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As human beings, in our current society, we tend to be a little lost.
Our world can be a bit dreadful, between running it into an ecological wall, treating workers as indentured servants, putting hateful liars in charge and looking at a bleak future.
It is no surprise that the QUEST FOR HAPPINESS is such a big business at the moment. Happiness is this fantastic stuff! Happiness is those amazing experiences! Happiness is within you, and I’ll show you how to reach it in my new book/course/seminar now on sale…!
This isn’t going a blog post where you’ll have to read a long, mostly pointless generic rambling tempting you with revealing the secret to happiness at the end, which turns out to be in your heart all along. Instead, I’ll start by giving you the “secret” right away:
Happiness is a byproduct of knowing one’s Purpose and applying it in a tangible way providing Meaning to one’s life. That’s it.
Happiness is not a superior, mostly permanent state of being. It’s an emotion. It is fleeting, like all other intense emotion, because no one can hold any kind of fierce passion for very long. It would be exhausting and pointless.
Happiness, and it’s less intense cousin contentment, are naturally occurring when we have a well-enough defined Purpose and Meaning. Knowing who we are, why we are here, and the impact we have on the world is crucial for a human.
Why are Purpose and Meaning important to us?
My dog is happy every time I get home. Why? Because a dog is a social animal who needs its pack to socialize and feel secure.
We humans aren’t that different. A bit more complex maybe. We are also social animals, but since we have constructed a society for ourselves, we feel the need the know our place in it. That’s our Purpose.
We also have a deep need, so deep that it’s quite possibly genetic, to have an impact on the world around us. You can see it in babies: no baby is happier (not merely content, but deeply happy) than one who has willingly done something that has a visible impact on its environment. It could be as simple as pushing a toy and make it fall. If the movement can be repeated with a similar result, look at the expression of pure, unadulterated joy on the face of the baby. They have a “pleasure at being the cause.” Over a century ago, German psychologist Karl Groos linked that trait with our passion for games, little make-believe worlds where we can have a significant impact without real consequences. Our ability in impacting the world around us makes us real. That is the power of our individual existence, our Meaning.
Finding your Purpose
“Why are we here?” An important philosophical question, and one loved by stoners everywhere. It is also the wrong question. Why are we here as a species? No reason. We are a transient life-form evolved from an earlier one and slowly evolving into something else. There is no Purpose for us as a species. We just happen to be here, now.
“Why am I here?” is far more appropriate a question. Humans, as a species, is good at creating structures. Those structures allow us to build social groups far larger than the 150 people or so we are individually able to maintain meaningful relationships with. Grouped together, these structures are called “society,” and an individual role within it has always been important. Our Purpose is our contribution to
Historically a much wider range of occupations was considered purposeful, from artisan to artist, from warriors to clergy, from child-rearer to wise old person. Even vagabonds could have Purpose, from bringing news from afar and temporary workforce where and when needed to social observation and espionage.
These days, Purpose has mostly been redefined from “contributing to society” to “contributing to someone’s wealth and power.” Where once our role within society and often the main source of income was an easy access to a Purpose, for most people it has stopped playing the same role. There is no easy access to Purpose anymore, as we have stopped serving society itself as a form of employment. We serve companies, bureaucracies, or the interests of powerful individuals, all constructs rather than our fellow men.
Nowadays we find remarkable when people actually find their Purpose. It makes us dream. “How lucky they are,” we say. But anyone can find a purpose for oneself. Everyone should try to do so.
My colleague Olivier Fortier has recently written two excellent articles on the subject of finding one’s Purpose (Part 1 and Part 2). The gist is that a Purpose is not about you but about others, it’s a calling that’s greater than you, and that you can find it at any age.
Purpose is about others and is greater than us. This makes sense since it takes its origin in our function within society, all the way from the role we played in helping our hunter-gatherer tribe survive. The Purpose is our service to others, to the tribe, to our society.
