Why Living with Purpose Is Easier Than You ThinkNone By Emily Esfahani Smith
Purpose sounds big—ending world hunger big or eliminating nuclear weapons big. But it doesn’t have to be. You can also find purpose in being a good parent to your children, creating a more cheerful environment at your office, or making a giraffe’s life more pleasant.
According to William Damon, a developmental psychologist at Stanford, purpose has two important dimensions. First, purpose is a “stable and far-reaching” goal. Most of our goals are mundane and immediate, like getting to work on time, going to the gym, or doing the dishes. Purpose, by contrast, is a goal toward which we are always working. It is the forward-pointing arrow that motivates our behavior and serves as the organizing principle of our lives.
Second, purpose involves a contribution to the world. It is, Damon writes with his colleagues, “a part of one’s personal search for meaning, but it also has an external component, the desire to make a difference in the world, to contribute to matters larger than the self.” That could mean advancing human rights or working to close the achievement gap in education, but it works on a smaller level, too. Teens who help their families with tasks like cleaning, cooking, and caring for siblings, for example, also feel a greater sense of purpose.
People who have such a purpose believe that their lives are more meaningful and more satisfying. They are more resilient and motivated, and they have the drive to muddle through the good and the bad of life in order to accomplish their goals. People who fail to find purpose in their daily activities, however, tend to drift through life aimlessly. When Damon looked closely at emerging adults 12 to 22 years old in a major study he conducted with his colleagues between 2003 and 2007, he found that only 20 percent of them had a fully developed, prosocial purpose that they were actively working toward. Purposeful youth are more motivated at school, get better grades, and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors like drug use. But 8 out of 10 of the young people Damon studied did not yet have a clear sense of where their lives were going. Many of them had made some progress toward setting long-term goals, but they did not know how they would pursue those goals or whether their aspirations were personally meaningful to them. A quarter of the emerging adults were “disengaged, expressing virtually no purpose.”
Though living with purpose may make us happier and more determined, a purpose-driven person is ultimately concerned not with these personal benefits but with making the world a better place. Indeed, many great thinkers have argued that in order for individuals to live meaningful lives, they must cultivate the strengths, talents, and capacities that lie within them and use them for the benefit of others.
That idea was expressed forcefully by the eighteenth-century German thinker Immanuel Kant. Kant asks us to con¬sider a man—one like so many of us today—who “finds in himself a talent that by means of some cultivation could make him a useful human being in all sorts of respects. However, he sees himself in comfortable circumstances and prefers to give himself up to gratification rather than to make the effort to expand and improve his fortunate natural predispositions.” What should this man do? Should he abandon the cultivation of his natural talents for a life of enjoyment and ease? Or should he pursue his purpose?
These questions are the driving force behind the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting. The story begins with Will, a psychologically troubled twenty-year-old from South Boston. Will drifts purposelessly through life, working as a janitor at MIT and spending most of his free time drinking with his friends, even though he is a genius who can solve math problems that the graduate students at MIT cannot. When he gets in trou¬ble for assaulting a police officer, Will gets a lucky break: an MIT professor, Gerald Lambeau, intervenes on his behalf. The judge agrees to release Will to Lambeau’s supervision under the condition that he meet with Lambeau regularly to work on math.
Lambeau wants Will to put his talent to good use, so he does his best to mentor him and arranges job interviews for him with prestigious employers. But Will is defiant. He is not interested in developing his mathematical genius. He mocks his interviewers during their meetings and insults Lambeau, calling his research a joke. Later, when Will’s best friend, Chuckie, asks him how his interviews are going, Will implies he’s not interested in being a “lab rat.” He’d rather stay in South Boston and work in construction.
But Chuckie, like Lambeau, doesn’t want Will to waste his potential—and he tells his friend that his attitude is selfish. “You don’t owe it to yourself. You owe it to me. ’Cause tomor¬row,” Chuckie says, “I’m gonna wake up and I’ll be 50, and I’ll still be doin’ this…And that’s all right, that’s fine.” Will, however, has the chance to live a better life by putting his skills to work—skills that his friends, Chuckie explains, would do anything to have. But he’s too afraid. It would be an “insult to us if you’re still here in 20 years,” Chuckie says, and a waste of Will’s time.
Should Will throw away his gifts because he does not want to cultivate them, or should he doggedly work to perfect his skills and master his craft, as Lambeau and Chuckie want him to do?
For Kant—as for Chuckie and Lambeau—the answer is clear: a rational person, Kant explains, “necessarily wills that all capacities in him be developed, because they serve him and are given to him for all sorts of possible purposes.” That is, his talents can benefit others and society, and so he has a moral obligation to cultivate them. Kant’s ideas, as the contemporary philosopher Gordon Marino points out, fly in the face of the current cultural imperative, often heard during graduation season, to “do what you love.” To Kant, the question is not what makes you happy. The question is how to do your duty, how to best contribute—or, as the theologian Frederick Buechner put it, your vocation lies “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Copyright © 2017 By Emily Esfahani Smith. Adapted from the book THE POWER OF MEANING by Emily Esfahani Smith. Published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
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