Then one day he realized it might not be over; he might still have something to contribute to the world. He decided to do two things:
1. develop a plan to control the destructive use of atomic power
2. to discover peacetime uses for atomic power
He came alive! The luster was back. He took his dog for walks again. He had a purpose. And as a result of his decisions and the ensuing efforts he made to make those goals a reality, medical and electrical uses for atomic power were found. He gave speeches and helped stir up interest in a worldwide police force that eventually culminated in the founding of the United Nations.
"Nothing contributes so much to tranquilizing the mind," wrote Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly, "as a steady purpose — a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye."
It is physically and psychologically healthy for a human being to have a strong sense of purpose. The state of mind you have when you're absorbed in the accomplishment of a purpose is called "flow," which is an engaged, pleasant state of focus. Those who have learned to develop a sense of purpose and who have learned to become engrossed in the achievement of purposes are the most likely to be happy and healthy. This has been shown in scientific studies and in everyday observations. Happy people are purposeful people because the most reliable self-created source of happiness is taking action along a strongly-held purpose.
Flow has been the subject of quite a bit of research. For example, swimmers who experienced flow while training made the most progress by the end of the training. In other words, experiencing frequent flow allowed them to develop their ability faster.
Another study accentuated those findings. It found that of all the things that influence how successful a person might become in their sport or skill — in whatever field — the most influential factor was how much flow they experienced while doing it. In other words, the amount of absorption they had was the best predictor of who would develop their talent the most.
A sense of purpose brings out the best in people. In his book, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys, Michael Collins wrote about the enthusiasm of the people in the Apollo space program in 1964. "…the goal was clearly and starkly defined," wrote Collins. "Had not President Kennedy said before the end of the decade?"
They had a clear goal that the people at NASA were excited about. The moon! The impossible goal! The goal they said could never be done! People showed up early, worked hard, and stayed late. As Collins put it, "People knew that each day was one day closer to putting man on the moon…" This is the electrifying power of a strong sense of purpose.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the principle researchers into flow, says we usually see work as a necessary evil, and we feel leisure is what we want: time on our hands. Free time. Time with nothing to do. We long for it. And yet, he says, "free time is more difficult to enjoy than work." Or as Jerome K. Jerome put it, "It is impossible to enjoy idling unless there is plenty of work to do."
Work provides clear goals more often than leisure and a clear goal is the first and most important requirement of flow. If you want to experience flow, you must have a purpose. Work provides a purpose. It provides something to become absorbed in, so it provides opportunities for flow. To get flow from leisure, you have to provide the purpose. Many people don't know that, which means many people don't get much enjoyment from their coveted leisure; it isn't satisfying like they wish it would be. Some even suffer during leisure.
Sandor Ferenczi, a psychoanalyst in the early 1900's discovered that anxiety and depression occurred more often on Sundays than any other day of the week. Since that time, many observers have noticed that vacations and retirement also tend to produce anxiety and depression. When we are not on the job — when we are not given a clear purpose — many of us are feel adrift and don't know what's missing. Clearly, a large percentage of people don't have a strong sense of purpose for their off time, and it's a shame. Purpose is king.
A purpose to sink your teeth into gives your mind a healthy, productive focus and prevents it from drifting into negativity. Without goals, wrote Csikszentmihalyi, "the mind begins to wander, and more often than not it will focus on unresolvable problems that cause anxiety."
POWER OF CAUSE
Goals put you in a causal position rather than a victim position and that is good for your psychological well-being. 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, describes how their whole attitude changed when they shifted from "hoping for rescue" to "we're going to get ourselves to shore on our own; we're going to survive."
A ship was cruising by fairly close, seven days after their boat sank. They spotted it from their life raft. They lit off flares and yelled at the top of their lungs and waved their shirts in the air, but the ship sailed right on by. They were heartbroken.
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."
Purpose has an almost magical quality. It can imbue us with extraordinary ability. It can make us 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 the book if he could finish it. Grant had cancer and was dying. But 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 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, and Grant's wife was set for life.
Charles Schulz declared many months ahead of time when he was going to end his comic strip. His last strip was published Sunday. The night before, Schulz died in his sleep.
After his family was shipwrecked, Dougal Robertson 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: an impossible feat 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. They made it to shore alive.
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. Because he already knew a lot about psychology and then experienced these extreme circumstances — and even managed to find meaning in his struggle — his slim book, Man's Search for Meaning, is definitely worth reading. 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 forbid 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 actually attempted to kill themselves. 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.
