Over the past several years I’ve been developing a new sort of psychology that I call “natural psychology,” which focuses on our very human need for meaning and life purpose. I want to present you with a pared-down but hopefully clear vision of natural psychology’s views with respect to meaning and life purpose.
No life purposes can even exist until you step back and identify, embrace, and implement ones of your own choosing. There is no one meaning of life but rather a multitude of subjective life meanings, and there is no one purpose to life but rather a multitude of subjective life purposes.
Each person must sort out her life purposes and life meanings, realize that she is the arbiter of these purposes and meanings, and proceed to make value-based meaning — meaning that takes into account her values and principles.
How Can You Make Meaning of Your Life?
There are many ways to garner the psychological experience of meaning. You might have that experience just by gazing up at the night sky. But we make ourselves proudest when we strive for meaning that is rooted in our values and principles. Therefore, we are confronted not only by the task of making meaning but also by the higher, harder task of making value-based meaning. In this way we achieve a life at once meaningful and principled. Living this way is a decision.
We might wish that the situation were otherwise. We might wish that life had a single meaning and a single purpose rather than being this self-determined affair full of multiplicities and contradictions. But the part of us that knows best realizes that we have evolved into exactly the sort of creature who finds himself in exactly these circumstances. There is no universal agenda that, if we were able to discern it, would provide us with guidelines for living and reasons for living.
Predictable Challenges With Respect To Life Purpose
What are some of these predictable challenges with respect to life purpose? Consider a few simple examples. Let’s say you construe it to be your life purpose to build bridges. However, you find it’s impossible to contrive opportunities to build the bridges you want to erect. No one will hire you to build bridges; building small bridges over creeks is not what you had in mind; life refuses to provide you with a meaningful way to build bridges.
Your life purpose and the facts of existence seem completely out of alignment. How could this situation produce anything but pain, distress, and a terrible taste in the mouth? The same kind of scenario might pertain to becoming a concert pianist, playing professional basketball, or flying jets. You form a life purpose — and then life doesn’t allow it.
Or say that you see your life purposes as getting some satisfaction out of life, living ethically, and doing a little good. At the same time, you deeply want writing poetry to be your life’s work. Over time you realize that writing poetry doesn’t actually bring you that much satisfaction, that you aren’t sure how it amounts to ethical action, and that you can’t see how it is doing any real good.
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In this example your life purposes make complete sense to you, and your feeling for poetry is entirely genuine, and yet those two realities fail to mesh. Which is supposed to give way to the other?
The Concept vs. The Reality of Life Purpose
These two simple examples help us to understand why human beings have such trouble with both the concept and the reality of life purpose. On the concept level, we suppose that having a life purpose must amount to a sort of blessing and a blueprint for living. In reality, possessing a life purpose, or multiple life purposes, may amount only to added difficulty.
Many people grow up receiving messages about meaning and life purpose that are very different from the ones I’m articulating here and as a result find it difficult to adopt this new way of thinking. Whether your orientation is secular, as mine is, or spiritual/religious, you are still obliged to name and frame your life purposes and incorporate them into your daily life. Many people with a spiritual orientation have found life purpose boot camp valuable in helping them clarify their life purposes and organize their life around them.
Existential Maturity: You Don't Change, You Mature
Phil Jackson, the famous basketball coach, was fond of remarking that while people never change, they do mature. That’s an interesting distinction, isn’t it? Apparently you must remain you, but you can become a mature version of you. You can grow into a mature understanding of meaning and life purpose and as a result become an existentially adult version of yourself.
Having life purposes makes no one a saint. But deciding on your life purposes and trying to live them are signs of maturity. Living our life purposes on an angry day, when it would be so easy to lash out, may help us do the right thing instead of the wrong thing. Remembering on a bleak day that the experience of meaning can and will return helps us to opt for hope rather than despair.
Our Life Purposes Help Us With Daily Choices
Living our life purposes may help us love a little more than is actually in our heart to love and hate a little less than is actually in our heart to hate. Our life purposes are reminders that we’ve made decisions, that we have options, that we can get a grip, and that we can make ourselves proud.
