It is easy to assume that something as complex as a human life must have a purpose.
Since our times as children we have found ourselves questioning “why” things happen the way they do so It isn’t hard to imagine that perhaps the first thought ever conceived by man was “why am I here?”.
Purpose or meaning actually don’t matter at all until the I is introduced into the equation: it is kind of like the tree that falls in the forest while no one is around to hear it…The whole idea of life needing a purpose is a creation of the mind, without the mind life doesn’t need a purpose.
Meaning is a concept of the mind, and so before there was consciousness there was no meaning.
So what gives life meaning (aside from consciousness)?
Belief in a higher power (religion)
If a carrot is harvested so that you can eat it, then the carrot’s purpose was to sustain you; and if an animal is killed so that you can live, then the animal’s purpose was to keep you alive; with these ideas in mind, it isn’t difficult to see why people might have imagined that there is something bigger than us in the universe. If the world is serving us, then perhaps there is something beyond ourselves that we can also serve.
For thousands of years people have dealt with the enormity of existence by using religion to give meaning and purpose to their lives. It makes sense: by believing that we are nothing but cogs in a machine, we free ourselves to perform our function. Rather than wandering aimlessly through life, religion gives people a reason for living and a meaning for their existence.
Religion gives people a way to explain anything that happens in life (it was all part of god’s plan). In this way religion frees people from over-thinking the negative aspects of life: things like injustice, human suffering, or the randomness of life.
Belonging to a group (collectivism)
Human beings are social beings. Even the most adamant of introverts would be at a loss without some sort of human interaction; there is plenty of documentation of people going crazy without any human interaction.
Human beings, whether we like to admit or not, are actually dependent upon others to achieve our full potential in life; human interaction and “inter-connectedness” is another way that some people find meaning and purpose in their lives.
Through the ideas of collectivism people are able to give up their own meaning in pursuit of a greater meaning. Much like religion, in collectivism people are able to sacrifice the self for the greater good of the group. Collectivism can involve religion, country, a small group of friends, family, or even a career. Collectivism gives the self and existential meaning through it’s service to others or to the group.
Collectivism is a group focus and way of life that frees the individual to pursue the greater good for the group at all times. People who belong to the collectivist way of thinking aren’t as concerned with the other workings of the world, they just seek to preserve the group.
Seeking achievements or outcomes
Some people obtain their sense of purpose from the pursuit of some outcome or achievement. Much like collectivists sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the group (and give their life meaning through this sacrifice), some devote their lives to achievements or accomplishments.
This type of thinking produces a lot of athletes, super successful people, and innovators. Michael Jordan for example: believed that his purpose was to be the greatest basketball player that ever lived. Everyday things that happen in life aren’t a deterrent to these types of people because they are so focused on reaching achievement that they learn to ignore almost everything else.
Among the existentialists are humanists, individualists.
Individualism preaches the gospel of independence. Individualists believe that the individual is all powerful (not the group) and they believe that the self is the sole purpose for existence. While religion or collectivism support giving up the self in search of something greater, individualism supports to pursuit of the desires of the self.
People entrenched in the ideas of individualism find their purpose and meaning through their own experience of life and through their ability to influence the outcome of their life by their own actions. They believe that they can control the outcome of their life and that they are responsible to create the type of life that they wish to possess.
Humanism also places emphasis on the power of the self, but humanists tend to believe that purpose and meaning come from the pursuit of the betterment of the self. Humanists (like Da Vinci, or Michelangelo) believed that the human mind is all powerful and that through cultivation of the mind we can ultimately increase or worth and influence over the world.
Humanists focus on self improvement, increasing knowledge, broadening the mind, and honing skills as the purpose of life.
While individualists tend to believe that expression of the self is the purpose of life, humanists believe that cultivation of skills to become a better and more knowledgeable person gives the life meaning.
A short recap
- Religion gives people purpose through service of a god and it frees them from dealing with larger issues that are left up to god to determine.