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.
Dr. Seuss had a mission when he started. He wanted to turn children on to reading. "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.
YOU MUST HAVE A GOAL
During the Korean War, the Chinese government systematically tried to brainwash the U.S. POWs. Their methods included deprivation and torture, and the captives suffered tremendously. At one point, in one of the prison camps, three-fourths of the POWs had died. Things were incredibly bleak for the rest of them, and they were all feeling desperate and hopeless.
Then one man said to the others, "We've got to stay alive, we've got to let others know about the horrors of Communism. We've got to live to bring back the armies and fight these evil people. Communism must not win!"
This was a turning point for every man there because their meaningless struggle was transformed into a mission. Simply staying alive against the odds was their goal. Their despair was turned into resolve. Their hopelessness was turned into determination. And their death rate went way down.
Speaking again of his experience in a concentration camp, Frankl wrote, "As we said before, any attempt to restore a man's inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal...Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost."
Sometimes it takes a scientific study to prove the obvious. At least you find out that what you think is self-evident is actually true. Researchers at New York State Psychiatric Institute asked an unusual question of suicidal people. Rather than asking what makes them want to die, the researchers asked what makes them want to live?
They studied eighty-four people suffering major depression trying to determine why thirty-nine of them had never attempted to kill themselves. The study revealed that age, sex, religious persuasion or education level did not predict who would attempt suicide. But not having a reason to live did predict it rather well. The depressed patients who perceived life as more worth living were less likely to attempt to kill themselves.
So now we know: Goals are very important. It's not just a nice thing. It's vital. Get yourself a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Look for something that fires you up, that you think is needed, that you feel is important, and that you can do something about.
If someone has no purpose at all, a small goal is a big improvement. But as the level of mental health increases, there comes a time when a full-on mission is called for as a context for your life.
You can still watch movies. You can still spend time conversing with your spouse. Walk in the woods. Go on vacation. But like a mantra you constantly return to, your definite purpose, your concrete assignment, is always there to give you a sense of purpose and meaning to your existence.
Even if you have a large, overarching purpose, you can only take action in this very moment. It is an excellent practice to try to keep in mind one clear purpose for what you're doing now. And the question, "What is my purpose here?" can really straighten up and clarify your mind and your actions.
For example, if you are criticizing someone, ask yourself, "What am I after?" You may find what you're really after is to make the other person feel bad or punish them for something they did. That is an automatic, genetically-driven (and usually counterproductive) purpose. In other words, you didn't really consciously choose to pursue that goal. It happened without you. But now that you've asked the question, "What is my purpose here?" you can choose. You can think about what you really want in this situation. You may decide what you really want is that the person doesn't do it again. Then you'd have a clear purpose and a clear path for action — without games, without negative feelings. All you'd have is a simple request: "Please don't do that again."
Make it a regular practice to ask yourself what you want right now. What is your goal here in this situation? What are you after? What are you aiming for? Be clear always and consciously what your purpose is in this very moment. It is effective. It is therapeutic. It is healthy. And it will make you more productive.
One key to a strong sense of purpose is the practice of focusing only on what you want. When your mind wanders to other things, bring your focus back. Again and again. Your mind is very easily taken off track, so you have to keep noticing your attention has wandered and keep bringing your focus back to your purpose. When your mind starts worrying about problems that might happen, bring your mind back to your concrete assignment. When your attention becomes fixed on what you don't want, turn your attention to what you do want.
Keep your attention on the goal, and your sense of purpose will grow strong.
There isn't one "right" purpose which you must find and follow. Delete that kind of magical thinking from your thoughts forever! Any (constructive) purpose is better than no purpose and some are better than others. Some are good for now, but no good if pursued too long. The important thing is that you like the purpose and have a good level of accomplishment along that line.
SETTING YOUR COURSE
If you don't already have a strong purpose, how do you go about developing one? A high-quality purpose is more than something you feel you should do. That isn't good enough. A good purpose is something you feel a strong desire to do, even feel compelled to do, and something you feel is important — something you think needs to be done and ought to be done because it is right and good. Or something you feel strongly interested in, something that fascinates you and fills you with interest and curiosity.
If nothing comes to mind right now, that's not the end of the conversation. There is no such legitimate answer as, "I don't have one of those." Yes, you do. You may have forgotten it. You may never have dug deeply enough to find it in the first place. But you've got at least one. And all you need is one.
