An interesting topic came up during dinner recently: if you go to a warehouse full of lost baggage from flights, and you could pay a sticker price for them, but you won’t know what’s in there until you made the purchase, what do you hope to find in the baggage that would make you think it was a good purchase? I do not remember what people said, because I was busy coming up with my own answers. The more abstract form of this question is: if you could get anything with a finite sticker price, what would it be? This makes it easy: anything that I can buy with real monetary value is not worth getting here, since I can eventually save up enough to get it elsewhere. Having been obsessed with figuring out my purpose in life for months (if not for years), I decided my answer to the hypothetical question would be that I hope to find a piece of paper in the baggage with my life’s purpose written on it.
I first really thought about figuring out a purpose of life was when I was reading “The Telomere Effect” by Elizabeth Blackburn. In her book, Dr. Blackburn explains in detail the various aspects of our lives that influence the length of our telomeres, which dictates our health and longevity. (I wrote about it in an earlier post.) One thing that she talked about really stuck with me, people with a clearly defined purpose in life are happier and healthier in general.
The people with the strongest sense of purpose in life had a more resilient stress response, less reactivity,… take better care of themselves… tend to get more lifesaving tests to detect early disease. Stronger feelings of life purpose are also related to reduced risk of stroke and improved functioning of immune cells. Life purpose is even linked to less belly fat and lower insulin sensitivity… Life purpose is what brings us eudaemonic happiness.
I was in awe after reading this section of the book. There are so many things that effect our health: diet, sleep, stress, all seems obvious and reasonable, but who knew having a purpose in life also plays a huge role? Not knowing what my purpose is, I wrote “purpose in life?” on a piece of sticky note and posted it on the wall in front of my desk, every now and then when I look up from doing homework, I see the note and ruminate about it.
I have recently started reading “Meditations” by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (I will write more about it when I am done reading), and there was a passage in there that also highlights the essentialness of having a purpose in life.
Meditations (2.7): Do external things distract you? Then make time for yourself to learn something worthwhile; stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions. But make sure you guard against the other kind of confusion. People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse towards are wasting their time – even when hard at work.
The second half of the paragraph was alarming to read: if without a sense of purpose, your life will not be worth living, even though you could be really hard working and think that you have done something!
To address this, Marcus gave an answer to how one might derive purpose from our lives:
Meditations (3.12): If you do the job in a principled way, with diligence, energy and patience, if you keep yourself free of distractions, and keep the spirit inside you undamaged, as if you might have to give it back at any moment–
If you can embrace this without feat or expectation–can find fulfillment in what you are doing now, as Nature intended, and in superhuman truthfulness (every word, every utterance)–then your life will be happy.
Here, Marcus not only pointed out that the purpose of life is to find fulfillment in what you are doing, he also said this will be what brings you happiness in life! Seeking happiness was never a key concept in Stoicism, and in (at least the first half of) the book, there was no other place that mentioned anything about being happy. For this one (maybe the only) exception here, Marcus directed us to finding happiness in life, which is by finding fulfillment in our jobs, and hence the purpose of our lives.
Now, all of this talk of finding purpose and fulfillment from your work could appear a bit grandiose and hard to achieve. I was able to find another approach to this question in a quote from Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”:
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and [those] who love you.
This approach seems to be a lot more humane and could be comparably easier to implement. We can be categorized as introverts and extroverts, but we are all essentially social animals, and spending time with good company is a sure way to increase our sense of wellbeing.
So far, from what I gathered from two Nobel Laurates and one stoic Emperor, I can conclude that the purpose of life can be found in two ways: inwards, do work that make you feel fulfilled; outwards, spend quality time with friends and family. Although this is highly generalized, it can be a good place to start for a lot of people. I am sure there are more ways to find happiness, and that each person has a distinct, customized purpose of his or her own. Therefore my quest for it has not ended by no means, and if I could buy my answer from a lost baggage center I really would.