The Why Behind the How
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | May 2018 (edited February 16, 2022)
When we have meaningful purpose, life events take on a different color.
A rich meaningful life doesn’t happen haphazardly—meaningfulness is not a guarantee. We create purpose by the way we live. Survival doesn’t depend on richness of experience; it doesn’t demand a meaning. We can use our powerful thinking mind in many ways. The complexity of human existence demands evaluating pasts and planning for futures. Purpose—the more meaningful 'whys' behind our actions—demands more than passing action. When we take positive action, we experience a richer, more meaningful life.
By knowing our intentions and moving towards them, we form a deeper experience; we feel vitality. Not simply momentary pleasure but a profound fullness. When a deeper life purpose motivates action, we feel hope and gather courage. If I have a why, then I bask in meaning.
Roy F. Baumeister Ph.D., professor of psychology at Florida State University, wrote, "the need for purpose is the need to regard one's current activities as leading toward some desired goal or state of fulfillment" (1992). We can't aimlessly drift, chasing immediate pleasure and dodging pain. We need something more. We search for meaning to give purpose to our pursuits.
Viktor Frankl wrote, "it is the prerogative of man to quest for a meaning to his life, and also to question whether such meaning exists" (2000, p. 134). And somehow, that search for meaning contributes to happiness.
Tal Ben-Shahar, a Harvard professor, defines happiness as, "the overall experience of pleasure and meaning." He continues, "a happy person enjoys positive emotions while perceiving her life as purposeful. The definition does not pertain to a single moment but to generalized aggregates of one’s experiences: a person can endure emotional pain at times and still be happy" (2007, page 33).
Carl Jung is a little more blunt. He says, "when goals go, meaning goes. When meaning goes, purpose goes. When purpose goes, life goes dead in our hands."
"I want to wake up every morning, not with a sense of dread or apathy, but with a sense of excitement about what the day holds and what I can contribute."
What Creates Purpose?
T. Franklin Murphy wrote, "a sense of purpose relies on our conceptual definition of meaning. If we believe that life only has meaning if it extends beyond the grave, certainly anything short of eternal life will color our existence as purposeless. The mere thought creates a hole" (2018).
However, others have found meaning outside the confining boundaries of religion. They find meaning in living. Our 'why' behind the action may vary. People experience richness to their existence for a variety of reasons. Many rely on a belief in a life after death to provide meaning to the unknown pains and sorrows of this world of tears. But we are not limited to unexplainable 'whys' that only exist beyond our current existence.
Our narrative self provides many opportunities for expanding meaning. Our families, passions and creations all give a little zing to life, propelling us past the humdrum of day to day existence and into something more.
Jeremy Adam Smith reports that research on meaning and purpose suggests that goals that foster a sense of purpose "are ones that can potentially change the lives of other people" (2018). Connecting to others expands the borders of our petty little lives. Only through these connections do we see past our simple efforts to feel pleasure and avoid pain.
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
We experience emotions throughout the days, weeks and years. Some experiences undoubtedly discomfort; but with purpose the pain diminishes. We endure knowing the unpleasantness will pass. Each moment seen through the context of the whole. We don’t live for a single moment. When we know WHY, the HOW is much more endurable.
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Baumeister, R. F. (1992). Meanings of Life. The Guilford Press; Revised ed. edition.
Ben-Shahar, B. (2007). Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. McGraw-Hill Education; 1st edition.
Frankl, V. (2000). Man's Search For Ultimate Meaning.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2018). Purposelessness. Flourishing Life Society. Published 4-2018. Accessed 11-13-2022.
Smith, Jeremy Adam (2018). How to Find Your Purpose in Life. Greater Good Magazine. Published 1-10-2018. Retrieved 11-13-2022.