It sounds intimidating, to define the purpose of your life. It also sounds unnecessary. Why not just live? Why not just enjoy life, and take each day as it comes?
I don’t think there is any ultimate purpose to life beyond what we decide is important. I think James Altucher puts it well in this post:
“People get depressed now if they feel they are not fulfilling a purpose in life.
Here’s what I think purpose is: the universe doesn’t know anything. So it cut off tiny pieces of itself to go out there and experience things, any things, and then come back home when they were done.
That’s it. So whatever you are experiencing today, good or bad, the universe is learning and happy and grateful to you because it is exploring new things about life.
No other purpose.”
I don’t believe in any kind of singular, universal purpose (not even the poetic purpose Altucher describes), but I do feel better and live better when I live by my own principles. What do I think is important? How much am I willing to bet on those values? How ’bout everything. All in.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, in a beautiful response to a question on a reddit (“What can you tell a young man looking for motivation in life itself?”) gets to the core rationale for defining one’s own purpose in life:
“The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation. For me, I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.”
Love, meaning, and motivation all work together. You can discover what gives life meaning (for you) by listening to your heart (in fact I think this is the best way to discover meaning). For Tyson, increasing personal knowledge and reducing human (and perhaps also animal) suffering reflect his core values (codified into purpose, or “main philosophies” as he puts it). He advises the young man looking for motivation to decide what is important to him, and then act on it.
If the word “purpose” rubs you the wrong way, consider defining your “core values” or “life philosophy” instead. For you, what gives life meaning?
Motivation and Goals
Does motivation automatically flow from purpose and meaning? Not necessarily. Low motivation can be a sign of low dopamine in certain parts of the brain, depression, and/or overstimulation.
But jacking up the neurotransmitters involved in motivation doesn’t actually lead to productive or helpful activity unless there are already well-established habits in those areas (yes, the movie Limitless is a fantasy). For example, bromocriptine is a powerful dopamine agonist. Side effects include gambling and compulsive shopping. Reward-seeking behavior, in other words, but not really what most people think of when they think about motivation. Drugs like modafinil can enhance concentration, motivation, and cognitive abilities, but come with disruptive and potentially health-damaging side effects. Videogames are designed to jack up reward-seeking behavior, and sometimes the dopamine boost can overflow into other life areas. But just as easily, videogames can suck time and energy, providing the feelings of motivation and drive (achievements! points! levels!) without any real-world effects.
Goal-setting can also temporarily increase motivation, but if a goal isn’t purpose-driven, the motivation boost will be short-lived. If I don’t care about money very much, setting a “goal” to become a billionaire isn’t going to do squat. Even if I come up with a plan and work that plan like a maniac, I’m going to lose steam if I don’t actually care about becoming rich. Goals shouldn’t require motivation, they should provide motivation. And goals only provide motivation when they line up with life purpose/core values.
Here’s my own system for turning purpose into action. Feel free to steal it (I’ve stolen all the bits from other people).
1. Make a 5-year commitment that is true to your life purpose (and/or values and/or life philosophy). Where do you want to be in 5 years? As Steve Pavlina points out, we often overestimate what we can do in a single year, but underestimate what we can do in five years.
2. Choose a single actionable goal that supports your 5-year commitment. Give yourself a target date. If it appeals to you, set up additional rewards (completing the goal will be a reward in itself) and “kick-in-the-butt motivators” (I prefer this phrasing to “punishment”) around the goal. For example when I was trying to finish the first draft of my most recent novel, I promised myself I wouldn’t consume any alcohol until I finished (which resulted in this post, and also finishing my first draft).
3. Commit to a daily practice (don’t break the chain!) that moves you closer to your goal. If you can, complete this practice early in the day, when your willpower and concentration are at their highest. If you don’t have that luxury, just carve out some time every day. Even an hour a day of focused work will get you somewhere.
Even if you don’t choose this kind of structured approach to living your life, it’s still worth it to choose your own purpose in life. At the very least, you’ll have something to fall back on when the “What am I doing here?” question pops into your head. And oh yeah, you’ll live longer.