Who doesn’t have shadows to deal with? Who isn’t embroiled in the reality of circumstances? Who isn’t unequal to the idea of “life as project”? Yet every participant in my online boot camp wanted to try and knew why it was important to do so. Like them, you know what you have in you: both a taste for carelessness and a taste for heroism.
I am not a futurist, I have no crystal ball, and I have no clue whatsoever where our species may go. But I do know where we are. Don’t you?
I’m selling the idea of value-based meaning-making as a useful, even elegant approximate answer to the central question with which life presents us: Why do this and not that? Why wake up and stretch and get on with life and not turn over and pout? Why speak truth to power and not just pad our bank account? Why hug our child rather than berating and belittling him? Why sing, why dance, why stay sober, why foment a revolution? Why anything? The central answer is that we can conceive of a life, our life, resting firmly on the pillars of the life purposes that we ourselves name and live.
Making Value-Based Meaning
The central mechanism for living is making value-based meaning. Then you can answer each and every “why” question, from the most trivial to the most momentous, by saying to the world and by saying to yourself:
“I have my life purposes, I’ve named them for myself and I understand them pretty darn well, and I will choose in light of them.”
This way of answering helps prevent you from answering from those other places that also reside within you: the place that doesn’t care, the place that has no energy, the place of anxiety and fear, the place just marking time, the place of custom and conformity, the place that’s concluded that life is a cheat.
Your life purpose work, from which flow your life purpose statement, your life purpose icon, your life purpose mantra, and your complete life purpose vision, may save you. It may save you from losing years to habit and to carelessness. It may save you from hiding out or giving yourself away. It may save you from your own doubts, your own fears, and your own resistance. It may save you from yourself. To employ a last military analogy: your life purposes armor you. They protect you from distractions, from infatuations, and from returning to a life of doubting and seeking.
Deciding Who We Will Attempt To Be
Barbarity, generosity, and everything human will exist until we are some other kind of creature. Everything that makes us human and that affects us as humans will continue. Waves will continue to crash against us, threatening to throw us off course. Life is like that. Right here, right now, you get to decide who you will attempt to be.
Remember Sisyphus, a king in Greek mythology and the subject of Albert Camus’s essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”? Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to forever roll a rock to the top of a mountain, whereupon the rock rolls back down again. Camus allows that Sisyphus — that any human being — can still experience freedom, meaning, and happiness even in dreadful circumstances like those.
I wonder if that is literally true. I wonder if dreadful circumstances can’t defeat even the most steadfast existentialist. But few of us are quite as condemned as Sisyphus. We have more freedom than he did — and we must use it. Nothing in the universe will condemn us for not making use of our available freedom — nothing, that is, except our own conscience.
©2014 by Eric Maisel. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.
www.newworldlibrary.com or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.
Life Purpose Boot Camp: The 8-Week Breakthrough Plan for Creating a Meaningful Life
by Eric Maisel, Ph.D.
As life gets busier and more complicated we crave something larger and more meaningful than just ticking another item off our to-do list. In the past, we’ve looked to religion or outside guidance for that sense of purpose, but today fewer people are fulfilled by traditional approaches to meaning. Bestselling author, psychotherapist, and creativity coach Eric Maisel offers an alternative: an eight-week intensive that breaks through barriers and offers insights for living each day with purpose. This program will develop self-awareness and self-confidence and give you what you need to fully live the best possible life.
Click here for more info and/or to order this book. Also available as a Kindle edition.
About the Author
Eric Maisel, PhD, is the author of more than forty works of fiction and nonfiction. His nonfiction titles include Coaching the Artist Within, Fearless Creating, The Van Gogh Blues, The Creativity Book, Performance Anxiety, and Ten Zen Seconds. He writes the "Rethinking Psychology" column for Psychology Today and contributes pieces on mental health to the Huffington Post. He is a creativity coach and creativity coach trainer who presents keynote addresses and life purpose boot camp workshops nationally and internationally. Visit www.ericmaisel.com to learn more about Dr. Maisel.
Watch a video with Eric: How to Make a Meaningful Day