The Psychology of Purpose
Humans are curiosity machines. We ask why, we ask what, how and who — all in search of plausible answers, the one that sparks within our intellectual entity.
Stems from which is a question that I found ultimate:
“What is the Purpose of Life?”
This question is tricky — in part — because it confers two types of meaning.
The first meaning deals with seeing life from the outside: What is the purpose of our biological life and its consciousness? How does it matter in the face of stars, galaxies, and whole existence?
This type of question can be well answered through physics, biology, philosophy, and for some — theology.
The second demands more practical answers. It’s about life from the inside, when we as a subject wholeheartedly asking: “What is my purpose within this life? How can I find meaning and fulfillment?”
And it’s better addressed by drawing on the modern psychology.
This article will cover the second type of question: How can one find purpose and meaning in life? — Deciphering what we know in the seek of what might be the suitable answer.
So let’s begin.
The Movie Night
Let’s say you’re having a movie night with a bunch of friends. It’s a busy night, so you come late. As you’re about to take a seat you capture a scene of a frantic sailor revolving his steering wheel — not against — but to a thunderstorm.
Puzzled by the absurdity, you start to ask a friend:
“What is the purpose of that sailor turning himself into oblivion? What do I need to know to understand that act?”
Supposedly one of your friends explains that the sailor about to save his kid who has been drifted away by the wave — all of a sudden the scene starts to make sense. His act instantly becomes purposeful.
Well, this represents our central discourse tonight. Asking about life’s purpose is no different from asking about your role behind a story, what part do you take on something bigger than yourself.
Let’s see it more from the perspective of psychology.
The Three Levels of Personality
When you think about personality, you might be referring to instruments such as the big five personality test or Myers–Briggs Type Indicator. These tools work by measuring basic traits like extroversion, neuroticism, openness, and others.
But psychologist Dan McAdams has suggested that these are only a superficial view of our makeup — hence proposing what can be called as The Three Levels of Personality. From this model, basic traits are put at the lowest level of one’s personality.
The second level is therefore about characteristic adaptations.
It’s about how people are using their basic traits to mesh with environment and stage of life — translated into personal goals, values, coping mechanisms, beliefs, and life-stage concerns.
But what even more important is the third level of personality; this is about the “life story” we’ve discussed earlier. McAdams stated it in a way that:
People just can’t stop themselves from reconstructing the personal past, perceived present, and anticipated future into a form of evolving life story — an integrative narrative of the self.
And a sense of purpose, I suggest, will emerge whenever these three levels of personality are meshed and interlocked with each other — synthesizing what can be referred to as Cross-level coherence (As Jon Haidt puts it in his book “The Happiness Hypothesis”).
It happens whenever your lower-level traits match your immediate goals and values, then in alignment with your internal narrative. It is when your short-term pursuits complement the long-term goals and aspirations you have.
And the crucial aspect is: It’s not the thing that any culture or dogma would suffice, because it is a process of internal discovery.
But internal discovery won’t come that easy.
Life Is Never Flat — The Uses of Adversity
Sure, life itself is not a movie. But as we noticed, we eager to see it in a way that resembles upcoming Hollywood hits — unless, in this case, we’re also the director of it.
And what comprises a compelling movie?
You knew it already: engaging conflicts and bold resolutions.
If the best thing you can come up with is that “society” forced you to choose a career you don’t like and do it 9–5 only to impress someone you don’t care either — nobody would read your memoirs.
Elon Musk was bullied as a kid, made fooled of when trying to buy a rocket from Russia, but ended revolutionizing the automotive and space industry.
Naval Ravikant, one of the most respected thinkers and investors in Silicon Valley, grew up as a poor kid from India and worked as a dishwasher to barely make a living.
Well, those are the highest achievers on the planet — and no need to be like that to be purposeful.
But if there’s one thing we can take from them, it would be the avidity in which they seek challenge. That is to say, they have the gut to face life’s adversity.
And from the perspective of the Three Levels of Personality, it’s clear why adversity is necessary. It shatters belief systems and robs people of their current sense of meaning, forcing them to put the pieces back together and make the radical change to achieve more coherence among levels.
Lots of people change their goals in the wake of adversity. Some resolve to work less, to play and love more — some choose to grind even harder with wisdom and gratitude.
Life is pretty hard, and decisions are confusing. It’s also daunting to chase your dreams and ideals since there’s a great odds it would bring about bad outcomes.
But daring to be wrong is a good start — at least in the era where being eaten by a predator or killed by the enemy tribes is no more the aftermath.
It would as well extract a better narrative out of life. And in terms of finding our purpose, nothing as important as the story we tell about ourselves. As Donald Miller puts it:
“The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either.”
And resides within the equation are the pangs of adversity — and the wisdom to refine our purpose in the process.