Most likely there was a time when you knew what your purpose was, at least in a general sense, but for one reason or another you discarded it; someone convinced you it was impossible or stupid, or you convinced yourself. It's now as if you've turned your back on it and are looking around saying, "I don't see any purpose I really want." No, of course not. It is behind you, so to speak. You've already picked it up, had it in your hand and then tossed it behind you where you are no longer looking.
Start right now with the assumption that there is a purpose which strongly compels you or strongly interests you, and commit yourself to finding it. If you don't already have a purpose, now you have one: Finding it. What interests you? What do you like to talk about? What do you daydream about? What do you think needs to be done? What do you think "they" ought to do? What do you "wish you could do" but know you can't?
A high quality purpose is concrete, challenging, and that you feel is achievable. That's where flow is. That's where motivation is. That's where confidence is. That's where ability is formed. That's where the fun is.
In a study at the University of Alabama, they found that people who considered their goal difficult but achievable were more motivated — they were more energized and felt their goal was more important than someone who had an easy goal or an impossible goal.
People who thought their goal was easy weren't as motivated. And people who thought their goal was impossible weren't motivated either. Remember, difficult but achievable. Not achievable in some abstract sense, but something you feel you could achieve. And something you feel challenged by.
John French, Jr., director of the project, did a study of 2,010 men in twenty-three different jobs, trying to find out which jobs were the most stressful. What they found was kind of surprising. The most stressful jobs were the most boring and unchallenging. These were the jobs that produced the most physical and emotional illness.
Says French, "One of the key factors in job satisfaction is self-utilization — the opportunity to fully utilize your abilities on the job, to be challenged, to develop yourself. Frustration and anxiety over not being challenged can have physically debilitating effects."
A big, challenging goal, if you feel up to it, will awaken the genius within, bring out your latent talents, give you satisfaction, and make the world a better place. Beethoven's goal was to create music that would transcend fate. Socrates had a goal to make people happy by making them reasonable and just. These are big goals, but they brought out the best in these people and wrote their names in history.
THE KILLER OF PURPOSES
Probably the biggest killer of purpose is all-or-nothing thinking. "I want to sail around the world," says a young man. But he is married and has a new baby. Obviously he can't go sailing around the world. Or can he? If he's thinking in all-or-nothing terms, he will, of course say "No, I can't go sailing around the world unless I want to be a jerk and leave my wife and child." But that's thinking in one extreme or the other, and life very rarely needs to be so black-or-white.
He wakes up one night with a realization. He has been blinding himself with all-or-nothing thinking! He comes up with a plan. He will set aside twenty dollars a week in a Sailing Fund. As he does better at work, he'll increase that amount. But for now, he uses the money for sailing lessons and boating safety classes and books on celestial navigation, always leaving aside a little to accumulate for the purchase of an actual boat. He learns about boat design.
It takes him three years before he learns enough to decide what design of boat he wants to get. It takes him another year to figure out what course he will chart, what places he will visit, etc. As his son gets older, they go sailing together on rented sailboats. His son learns how to sail. The father teaches him how to reef the sails, how to steer, how to navigate by the stars.
By the time the son is fourteen, the family decides to go for it. They sell their house, buy a sailboat, fill it with supplies, and what do you know? His purpose wasn't silly or impossible after all. It may be, in fact, the highlight of his life.
Another thing that kills dreams or prevents the development of a strong sense of purpose is that interest dies. But here you have to be careful. Did your interest die because you actually lost interest now that you know more about it, or did your interest die because of the way you're explaining setbacks to yourself?
There are certain ways to explain setbacks in your life that will kill your enthusiasm, destroy your interest, and prevent the development of a sense of purpose. If your interest has been killed by a feeling of defeat, you can revive that dormant interest and fill your life with purpose and meaning.
It's important that the goals you seek give you a sense of meaning — that they aren't only about material gain. It's true that any goal is better than no goal, but it's also true that if you have a choice, you ought to choose high-quality goals, goals that will give you a great deal of satisfaction and even meaning.
Susan Krause Whitbourne did a long-term research project, starting in 1966. She saw a particular psychological measurement steadily decline over the years. It's called "ego integrity," which is a composite characteristic having to do with honesty, a sense of connection with others, a sense of wholeness, and a feeling that life has meaning.
Between 1977 and 1988, ego integrity took a universal dive. The life-satisfaction scores were as low as they could go on her measurements. "People got caught up in chasing the materialistic dream," says Whitbourne, "They got recognition for their achievements, yet don't feel that what they are doing matters in the larger scheme of things."
