The search for purpose is something that has been around for a very long time, and it exists in all cultures.
The Japanese have a practice known as ‘ikigai’, which roughly translates as ‘waking up to joy’.
The French call it ‘raison d’etre’, or reason for being.
The Ancient Greeks called it eudaimonia – the condition of “human flourishing”, or a life well lived.
These ideas suggest that to live a full and happy life, we must intentionally look for practices that create purpose.
Purpose, and the attainment of it, remains a central theme of positive psychology, because of how important it is in our overall wellbeing. So, it’s not surprising that we hear a lot about it.
Having awareness of things which bring us enjoyment or a sense of mastery, and taking action to overcome things which stand in the way of our happiness, is central to most cognitive interventions.
Often, when we think about purpose, we think of it in terms of the work we do. We assume that if we find the right career, we’ll discover our passion.
But work can be where we feel a lack of passion, or joy, most strongly. Especially if we worked hard to get there, only to find that the job isn’t all we’d hoped. Or perhaps we have neglected other areas in achieving our successes.
If we put all our effort into cultivating our careers, we may find that other important areas of our life start to miss out. Our relationships suffer, or we lose interest in hobbies or favourite activities.
And then we wonder why we feel so disconnected.
In order to find our true purpose, we have to look at our lives as a whole-rounded, interweaving, intermeshing thing.
How to find purpose
The most common diagram used to explain this, is used in the cultivation of ikigai.
(source: Positive Psychology.com)
This process looks at different aspects of our lives and asks us to consider where these overlap. It identifies things that we both enjoy doing, and which we are good at or have a certain level of skill or mastery over.
Some practices also ask what is useful to the wider community and what could we be paid for, by way of helping us to find a particular career path.
Often we put a lot of focus on only one area, e.g. in terms of work, we look at ‘what am I good at’, or ‘what do I enjoy’. We don’t often put a lot of thought into examining how these things correlate.
If we feel unsatisfied, it’s usually because we are in a cycle of doing something purely because we’re good at it. But we may not necessarily enjoy it as much any more. Or we really enjoy something, but we aren’t able to progress any further than our current skill level allows.
If you’re struggling with your search for purpose, using a framework like this can be really helpful. Especially if you have become used to doing things out of habit, as it may identify areas where you need a new challenge.
Or it could show you where you have an imbalance. For example, if you’re putting a lot of work and energy into one area, which other bits are missing out? And what effect is this having?
Our lives are not meant to be static and it’s easy to become over-comfortable, and we risk drifting. As the world around us changes, we need to adapt too, otherwise it jars and we resist change. And this can lead to feeling fearful, or frustrated and irritable, as we don’t see where we fit in any more.
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