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What does happiness look like to you?
Is it lying on a beach with nothing to ruffle your mind? Climbing a spectacular mountain? Falling in love? Snuggling with your favorite Dog? (Capitalized because…Dogs.)
While all of these things can make us feel momentarily happy—what if even Dogs can’t fill in the blanks?
Friedrich Nietzsche said, “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” But what exactly does that mean—should we be considering the complex question: what is our higher purpose? Is it our duty to elevate ourselves and our mission here on earth? And if so, why?
Frankly, all of those sentences exhaust me. Can’t we just live our f*cking life?
Well, maybe not. As a psychotherapist, I’m obsessed with sorting out why people are unhappy.
The number one reason in my opinion? Lacking a sense of purpose.
It is a sense of purpose that makes the inevitable pain of life bearable, that can help us feel as if we deserve the happiness we occasionally get to feel, and that connects us to something greater than our own puny lives.
But what do we do if we don’t know what our purpose is? We can’t just make one up. Sometimes I think people are reluctant to settle on a purpose because what if they fail? Then their whole lives are a failure! Or what if we choose the wrong thing and end up even more unhappy than we might have been in the first place? What about those of us who don’t seem to have a “calling”—are we doomed to meaningless lives punctuated by fleeting pleasures?
Not at all.
Lori Gottlieb, in Maybe You Should Talk To Someone advises, “follow your envy.” By this, she means to contemplate the lives of people who seem enviable and recognize what it is that can add a purpose to your own life.
Of course, we must be careful how we answer this question, as what we envy might be the external trappings of beauty, wealth, or fame. If that is the sum total of our answer, then we need to ask ourselves why we want those things. Generally speaking, they often serve to shore up feelings of low self-esteem but not much else, and having them as our “purpose” basically ensures we’ll live a meaningless f*cking life.
But, if we envy, say, a prolific artist, be they famous or not, that might tell us that creativity is important to us, or independent thinking, or seeing the beauty in the world, or inspiring others, or any number of other things. It does not necessarily mean you have to be a prolific artist yourself—a mistake people often make—but that something about the life, the work, or the mission of an artist resonates with you.
So, step one is to tell your brain to take a break and tune into your brave, wise heart (not your broken, sad heart, which will only tell you that everything is too scary.) What does your brave, wise heart long for? Keep it general: Connection? Creativity? Empowerment? Communication? Dreaming? Doing?
If the only answers to this question are: nothing, to have no responsibility, or to not have to think—that’s just your sad, broken heart talking. Listen to it. Depending on how sad and how broken it is, it’s quite possible you may need to heal before undertaking the task of finding a purpose. If that is the case, consider therapy, which could save you years of believing that your broken heart is the real you.
Once we get in touch with a general sense of what our hearts want, we don’t need to do a single thing. We just hold the feeling like a precious stone and see what light it catches. We turn it gently, and observe it, and let ourselves get comfortable with the “yes” of it. We consider all the possibilities of how we might interpret this wanting. We get creative, we get weird, and we allow ourselves to think, what if?
What if? What if?
But that’s just the first part, and many of us get stuck here. I’ll give you an example from my own life. I always thought I wanted to be a writer. But because being a writer is generally not a profession by which one can easily support oneself, my mother was constantly trying to come up with more practical ways I might apply my talents. I seem to recall “something in advertising” being mentioned a lot. (This made me uncomfortable even at a young age because selling people things that they don’t need felt parasitic and gross, a feeling I did, and should have, paid attention to.) We must be careful not to try to fit square pegs into round holes just because we don’t have any other ideas.
I wrote and wrote, I majored in literature in college, moved to New York, wrote some more (most notably, the terrible beginning of a novel which sounded strangely like Wuthering Heights), got nothing published, and finally sorted out that I was, in actuality, probably just meant to be a waitress.
From writer, to mom, to yoga teacher, to Reiki practitioner, and back to writer, I flailed about for more than a decade trying to find my calling.
