The Power of Purpose
A key theme of Viktor E Frankl’s classic book Mans Search for Meaning is the importance of purpose in our lives. A psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, Frankl was a long-time prisoner in the Nazi Concentration camps. Frankl and his fellow prisoners lived under barbaric conditions of daily torture, near starvation and regular sight of dead corpses reminding them that they may be next. With the knowledge that his family had all died in the camps, how could Frankl find life worth preserving? Yet Frankl and others did just that: they survived the horrors by holding onto meaning or purpose in their lives.
With his psychotherapy background Frankl wondered how, in these degrading and unbearable conditions, some prisoners could be upbeat and even manage a laugh whilst others literally lost the will to live. The difference Frankl believed was due to the meaning or purpose the former prisoners had in their lives. Those who saw their lives being without aim or purpose, sooner rather than later, usually through loss of strength and illness, wilted to death.
Frankl quoted many times that ‘He who knows the ‘why’ for his existence will be able to bear almost any ‘how’. It’s Frankl’s view that:
‘Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in life’.
Our raison d’Etre
Meaning for Frankl’s fellow purposeful prisoners could have been the thought of returning to a child they adored, sharing their musical talent with others or holding onto the day when they would return to the arms of their spouse. For Frankl, the confiscation of his ready-for-publication manuscript in the concentration camp of Auschwitz provided him with meaning and purpose that enabled him to survive the atrocities of the camps. Without this purpose, Frankl too could have lost the will to live and his bestselling book never published.
Frankl’s experience was as extreme as you get. However his principle on the importance of meaning or purpose in our lives is still relevant.
The Japanese concept of Ikigai recognises the importance of purpose for general wellbeing and happiness in life. Ikigai stems from two Japanese words ‘iki’ meaning life or living and ‘kai’ (pronounced gai) meaning value or meaning. Ikigai is what the French call raison d’etre or reason for being: what makes life worth living. In his research as a longevity expert and National Geographic explorer, Dan Beuttner believed ikigai is one of the reasons the people of the Japanese island of Okinawa live such long lives.
For some people their purpose may be their work. For many this is not the case. This doesn’t take away the need for purpose – an unfulfilling job can make purpose outside work even more vital.
For some their purpose is also their passion such as musicians, artists and even entrepreneurs. For others their purpose may not be their passion, it simply gives meaning to their lives.
For some, adversity or tough times can lead them to their purpose for example a tragic early death of loved one can lead them to launch themselves into fundraising in their name, finding themselves in financial hardship can lead them to set up financial education for those in debt and so on.
Purpose doesn’t always come from challenging times; purpose can simply be identifying what is really important to you. Purpose doesn’t need to be for a grand cause and likely will change over time.
What’s My Purpose?
When asked recently what my purpose was, I instinctively answered without pausing to think: family.
I can also identify the following purposes to my life:
- Helping people to do what they love and love what they do. As a young 21 year old straight from university and new to London, I found myself trapped in a well-paid job with an excellent company that I really didn’t like. I was desperate to change career but didn’t know what I could do. I have no doubt that my strong sense of purpose to help people with their career was fertilised here.
- Helping people to lead healthier lives. These unfulfilled early days in my career spilled over to other areas of my life; I didn’t sleep well, I gained weight from comfort eating and generally was not my usual good self. I also have no doubt that my strong sense of purpose to help people with their health was fertilised here – with extra high strength fertiliser!
- More recently, sharing the many benefits of yoga. After many years of back pain, likely caused by going between too much sitting abruptly interrupted by an intensive run, I finally learned that my body likes to move albeit in a less stark way. With yoga being key to keeping my own body supple and strong, I am sold on its benefits for our physical, mental and emotional health and enjoy sharing this with others too.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
(aside from your alarm clock on snooze!)
Examples of purpose can include:
- For the 102 year old from Okinawa featured in Dan Beuttner’s Ted talk How to Live to 100+, cuddles with her great, great, great baby granddaughter!
- Capturing the precious moments of couples on their special day in a creative and touching way
- Providing yourself/family with a comfortable and secure future
- Help your local community youth group
- To be a support and companion for your elderly dear Aunt
We can ask ourselves a few questions to help identify our purpose:
- If you had all the money in the world and didn’t need to work, what would get you out of bed in the morning?
- If you could do anything at all for work, what would that be?
- If your work doesn’t give you purpose, what does?
In Frankl’s view and as reflected by the title of his classic book, ‘Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in life’.
‘Dig deep enough in every heart and you’ll find it: a longing for meaning; a quest for purpose. As surely as a child breathes, he will someday wonder. What is the purpose of my life’.
If you, or anyone you know is lacking purpose or could benefit from purpose or direction in life, get in touch for an informal telephone chat to find out how I can help.
Photo courtesy of Ian Prince