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Questions about Purpose

Questions about Purpose

by Joel Christie

At one time or another, most of us have had wondered "What's the purpose of my life?" or "Do I matter?" These are not just midlife crisis questions. No, these kinds of questions will likely tug at us over and over throughout our lives. Even in this era of constant entertainment and distraction, the brain and the emotions it generates tend to return to such questions. I might enjoy watching Downton Abbey or The Walking Dead, but eventually I'll need a break. Something else. Something more. Same goes for riding roller coasters, or playing Monopoly, or sitting in that massage chair in the mall. Not that there is anything wrong with pleasure and fun, of course. But activities we place in the "fun" category may fail to satisfy that part of our brain that's asking questions about purpose. Unless, for example, I happen to love movies, and also happen to be a movie critic, wherein I perceive part of my purpose being to inform the good citizens around me of what's worth seeing, and what's putrid garbage, thereby striving to increase the overall artistic threshold of society. Or some blather along those lines. Whatever. It doesn't have to make sense to you. The important thing is that it satisfies that part of my own brain. That tugging insistence that I matter in some way.

It's hard to predict when this "tugging" will happen. Sometimes it's when we're feeling driven and strong. Sometimes it's when we're feeling low or unsuccessful. (And indeed, it is very hard to conceive of "success" at all without acknowledging we want things to end up a certain way, which quickly leads back to the concept of purpose.) People have mulled over these questions for eons. And as you have likely noticed, we have arrived at many different conclusions. Some are eager to tell you they've solved this dilemma. Some say it's different for everyone, or that it changes over time. Others have concluded that such questions are ultimately unanswerable, or else that the answer is "There is no purpose to life: not to mine, yours, or anyone else's."And yet, we find that throughout humankind, from one society to the next, people report that these kinds of questions circulate through their minds, sometimes subtly (such as vague feelings of depression or anxiety), other times with obnoxious persistence (like a guy who sits down to write an article on the subject).
So why does the brain do this? Why does the brain expend energy thinking about whether or not I, as an individual being that presently exists here in the year 2015, has purpose, and, perhaps more significantly, whether or not I am satisfactorily connecting with this purpose? Let's follow this existential rabbit hole a little further:

Maybe we find comfort in the notion that my life is bigger than just me. Maybe these questions are an attempt to make death less scary. Maybe having purpose is just a great antidote to boredom. Or perhaps it's just something that societies have propagated to keep people busy. But of course that only leads to other questions, like why it should matter to me whether other people in my society are busy or not, so long as they aren't trying to steal my sheep or burn down my grain fields, right? Regardless, the concept of purpose certainly is integrated into our societies, right from childhood. We could translate, "What do you want to be when you grow up" to be a kid friendly version of "What significance do you hope your life will someday take on?" or "Why do you think you matter, O young one?" Then again, maybe the subconscious reason we ask kids purpose-minded questions is so that they'll take care of us when we're old, bringing us all the way back around to basic needs again. Sheesh.

Okay, let's settle on this: there are lots of possible answers to the question, "What is the purpose of my life?" (And there are perhaps just as many possible answers for "Why does my brain care about whether my life has purpose or not?") The part that seems easier to clarify is that these purpose related questions are there. Some part of me wants an assurance that I matter. So what do I do with that?
Start exploring!

If you find yourself happily resolved on this matter, congratulations! But for those of you still pondering questions of purpose and meaning, I encourage you to take measures to explore them in greater depth. Anxiety and depression are likely byproducts when the brain is confronted by something it perceives as a significant problem, and the fear that your life doesn't matter or lacks purpose would qualify as significant for most people. Facing the issue will lead to not only greater understanding but also a reduction in fear (eventually) and an increased sense of empowerment, self worth, and lasting durable happiness that is not so dependent on whether or not you happen to currently be hang gliding or drinking your favorite beer.

"My life matters because..." can be a potential place to start this journey. What can you come up with? And if you're not satisfied, then feel free to seek ways to change this. Maybe help out at an after school reading program. Or patent that invention you've been tinkering with for the last decade. Or talk to your boss about taking on some different projects that match more closely with your passions. Write a novel (or an article on purpose). Go on a spiritual retreat. Whatever you decide to do, connect it back to that question you began with: "My life matters because..."

You're the one who needs to be satisfied by the answers you come up with. But even spending time considering this question should generate some measure of hope and satisfaction, particularly as you pursue the pathways that open up in response to the questions you're allowing yourself to experience. We don't have to "solve" a problem to start to feel more empowered. We just need to know that we are making progress on our journey. And if these purpose questions are indeed ruminating in your thoughts, perhaps it's because some part of you is eager to progress further along your own journey of discovery. If that's true, then you probably won't find the satisfaction you're seeking watching Downton Abbey or riding roller coasters. Not in the long run. Because your mind is hungry to better understand your purpose. So go explore. And when you find pieces of your purpose, grab hold of them with vigor.

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