we understand the meaning of purpose in our individual lives? Is our narrative about what constitutes purposeful pursuits limiting or expanding for us, and is this narrative subject to editing?
Leandra, a highly intelligent, professionally employed woman, found her job rather stultifying. It paid the bills, allowed her to live in a nice house in a nice community. It made use of her advanced degree. She could do it well, but without any moments of pizazz. It required a lot of discipline on her part to harness herself to the tasks involved. Although other activities, outside of work, held interest for her, she complained of an inability to stick with anything. She tried guitar lessons, dance, pottery, rock climbing. Initially all seemed to kick start some real enjoyment and engagement, but inevitably she would discontinue. Without any continuity, she fell into a numbing process of searching for the activity that would finally capture both her imagination as well as her commitment, and compensate for her boredom at work.
For a while I scratched my head. Why did Leandra short circuit her involvement in any of these avocations which she supposedly liked? Did she lack discipline or commitment to anything besides work and her family? Did she simply get bored easily? Would she continue to peruse the smorgasbord table of life’s offerings until she found something of greater attraction still?
Finally, she pondered what made her lose interest, and came up with the notion that, at some point she would ask herself what use this activity had. If she decided it lacked utility or purpose, other than self-indulgence, then she would lose steam or completely drop the activity. In our continuing conversations, we considered whether purpose might be less about our evaluation of the status of an activity—as useful or important–and more about how we engage ourselves in whatever we do.
If one’s purpose isn’t found in the smorgasbord of life’s offerings, but in how fully we offer ourselves to the work we choose, then purpose involves a personal process of developing our investment, our dedication, and our increasing mastery to something. That kind of attention illuminates, hones, and connects us more and more meaningfully to that with which we place our hands, minds, and hearts.
The activity itself—its vitality or offering of purposes—exactly mirrors our evaluation of it. When we are “in the flow,” and fully engaged, then we are investing that action with purpose and meaning. We become full of the activity and the activity becomes full of us.
The purposing of life expresses us at our most creative. As Victor Frankl said, “we are meaning making creatures.” And happiness thrives on such investment; not only our sense of pleasure, but our satisfaction in self-expression, as well as in making a contribution beyond ourselves to others.
Happiness is more of a how than a what; how we live life, as well as love, appreciate and invest ourselves in what we do and those with whom we share our sorrows and our joys. The purposing of happiness happens on the wings of commitment, engagement, exquisite mindset, willingness, openness to experience, and so forth.
In contrast, a bottle cap opener has no inherent purpose—though perhaps the steel’s active electrons “purposefully” move heat and electricity through their dance. We invest bottle cap openers with utility. We manufacture them to amplify the hand’s strength (Oh gosh, and the teeth for some brave souls) and better calibrate the angle of leverage. A bottle cap opener, like any inanimate object, requires human intention and action to make a positive difference in our functioning.
My mother died in September of 2016, just a few months ago, leaving her legacy of optimism with me and my sisters. Legacy comments, though casual, often sounded like this: “It may be hard for you right now, but you’ll figure it out,” or “But you’ll keep trying, I know you.” Or, “Can’t you adjust your perspective?” And often, “Well, make sure to take care of yourself.”
This latter comment has finally sunk in. The fundamental embodiment of our developing capabilities and intentions requires us to take care of ourselves. Whether we are purveyors, conduits, channels, transmitters, embracing arms, or fonts of love, knowledge and rides to soccer games, our constitutions require nourishment, sleep, exercise, breathing room, inspiration, and renewal. This is not just ‘a thing.’ This is the real thing. We are animate and live on borrowed time. Our lives are on short loan from the universe so we must spend down our energy and time wisely.
The moment after my mother received her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, as gently as possible from the young oncologist she would meet only once, she could not remember the term, ‘pancreatic.’ She kept asking us to repeat the name and knew her denial process kept it from her. Even as she lay bedbound during those last few days of her life she perked up. “Sometime I want to write an essay on denial. It’s amazing how I can’t remember the name of this cancer.” An infinite regression of denials? Or is this purposing happiness, to see her ‘denial’ from an alternate perspective.
When all else failed—to conquer a problem, rectify an injustice, get the guy, get the job, win the award—she’d say, “It’s all grist for the mill.” The ultimate in recycling, upcycling, in turning lemons into lemonade. The ultimate in purposing happiness. At the last moment, there are still things to ponder, to write, to contribute. Even if we will not be around to finish them.
Rabindranath Tagore (1861 – 1941) wrote, “We live in the world when we love it.” We are most alive in our world when we love it. Love is that purposeful energy that renders the grass its greenest green, and makes us call the sounds of a bird ‘music,’ and the laughter of our babies inspirational. One of my clients, Glyndi, says, “If I know you I love you.” Love, and purpose, are connectors. We connect ourselves to our world with love, and invest our devoted attention to the ever-evolving harmony-and-chaos of our lives with purpose.
When we love, we feel open, excited, willing, ready, available, forgiving, insightful, understanding, capable, curious, motivated, courageous, revelatory, cooperative, generous, and connected.
Another voice supporting the notion that purpose is in the “doing” of something rather than the “what” we are doing, Mark Manson (Sept 18 2014 https://markmanson.net/life-purpose), writes movingly about parenting. Any parent has impact, is an “influencer.” Here is a quote from his online article:
“Parenting ineluctably demands that one address the greatest, founding philosophical question: What is a good life? As we go about answering it live in our words and actions over long years, we will at least know that we have been spared the one great fear that otherwise haunts us and usually manifests itself around work: that of not being able to make a difference. There will not be the remotest danger of lacking impact, only of unwittingly exerting the wrong kind. We will be the biographers, coaches, teachers, chefs, photographers, masters and slaves of our new charges. Our work will lend us the opportunity to show our worst, but also our best selves in action: it is the particular words we will find, the touch of our hands, the encouraging look only we will be able to give, the swerve towards lenience or the brave defense of principles that will make a decisive difference to the sorrows and joys of another human being. Who we are every day, the specific individuals we will have matured into, will have an unparalleled power to exert a beneficial influence on somebody else’s life. We will – in our role as parents – be terrified, exhausted, resentful, enchanted and forever spared any lingering doubt as to our significance or role on the earth.”
Just like a simple bottle cap opener requires application to activate its purpose, so too do we generate purpose, and the satisfactions of feeling purposeful, from the application of ourselves to whatever we are doing.
Perhaps, those of us who have jobs we love, and do things we love, have an enormous privilege—to feel contributory, even if in a small way, even beyond our own families; to feel engaged fully; to feel lifted and inspired and masterfully in development with what we do. Not everyone has the luxury of pursuing what calls to them, or the opportunities for education and mentorship or encouragement. But when we invest ourselves fully in whatever we are doing we meet ourselves at the places where our strengths, intelligence, and inclinations manifest themselves. This is where we find direction. All experiences are grist for the mill, and that purposes happiness.
Camel Saddle: To what activities do you fully apply yourself? In what do you get so lost that you are found in your most creative and activated expression, fully alive in the moment? To what might you pay more attention, in order to generate more purposeful direction? What thoughts do you spin that hold you back from your loving, attentive and purposeful connections?