SIMPLIFICATION OF PURPOSES
John is a waiter, and he discovered a fundamental principle of life. When he only has one table, he isn't stressed at all. He can concentrate and do a good job, and it is no problem. Two tables, okay. Still no problem. Three tables, and he has to start really paying attention, because it's like juggling — the more balls you have in the air, the easier it is to drop one. When John gets up to seven or eight tables, it becomes stressful. The juggling of tasks becomes too complex to handle well.
In the same way, the number of purposes you have is directly related to your stress hormone level. Depending on how you handle your goals, a strong sense of purpose can help you manage stress well, or it can make your general stress level much worse.
The problem is that the natural drift for people is toward complication. In other words, if you don't try to do anything about it, your life will get more and more complicated; you will collect more and more purposes. So you have to make a continuous effort to simplify your purposes. Your life will naturally and constantly drift toward complication, just as a rose bush will constantly try to sprawl. You must continually prune. You can't prune once and for all. You have to keep pruning.
For example, John wanted his guests to be happy. That was one of his purposes. He also wanted to get along well with his fellow waiters. And he wanted to please the cooks so their interactions were pleasant. And, of course, he wanted the managers to be happy with him. And so on. Too many purposes. His attention is scattered in too many directions. If he knew about simplifying purposes, he would have trimmed his purposes down to something manageable: To make the guests pleased with his service. That's enough to concentrate on, and that would keep his tension level lower, because it is manageable.
Manage your purposes. Make a list. What are the really important purposes? Trim the list down to something manageable; something simple enough that you can manage it without stress. Get few enough purposes that it feels good.
Be aware that after you trim your purposes, complexity will gradually creep back in. Simplifying your purposes is something you'll need to do once in awhile for the rest of your life.
Keep your purposes strong and clear, simple and heartfelt, and you will find the most powerful source of self-generated happiness that exists in this world. As George Bernard Shaw said, "the true joy in life is being used by a purpose recognized by yourself to be a mighty one." Experience the true joy in life. Be used by a mighty purpose. Find yourself a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment and get to work.
"The need for meaning in life goes far beyond the mechanical techniques of selecting a goal to be achieved by positive thinking. If a person selects a goal just to satisfy the demands of others he will quickly revert back to self-defeating trap circuits. He will rapidly lose ambition, and though he may try to appear as if he is succeeding in what he is doing, he will feel miserable because he is not really committed to this objective. All the success seminars in the world will not make a potential Mozart or Monet content to be president of the Chase Manhattan Bank. Positive therapy strives to help people acquire a deeply positive orientation to living by enabling them to recover a long-buried dream or to implant firmly the roots of a new one. This need for deep personal meaning has been succinctly expressed by Friedrich Nietzsche: 'He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.' The phenomenon was directly observed by Viktor Frankl in Nazi concentration camps. Those prisoners who had a deeply rooted reason to survive — a meaningful project, a loving family — best withstood that prolonged torture without reverting to counterhuman patterns of behavior."
- Allen Wiesen, psychologist
"Morita therapists emphasize that it is important to find suitable constructive purposes and hold to them, thus guiding behavior in a positive direction. The other side of that coin is that all behavior, positive or negative, is purposeful. Whatever you do there is an aim to it, a goal toward which the behavior is directed. The goal may be destructive or constructive or mixed. For example, the shy person may avoid social gatherings in order to prevent the feelings of inadequacy and loneliness that he feels in such situations. In a sense Morita guidance asks the client to select constructive purposes and positive ways of achieving them instead of the already purposeful, but destructive behavior. Finding the purpose behind destructive behavior can be a useful undertaking because sometimes the original purpose can also be fulfilled in a positive way."
- David Reynolds
founder of Constructive Living
leading Western authority on Morita and
Naikan therapies, the two most popular
forms of therapy in Japan
founder of Constructive Living
leading Western authority on Morita and
Naikan therapies, the two most popular
forms of therapy in Japan
"Frequently, success is what people settle for when they can't think of something noble enough to be worth failing at."
- Laurence Shames
"Man is by nature a productive organism. When he ceases his productivity — whether he is producing a pail or a poem, an industry or an ideology — his life begins to lose its meaning. Though he may be finally buried twenty years after his death, the person who has no raison d'être is not really alive. He is merely the ghost of who he once was or might have become."
- Allen Wiesen, psychologist
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.