My own quest with Purpose started early when I was still in high school. I found out that I was happy when I helped friends shine. For most of my life, it was a small pleasure of mine: helping someone find their path, opening a new opportunity, giving a chance to someone who needs it, making someone realize their own potential and go for it. I called that unlocking people. Few things were more satisfying for me than that, so when a reached my point of no return with my career, I decided to turn that Purpose into my new career. Now a few years later, that Purpose has continued to grow and refine itself through practice, and I now set my eyes on a more significant challenge: unlocking societies. This isn’t an uncommon path for Purpose: it starts small, you realize how important it is for you and how it defines you, and you see it evolve over time. Some people have their Purpose clear as day from a young age. Others will only find it late in life.
Purpose is an essential ingredient for the happiness formula. As social creatures, we can’t really stand being useless, worthless. We need to belong, we need to be useful, we need a Purpose.
Now, understand me well: If you merely find your Purpose then do nothing about it, it’s not happiness you will find. It’s misery.
There is nothing worse than finally understanding who we are and letting that revelation and all that potential going to waste. You need to turn that Purpose into action, into something tangible. Only then can we find the second part of the happiness formula: Meaning.
If Purpose is the answer to the question “Why am I here?”, then Meaning is the answer to “How can I matter?”.
Meaning is how you let your mark on the world. It doesn’t have to be big, but it has to be there. It makes sure your life, well, meant something. We can find Meaning in several ways, but the practical application of our Purpose is a solid one.
Nowadays we, as a society, accepted a redefinition of accepted roles that really isn’t to our advantage. We define ourselves in large part by our jobs, which is similar enough to what it was before as to remain familiar, but change the “contribution to society” part by “increasing the wealth and prestige of someone else.” We exchanged the satisfaction of trading the product of our efforts and excellence to trading our time, basically selling ourselves as indentured servants! Our expertise and our output aren’t important anymore, but that our employers own us for the time they paid for is. This explains the rise of bullshit jobs, as brilliantly decried by David Graeber In his book “Bullshit jobs,” where people are stuck doing busywork utterly devoid of any value just because they have been bought for a certain amount of time. The Purpose in these jobs is empty, prevent us from creating Meaning for ourselves.
Purpose without a way to apply it and use it to make a difference in the world around us leads to frustration and despair. Being aware of our calling while being stuck in a purposeless occupation or, if we’re luckier, a useful profession that merely doesn’t align with our Purpose, is nothing short of soul-grinding. The remedy is to apply our Purpose to something Meaningful.
Making the switch toward a life of Meaning aligned with our Purpose isn’t always an easy one. This is especially true if your Purpose is about something that our current society doesn’t attach much value to. Helping the homeless isn’t known as a reliable path to a stable income. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it, it just means that you will need to find compromises with your time to help them while avoiding their predicament for yourself.
I have written a companion piece to this post discussing various ways to reclaiming enough time to dedicate to applying our Purpose and create Meaning.
We can find Meaning in other ways than relying on our Purpose. Having children is one. Whether it’s your Purpose of not, any parent worth its salt will find Meaning in raising a child. It’s important. Children need you for survival, guidance, and care, both physical and emotional. But unless Purpose and Meaning are aligned, no source of Meaning will consistently deliver happiness.
Meaning can be selfish (“But it means something to me”), but it’s actually much easier to find when it’s altruistic. Having other people recognize your meaning in the world is a fantastic feeling of accomplishment.
Better humans for a better future
The QUEST FOR HAPPINESS starts making more sense at a society level when we realize that its components are not about ourselves, but about others.
If you want to make the world a better place, the secret is by finding happiness, not for ourselves, but by becoming better versions of ourselves and improving the lives of our tribe and of society as a whole. In turn, doing just that will make that feeling of happiness a lasting one.
Remember: Purpose + Meaning = Happiness, and a better society to boot.
Like this piece? There’s a companion to it looking at ways to reclaim time to devote to turning our Purpose into Meaning. Go check it out!
I am a futurist, system thinker and organizational transformation expert, dedicated to easing our transition into Society 5.0. I am available as a speaker through the think tank Hivernité (www.hivernite.ca) as well as a trainer and organizational coach through Moabi Formations (www.moabiformation.com).