Everyone from Aristotle to Homer Simpson to my neighbor’s cat has opinions on what “purpose in life” really means. The reality is the definition of a purposeful life isn’t as abstract as it sounds and, judging by what research studies have shown, it really helps us to have some purpose in life. Sorry YOLO’ers.
In the responses section of an online article, I came across the following comment referring to one Mrs. Greenberg, a resident of East Village, a neighborhood in New York City.
In her nineties, Mrs. Greenberg would still walk across the bridge from Brooklyn to volunteer at a hospital on the other side of the bridge. When asked why she did this, her response was, “Gotta help the old folks.”
The “old folks,” by the way, were at least twenty years her junior.
Knowing nothing else about Mrs. Greenberg, or her life circumstances, we can still draw some logical and reasonable conclusions regarding her station in life at that time.
For one, Mrs. Greenberg would have had to be in decent physical health for her to make the trek across the bridge. Also, it’s likely her mental faculties were in good shape, as evidenced by the fact that she volunteered and did so with a sense of humor (referring to those almost a generation younger as “old folks” requiring assistance.)
Cause and Effect
Now, here’s the $64,000 question:
Was Mrs. Greenberg’s ability to volunteer a result of her physical fitness and mental agility, age notwithstanding? Or was the reverse true? Did Mrs. Greenberg’s physical and mental agility directly result from the fact that she chose to spend some of her time volunteering to benefit others?
The answer, according to both science and philosophy, is both.
It takes a combination of good genes, discipline and, let’s face it, luck, to keep up good health (physically and mentally) as we age. But, more importantly, those who have a strong purpose in life can sustain and prolong the benefits of good health far more than those who don’t.
You just need to do a ten-second Google search to see hit after hit of studies that confirm the inextricable link between purpose in life and the reduction in mortality risk.
According to a research paper, having a greater purpose in life is associated with “a reduced risk of AD (Alzheimer’s disease) and MCI (Mild cognitive impairment) in community-dwelling older persons.”
The positive benefits of having a purpose in life isn’t limited to aging populations either.
Another study concluded that having a purpose in life isn’t just important in our final years, but appears to “widely buffer against mortality risk across the adult years.”
Yet another study confirmed that the risk factors for cardiovascular disease go down for those who engage in volunteer work even among adolescents (those people in your house who apparently know everything but can’t help you find your misplaced phone).
So, the science is clear. Having a purpose in life beyond ourselves is better overall. But before we get too ahead of ourselves, what does purpose in life really mean?
What is Purpose?
Plato believed knowing oneself is the ultimate purpose.
For a man to conquer himself is the first and noblest of all victories.
Richard Branson, on the other hand, has said,
There is no greater thing you can do with your life than follow your passions.
Heck, even my neighbor’s cat, though she can’t quite articulate it, has shown me what she thinks the purpose of one’s life should be.
Eat. Sleep. Repeat. (Because, why not?)
The reality is almost everyone has/had an opinion on what it means to lead a purposeful life. And these opinions are as varied as can be: doing what you love, helping others, challenging yourself, finding spirituality, etc.
That said, there is a common thread, a consensus, across the various definitions of what a purposeful life means.
Purpose is what that helps you get out of bed every morning and it’s what keeps you centered and committed to a life goal without straying too far away.
If, like me, you find the above definition of purpose a bit too abstract, American philosopher Susan Wolf’s book Meaning in Life and Why it Matters provides a thought-provoking and nuanced discussion of what purpose really means. She helps to break this rather intangible concept up into not just something we can grasp, but more importantly, into something actionable.
While it’s impossible to summarize the content of a book into a couple of hundred words, here are some key takeaways that can at least get us started on how to think about our own purpose in life.
Happiness is fleeting. Meaningfulness is not.
If you hear someone say “happiness is overrated,” it can be tempting to retort with “Who hurt you?” because only the most cynical or those who lead a joyless existence would question the pursuit of happiness, right? Not quite.
As Susan Wolf describes in her book Meaning in Life and why it matters, feeling fulfilled does not necessarily require us to feel happy. Watching a favorite TV show is probably a happier experience than listening to a friend gripe about the crisis at work, but the latter is more fulfilling.
Ask any sleep-deprived parent whether reading “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” for the 32nd time is their definition of happiness. Yet parents do it because they know that’s what it takes to get an agitated toddler to sleep and therefore, the pursuit becomes meaningful and, in turn, makes the monotony worthwhile.
When we undertake such actions, borne purely out of love, it’s not to make ourselves happier, or even, pompous as it sounds, to make the world a better place. When we give our time and resources with no expectation in return, it can leave us feel fulfilled, a state of being that’s even better than happiness.
Hedonic v Eudaimonic well-being
In the conventional sense, we use the word happiness to describe hedonic well-being, a superficial state of joy and exhilaration that tends to be short-lived. Purposeful and meaningful experiences, on the other hand, result in what psychologists refer to as eudaimonic well-being, a life well-lived in the pursuit of excellence.
And, in the long run, eudaimonic well-being triumphs hedonic well-being.
Purpose isn’t selfish
Susan Wolf also invokes the example of Sisyphus, the Greek King, who, as a result of a curse, spent his life rolling a stone uphill only for it to roll down as it neared the top. Sisyphus’ life is held up as the textbook example of a meaningless existence.
But imagine if Sisyphus actually had a condition that made him enjoy the monotony of what he did? Would that make his life more meaningful, because he was doing what he liked and thus following his passion?
Here’s what the modern-day equivalent of the Sisyphean problem looks like: if playing golf makes me feel happy and productive, and I’m not harming anyone by playing golf, can I count my day spent golfing as a purposeful way to fill time?
Unfortunately, according to philosophers including Wolf, the answer is no. They reckon that for something to be considered purposeful, the action needs to have an unselfish motive and independent value outside of oneself. Which brings us to the next logical question “who determines what is valuable?”
How do we determine if something is valuable?
Who’s to say whether something is valuable or not? Doesn’t beauty lie in the eye of the beholder? It’s definitely not a simple question to answer and we can get all knotted up over it. But, instead of arguing and reinventing the wheel, why not lean on centuries of wisdom, like Susan Wolf does, and go with what’s generally accepted as valuable?
I expect that almost anything that a significant number of people have taken to be valuable over a large span of time is valuable.
Translation: Spending your days watching wholesome reality TV with a kitty cam, or becoming a ferret racing champ, or excelling at crowd watching, don’t quite make the cut as “valuable” ways to spend time even though they seem like unique and novel pursuits. Instead, we are better off sticking to tried and tested socially approved methods to find something meaningful to do.
Here’s the bad and good news about finding our purpose in life.
The bad news is that there is no magic formula that can show us what a purposeful life would look like. But the good news is that the mere act of thinking about leading a life of purpose can make us examine how we live currently and hopefully nudge us in the right direction. And knowing, as they say, is half the battle.
Most of us aim to live honest lives in the pursuit of our passions while also making sure we’re neither a bore nor a bother to family and friends. But to live a purposeful life means to raise the stakes even higher.
In the words of Susan Wolf,
What gives meaning to our lives gives us reasons to live, even when we do not care much, for our own sakes, whether we live or die. What gives meaning to our lives gives us reasons to live, even when the prospects for our own wellbeing are bleak.