Though I still loved writing, and had in fact managed to write a whole book entirely unlike Wuthering Heights, I knew there was something missing. Writing was too one-sided, too lonely, and frankly, I didn’t have the brain power to develop the characters I dreamed of writing about. Same way with yoga and Reiki, I loved them—but it wasn’t enough. If I wasn’t supposed to do any of the things I had been doing, was I just some big waste of space? At 40, having had to hang up teaching yoga due to major back surgery and still never having been published, I was lower than I’d ever been.
In desperation, I posted this question on social media, “What should I be when I grow up?”
I only remember one answer and it stood out like the words “Dirk Diggler” stood out to Mark Wahlberg in the hot tub scene in “Boogie Nights.” “You should be a therapist.” Yes, I thought. A therapist—the years of worry suddenly transforming into what I would learn was hope.
So what was different for me about the idea of being a therapist versus the idea of being a writer or a yoga teacher or a Reiki healer? It took many of my best abilities: listening, helping, guiding, healing, and communicating, and brought them all together. (I even found a place to fit writing back in, in the form of mental health articles like this!)
But it wasn’t just that. It was that I finally realized my strengths and talents had value to the world, that I could do something—not just for myself—but to be of service. Game changer. As I undertook my arduous Master’s in Counseling program, this thought kept washing over me: I’m going to be able to help people! Little old me.
My take away is not that everyone has to be a helper or a healer or any of the things I just mentioned, but that seeing our strengths within the framework of how they might serve to lift up others goes a long way toward finding a sense of purpose that is sustainable. We may not be able to achieve this in our profession (yet), but we can be open-minded and experiment, keep the pieces that work and leave the rest behind, and some day end up in our own hot tub with our own blazing sign vibrating above our very own heads.
If you’re ready to find your purpose, try answering these questions:
What am I good at?
List as many things as possible, even if they seem ridiculous. I had one client write that she is very good at flossing her teeth. So be it. There’s information even there.
What do I love?
Again, an exhaustive list is helpful.
What are my priorities?
Examples: to have enough money not to be stressed out financially. To have a family. To not have a family. To travel. To not live a meaningless f*cking life.
How much money do I need to make to feel okay?
This is tricky, especially in our culture where need routinely gets confused with want. It’s not necessarily a problem to want things you don’t need, unless you have to do things you don’t want to do in order to get them.
My suggestion: Make a list of what you need and put an approximate dollar sign on it. Then make a list of what you want along with the prices and include everything, no matter how frivolous. Now, review that “want list” again and start crossing off the stuff that either no longer seems important now that it’s down on paper, or those things that you’re not willing to trade your time working for, just to have them. This list will likely change as your priorities adjust and that’s okay.
Add the sum total of the two lists together and you have a general idea of your financial goals for the short-term and maybe even your long-term future, too.
How can any of the things—that I am good at, that I love, that serve my priorities, and that possibly make money—also be of service?
Example: I love Dogs so I can walk Dogs, and be the best Dog walker in the history of the world by being kind, consistent, punctual, hard working, and ethical, and maybe even giving a free Dog walk to the elderly lady on my block because it’s obvious she’s had a hard life. Sure, Dog walking may not be your ultimate goal like waitressing wasn’t mine, but as you do it, you gather data, you think and learn, and in the meantime, you have a purpose—and that purpose will drive you forward.
Is any of this easy? No it isn’t. But unless you want to live and die without tapping into the magic that is inside every single one of us, it’s time to get off the couch. Fear is real, and confusion is real, and mistakes will happen, and no one knows the future, but as scary as the whole thing is, there is just nothing worse than living a meaningless f*cking life.
My final tip to get you up and moving is this: if life seems too hard, imagine your own death. Not in the sense of contemplating suicide, but in the Buddhist sense of death meditation.
Contemplating the limited nature of our existence can help release us from the fears that define it.
And as Mary Oliver said, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
What more important question could there possibly be?