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Seeking Purpose vs. Happiness
By Ainsley Laing
Shmuley Boteach, an accomplished theologian, writer and moral leader, writes in his article "Six Values for Raising Outstanding Children" that it is important to stress purpose as opposed to happiness. He goes on to say that telling kids, "I just want you to be happy" is one of the silliest parenting mantras ever. What if being a lazy beachcomber, womanizer or drug dealer makes him happy?
Really makes you think doesn't it?
Boteach's premise is that it is the pursuit of PURPOSE rather than pursuit of happiness that makes people happiest. If we devote ourselves to a purpose that we find meaningful, fulfillment and happiness will follow. Let's work through that idea....
How often in your life have you heard people say "I deserve to be happy" "Life is too short..." etc? But why do we feel like we are simply entitled to be happy? Are we expecting others to do it for us? How? And is our own happiness the only reason that we exist? Big questions!
If you are among us "over 40" crowd, no doubt you have experienced some sort of "mid life crisis" that is the brunt of so much humor. Doesn't the very core of a mid life crisis lie in seeking meaningfulness in our lives?
If the thinking is that happiness alone is the reason we live - any changes brought on by the mid life crisis will not bring us to the answer to the "why am I here" question.
Personally, when I went through a mid-life crisis brought on by divorce, my first thought was what will I do now to make myself happy? This line of thinking was also taken by my ex who wanted a divorce because "he deserved to be happy". It's a common line of thinking.
But when I hit the bottom of my emotional low, I started taking stock of things in my life that gave me happiness. The "aha!" moment came with the realization that I was really happy doing things to contribute to the lives of others: raising my child, my job lecturing at a university and teaching fitness classes. I became very thankful to have so many opportunities and skills to give to others. It was these things that gave me a sense of feeling valuable, which got me out of bed every morning and through those tough times.
Now, when I meet someone else going through a difficult life transition, I listen for comments like "I have to keep going for my kids" or "my parents need me". These comments show that although the person has it tough, they will get through it all ok. They have purpose; a reason to persevere.
And of course, it's really a lot about perception of the worthiness of your individual pursuits is it not? If you are happy with your life, my guess is that probably because you feel you are a contributing member of society - that what you do is important. It may not be that your job is socially valuable (although most jobs are in some way). But you live your life in a way that gives value to someone else, be it your kids, your spouse, your parents or... the world.
Assigning meaning to your life right now is a matter of bringing the sense of purpose down to a day to day level. Ask yourself: what is the real motivation for doing the things you do?
Why do you go to work? What contributions do you make in your job to enrich the lives of others? Some jobs are easy to place value. If you work as a fireman, a stay-at-home parent or garbage collector, these jobs make direct contributions to society. If you work as an accountant or office administrator though you may have to look a bit deeper. Let's not discount that working to contribute money to the family is valuable.
What do you do to take care of yourself and why? Exercise, eating right, relaxing and getting medical checks are some ways to take care of your self. Do you take care of yourself so you look good or because your family, friends and neighbors value you? For most of us it's a complex combination of these things.
If you do volunteer work or contribute to charity, why? Why do you spend time with your family members? What do you do with them? What do you do to enrich their lives? What is your contribution to your friendships?
If you look closely, you will find that the most meaningful things in your life involve giving your unique gifts to others in some way. Real joy comes from giving.
So, it comes down to this: humanity. It's by giving to others that we make ourselves happy. Visualize how you want to be remembered at the end of your life, and you will find the answer to the "why am I here" question. Do you want to be remembered as a great Father, Mother, Citizen, Philanthropist, Friend, Worker...?
Make the world a better place.... live with purpose. Live with joy.