If you want to be in a good mood more often, striving mightily for a good cause is the most powerful way to do it.
In the book, Survive the Savage Sea — the true story of a family who survived a shipwreck — the author and father of the family, Dougal Robertson, says that mmediately after his family was shipwrecked, he started adding up their stock. He discovered they had enough food and water to last them ten days. They were two hundred miles downwind and downcurrent from the Galapagos Islands, making it impossible to get there. They were 2800 miles from the Marquesas Islands, but without a compass or means of finding their position, their chance of missing the islands was enormous. The Central American coast was a thousand miles away, but they had to make it through the windless Doldrums. They wouldn't be missed by anyone for five weeks, and nobody would have the slightest idea of where to start looking anyway, so waiting for rescue would have been suicide.
There were two possible places to be rescued by shipping vessels. One four hundred miles south; the other three hundred miles north.
Having roused himself enough to assess his situation accurately, his heart sank again. Their true and accurate situation wasn't very hopeful. His wife, Lyn, saw the look on his face and put her hand on his. She said simply, "We must get these boys to land."
This singular, clear purpose focused his mind the whole journey. The thought kept coming back to him, spurring him on, making him try when it seemed hopeless. This is the power of a definite, heartfelt purpose.
Purpose has an almost magical quality. It can imbue you with extraordinary ability. It can make you almost superhuman — more capable than humans in an ordinary state.
Ulysses S. Grant was writing his biography near the end of his life. His publisher was Mark Twain. Even though Grant was famous and had been President, he was broke. Twain had assured him there was a market for his memoirs book if he could finish it. Grant had cancer and was dying. But as far as Grant was concerned, he couldn't die. He had something to accomplish. It was very important to him to finish this book and do a good job because his wife would be penniless and destitute otherwise.
So he persisted. When he could no longer write, he dictated. Doctors said he might not live more than two or three weeks, but like I said, purpose has a mysterious power, and Grant continued dictating until he finished. He died five days after he completed his manuscript. And, by the way, Twain was right: The book, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, was very successful and is even to this day considered one of the best military memoirs ever written. Because of that book, Grant's wife was set for life.
I think most of us underestimate the power of purpose. Charles Schulz declared many months ahead of time when he was going to end his comic strip. His last strip was published on a Sunday. The night before, Schulz died in his sleep. His work was done.
When Dougal Robertson and his family first started out, they were hoping for rescue, but something happened that changed their attitude to a determination to get themselves to shore. Their attitude went from helpless victims to causing their own rescue. They went from hoping to causing. That's a big shift. Here's what happened:
Seven days after their boat sank, they had made it successfully to the shipping lanes. And then they spotted a ship on the horizon. They lit off flares and yelled at the top of their lungs and waved their shirts in the air, but the ship went right on by. They yelled themselves hoarse. They waved until they were exhausted. But the ship disappeared in the distance. And then they were all heartbroken and demoralized.
Dougal looked at his empty flare cartons bitterly and, "something happened to me in that instant, that for me changed the whole aspect of our predicament," he wrote. "If these poor bloody seamen couldn't rescue us, then we would have to make it on our own and to hell with them. We would survive without them, yes, and that was the word from now on, 'survival' not 'rescue' or 'help' or dependence of any kind, just survival. I felt the strength flooding through me, lifting me from the depression of disappointment to a state of almost cheerful abandon."
Combined with the very clear mission his wife gave him (get these boys to land), his attitude changed completely. His mood changed completely. And he became much more capable. He did, in fact, get those boys to land. Everybody made it.
THE MEANING OF LIFE
Purpose gives meaning to your life. In many ways, your purpose is the meaning of your life. That gives this subject a superimposing importance.
Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist in Germany when Hitler took power, and he spent many years struggling to stay alive in concentration camps. During that time, he lost his wife, his brother, and both his parents — they either died in the camps or were sent to the gas chambers. He lost every possession he ever owned. He already knew a lot about psychology and then he experienced these extreme circumstances — and even managed to find meaning in his struggle — so the small book he wrote after his ordeal, Man's Search for Meaning, has a kind of depth you find almost nowhere else. His perspective on finding meaning in life is different from any other I have encountered. He writes:
"The meaning of life differs from person to person, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion, "Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?" There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one's opponent. The same holds true for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment."
I love that line: "…to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment."
And Frankl gives many good examples of what he means. For example, he tried to keep his fellow prisoners from committing suicide. The Nazi camps strictly forbade prisoners from stopping someone who was killing himself. If you cut down a fellow prisoner who was in the process of hanging himself, you (and probably everyone in your bunkhouse) would be severely punished. So Frankl had to catch people before they attempted suicide. This, he felt, was a concrete assignment which demanded fulfillment. He was a psychiatrist and was the most qualified to answer this call from life.
The men would often confide in Frankl, since he was a psychiatrist. At two different times, two men told him they had decided to commit suicide. Both of them offered the same reason: They had nothing more to expect from life. All they could expect was endless suffering, starvation, torture, and in the end, probably the gas chamber.
"In both cases," wrote Frankl, "it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them." After talking with the men, he found one of them was a scientist who had written several volumes of a book, but the project was incomplete. It couldn't be finished by anyone else. The other man had a child in another country waiting for him.
Each of our lives is unique. The concrete assignment needing to be fulfilled is different for every person. And Frankl found that a person would not commit suicide once they realized their specific obligation to life — that life expected something of them.
He helped these men find a purpose. And the purpose gave their lives meaning. Do you want to have good moods more often? Live a life full of purpose and meaning, and you will not only feel good more often, but you'll accomplish things you never thought possible.
Michael W. Fox, a veterinarian and author of Superdog: Raising the Perfect Canine Companion, was a lover of animals, as most kids are. One day he was walking home from school when he looked through a fence and saw a ghastly sight. It was the backyard of a veterinary clinic, and there was a large trash bin overflowing with dead dogs and cats.
"I never knew the reason for this mass extermination," Fox said, "but I was, from that time on, committed to doing all I could to help animals, deciding at age nine that I had to be a veterinarian."
Here was a concrete assignment life had presented to Fox, and he answered the call. He became a veterinarian and has done what he could to reduce the suffering of animals. He has spent his life educating people, writing books, and lobbying to create new legislation that reflects more respect for animals. His life is filled with purpose and meaning, and it is almost a trivial side-effect that he's in a great mood often.
We don't often find out about the heartfelt purposes behind great successes, but many people who do great things have a personal reason for it, and they may not have even had a goal to get rich. Dr. Seuss became world-famous. But many people don't know he had a very personal mission that drove him on and gave him purpose.
When he first started, his goal was to turn children on to reading, and that became his guiding light for his whole career. "Before Seuss," wrote Peter Bernstein, "too many children's writers seemed locked into plots that ended with a heavy-handed call to obey one's elders. By the 1950s, educators were warning that America was losing a whole generation of readers."
Dr. Seuss wanted to do something about that. And he did. He wrote books kids wanted to read. The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and forty-six others which have sold over two hundred million copies worldwide.
And the whole time, because of his personal, heartfelt goal, his concrete assignment that demanded fulfillment, he lived a life full of meaning and purpose. And you can too. As a side-effect, it will raise your mood to a whole new level.
Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.