- Collectivism gives people purpose through service of a group, collection of people, or belief; it frees people from questioning larger issues because they instead focus on what benefits the group (self questioning or happiness of the self is unimportant to the group)
- Achievement seeking gives people a sense of purpose through sacrificing the self for a single achievement, it frees the self from responsibility for anything except for achieving an accomplishment (the self’s own purpose is eliminated except to achieve a goal)
- Individualism Individualists find meaning through influencing their own lives and becoming the masters of their own fate, they find freedom from larger issues because expression of the self becomes all important.
- Humanism Humanists find meaning through the pursuit of a better self. They are able to free themselves from concern of the outside world as long as they become better each day.
Which way of finding purpose is the right way?
All of these belief sets are different ways of living and thinking about life that free people from the sometimes cruel and relentless nature of life; however, all of these viewpoints and beliefs can have negative effects on a person as well.
Religion is subject to a high amount of corruption, and people throughout history have definitely been known to hijack religious movements and their followers to seek out their own selfish desires. Additionally, both religion and collectivism can create situations where leaders influence their followers to create great atrocities like genocide, racial cleansing, crusades, or any other major evil. Collectivism and religion both discourage individual thought and consideration and this can sometime amount to huge amounts of otherwise good people doing very bad things in the name of something beyond themselves. They might know murdering innocent people is wrong, but they would still do for the greater good of the religion/group.
Achievement seeking can lead to its own corruptions and negative consequences as well. Much like people seeking to carry out the will of god or a larger group can commit atrocities, achievement seeking can cause people to hurt others, commit injustices, or create evil in the world in the name of achievement. When someone believes that the sole purpose of their life is to achieve something, they will often stop at nothing to achieve it, and that can include doing immoral or sometimes terrible acts.
Individualism, and humanism also have their own problems and issues to face as ways of life. While giving up the self for another purpose greater than the self can cause evil, so too can the ways of the individual. A fair amount of corruption and selfishness exists within each of us, and unless your core integrity and discipline is very strong, it is easy for the self to be tempted into seeking the pleasure that the self desires. Since the self is the purpose of life for these people it can be an easy trap to fall into: just seeking instant gratification or hurting others in order to promote the happiness of the self.
What do all of these ways of life have in common?
There are two things that all of these ways of thinking and living have in common: they give people a cause (purpose) and actions to take to fulfil that cause (purpose)
Maybe this is just incredibly simplistic of me to assume, but maybe the meaning of life is just to have a purpose.
We can all find meaning in any of these beliefs and mindsets.
For example: Though I don’t practice a religion I do believe in God (call me a deist), I find great pleasure in helping others and I hope to make the world a better place through coaching and teaching, I find great pleasure is achieving great things and doing things that are challenging, I believe in my own ability to influence life and manifest my destiny (I believe that this is my responsibility), and I believe that not only is finding your best self incredibly rewarding, but it makes me a better person and it helps me find purpose as well.
Maybe your purpose is to serve others, invent something amazing, be the best you can be, raise a family, find equality for gay people, end slavery worldwide, or end racism…It doesn’t really matter what your purpose is as long as you have one… and that is purpose in a nutshell.
Your sense of purpose will come from pursuing and believing in a cause and this will give your life meaning.
It is also important to note that as long as we are actively pursuing something we won’t be subjected to those feelings of depression or hopelessness that come from not having a purpose.
Having a purpose and ACTING to pursue it is all that we need for happiness.
The feeling that we get from having something that we believe in and then trying to follow our purpose will give you all of the meaning that you could ever desire.
Whether you find your purpose through god, serving others, creating something, expressing yourself and your ideas, by becoming the best you possible, or some strange mix of all 5… you will only find the meaning of your life through ACTING to pursue that cause..
This is why ACTION is what gives life meaning.
It is through the work that you do each day that you find meaning and purpose in life, so find your purpose and pursue it. Meaning is not something found through searching, it isn’t something that is stumbled upon through luck, it is created through action.
Listen to your heart…what matters most to you? Where do you find the most happiness in life? What memories do you have that give you more sense of fulfillment and happiness than any others? When was the last moment that you truly felt alive and what were you doing? Questions like these can help you find the purpose of your life, then all you have to do is act.
If you want more guidance in finding your life purpose and unlocking your motivation check out my free 3 part series below