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The Psychology of Purpose: A Few Thoughts Before the Weekend

The Myth of Sisyphus is one of my favorite fables. I first learned about it in an existentialism class I took in college while reading Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death and Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. Here’s a refresher. Sisyphus was a deceitful king who was punished by being forced to roll an enormous boulder up a hill, only to watch it fall back down, for the rest of eternity.

The idea behind the Myth is highlighted by a philosophical school of thought called Absurdism, which outlines the conflict between our propensity to seek out meaning or value in a world that has neither. Camus offered three solutions to this dilemma – Suicide, Religion, or Acceptance – and endorsed the last by arguing that individuals are truly free only when they accept that there is in fact no meaning or value in life.

Meaning, value, purpose, and the like have been big hitting philosophical topics since the ancient Greeks; Aristotle famously argued that man’s purpose was to live in accordance to reason, and Plato and Socrates spent their lifetimes trying to pin down an objective meaning to human life. Of course, philosophers haven’t made much progress since. What’s the meaning of life? Is there meaning in life? Does life have a purpose? Who knows – and please don’t ask me. But now psychology is weighing in, and unlike philosophy, it has reliable empirical data.

First, purpose causes you to live longer. In a classic study done back in the 1970s, psychologists Ellen Langer & Judy Rodin went to a nursing home and created two groups, choosers and non-choosers, to “assess the effects of enhanced personal responsibility and choice.” The choosers were given the responsibility to water plants and decide on when ‘movie night’ would be while the non-chooser were not given any responsibilities. They found that on average, the choosers lived significantly longer than the non-choosers. In Langer’s words, “Psychologically [and physiologically], control proved to be a potent variable… Half as many people given our control intervention had died 18 months later than those given a comparison treatment.”

And second, purpose increases happiness. In his recent book Flourish, Martin Seligman emphasizes that those who feel a sense of meaning and purpose at home and in the work place are on average happier than those who do not. This is partially captured in his theory of well-being, which he calls PERMA – Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Purpose, and Accomplishment. Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and  Mihály Csíkszentmihályi have also made similar remarks.

So purpose helps us live longer and be happier. But how do we gain it? One answer is find what you are best at or what you like to do the most and do it. When this is done successfully, whatever you do becomes enjoyable. The other answer is to create purpose from what you do already. For example, if you mow lawns, make a game out of it. See how straight you can make the lines, see how fast you can do it, or see what kind of patterns you can weave into the lawn. This was Camus’ solution. It is only when you fully realize how absurd your task is that you are able to make a game out of it, be happy, and feel a sense of purpose.

What Sisyphus did – dwell on how pointless or interminable his task was – is the last thing you should do. Don’t be a Sisyphean.

Happy Friday.  
Langer, E., & Rodin, J. (1976). The effects of choice and enhanced personal responsibility for the aged: A field experiment in an institutional setting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34 (2), 191-198 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.34.2.191

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