What should I do with my life? What is my purpose in life? I ask myself these questions all the time and every time I feel restless and anxious. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
After years of questioning myself, observing people and diving into books, I found something tangible. If you don’t know what to do with your life, read on, I have some food for thought.
Spoiler alert. If you’re looking for the meaning of life, happiness isn’t the answer. Purpose is. Many people don’t undertake a challenge meant to improve their lives because they don’t have a purpose that makes their existence meaningful. Happiness, after all, is a result of leading a meaningful life and it’s not necessarily as prominent as curing cancer or ending poverty.
In the world-renowned book, Man’s Search for a Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl talks about the horrible events at the concentration camps in Nazi Germany during the World War II and his experiences that helped him survive.
Frankl discusses what later became the foundations of logotherapy, a therapy allowing people to find meaning and purpose in their lives to live happily and overcome any challenges and misfortunes.
Essentially the same question human has throughout the existence, from the day 1 when the cognitive revolution occurred 70,000 years ago when Homo Sapiens became aware of themselves and the world around it had only one question that we still have today.
The Question Is: What Is the Meaning of Life?
We use religion, science, business, war and everything else to answer it. No one knows what they are doing yet there are tons of definitions and ways of life.
Some say it’s to have fun. Some say it’s to make the world a better place. What I say is to fulfill your potential, live a healthy and purpose driven life making a positive impact.
Biologically, it’s all about survival and passing your genes on. Looking back to history it seems like it’s all about evolution and transformation. But what about an individual?
We all want to know why we’re here.
The lack of “why” combined with misleading aspirations can turn life into a suffering experience instead of being something meaningful, enjoyable and fulfilling.
Life’s meaning is what you make it to be. Deep inside you know what it is but all the external noise like TV, radio, the Internet and dysfunctional society distort your view of the world and weaken your purpose-and-meaning-muscles. It has to be exercised. Just like you exercise your legs and back, like you exercise to improve your heart, like you practice a language, like you shower every day to stay clean.
It’s a continuous work, but not many are even aware they have these muscles, and they follow life as it is. Most often living their nightmare instead of their dream. Some people wake up to see that they were living someone else’s life. Not all of us are fortunate to be born in a prosperous and abundant family. We must work hard to reach a level of security and stability, to build a network of people that support us, to gain enough confidence to be able to feel comfortable in our own skin.
Most of the mental deficiencies form in our childhood. That’s why it’s so hard to overcome the scarcity mindset. It may have been developed when you were in your mother’s womb. Or in the first years in your life that you can’t recall and make sense of.
I believe you must go through some things in life to build up your worldview, develop analytical thinking, improve emotional intelligence to become better at knowing yourself and others as well as gain confidence and develop trustworthy intuition. It all takes right attitude, time, persistence and a bit of luck.
Two Purposes in Life
Where do you start if you feel lost and overwhelmed by the options?
In the very beginning, you must know what you want in life to let your desire fire burn. You must protect that fire because there will be times when people, most likely closest to you’ll come and try to extinguish it because their fire has been extinguished or almost extinguished a long time ago and they don’t how good it feels to live with a fire inside you.
To let your fire burn and find the strength to protect it you need clarity, self-confidence and patience. You need a cause, meaning, a purpose. Once you believe in it and connect it with that fire, you make an unbreakable contract. You dedicate to something bigger than yourself.
Eckhart Tolle in his book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, talks about two purposes in life:
- First, is the same for all the people in the world, it’s to wake up and come to peace with the present moment.
- Second, it differs from person to person but has to be aligned with the first purpose. So it’s more like an internal purpose and external purpose.
Once you’re content and present internally you can start making progress externally, whether you decide to build a business and impact people’s lives, or become a politician to bring some needed change or you’re a farmer you must come to peace with the present moment and yourself first fulfill your external purpose seeking potential.
You Don’t Want to Be Happy
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Albus Dumbledore says, “But you know, happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” The quote is credited to the mastermind writer Steve Kloves, who transformed seven Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling into screenplays. It’s a perfect summary of how one can find meaning, not only happiness, in life no matter the circumstances.
I’ll tell you why it’s risky to pursue happiness as your life’s purpose.
When I moved to Denmark to study I was still searching for myself. I didn’t know what I was and where I was going. I thought I needed to do things that make me happy and that should be enough.
“The life is all about happiness isn’t it?” I pondered.
But it is a very unsustainable concept. There is no clear definition of happiness. Should I use drugs to keep myself constantly happy? If not, there is a big chance something will happen that will make me sad. It’s not just that I can’t control my emotions, but there is the whole world, a significant external factor causing my happiness.
Chasing happiness didn’t feel promising. I needed to change my thinking.
Humans Are Emotional Creatures
Happiness is just an emotion.
After meditating for ten days, I learned that emotions like thoughts come and go. It’s human nature. Without feeling sadness, anger, desperation, jealousy and other emotions, you wouldn’t know what it feels like to be happy. You would get used to it. It wouldn’t be happiness anymore. It would be your default mental state.
Loretta Graziano Breuning, in her book Habits of a Happy Brain, talks about four happiness chemicals people seek for: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphin.
Each happy chemical triggers a different good feeling:
- Dopamine produces the joy of finding things that meet your needs – the “Eureka! I got it!” feeling.
- Endorphin produces oblivion that masks pain – often called euphoria.
- Oxytocin produces the feeling of being safe with others – now called bonding.
- Serotonin produces the feeling of being respected by others – pride.
Each of the happy chemicals motivates a different type of survival behavior:
- Dopamine motivates you to get what you need, even when it takes a lot of effort.
- Endorphin motivates you to ignore pain, so you can escape from harm when you’re injured.
- Oxytocin motivates you to trust others, to find safety in companionship.
- Serotonin motivates you to get respect, which expands your mating opportunities and protects your offspring.
All of the happiness chemicals have a job to do and as our biology shows our brain isn’t meant for happiness. It’s designed to avoid pain and seek pleasure.
Even when you’re happy you may start worrying that the feeling will end and that instantly kills happiness because your brain is scanning your environment for possible threats.
It’s not our fault. We, humans, developed so quickly that our brain stayed unchanged and we’re thinking and feeling the way our ancestors did tens of thousands of years ago even though we don’t have the danger anymore.
Define Your Purpose
Let’s get back to my time in Denmark, one of the happiest countries in the world. Only now, reflecting on my past, I see that I left one of the saddest countries in Europe with the highest suicide rate in the world and went to the happiest nation in the world, seeking for meaning and purpose. Quite of a shocking change in environment.
While in Denmark, I started questioning my philosophy of living with the purpose of being happy.
“It’s unsustainable and has a lot of flaws,” I thought.
Inevitably, I’ll have low moments, when things won’t end up the way I want, life will happen. Nothing is promised. There is no tomorrow, and no one owes me anything.
One day, I came across a simple study on gratitude. It felt foreign.
Expressing gratitude and practicing it in daily life has been proven to increase happiness and well being.
That was interesting, even though it sounded like total bullshit I wanted to give it a try.
I started by just acknowledging the fact that I have all my limbs and can walk anywhere I wish.
“I can study in Denmark and learn new things in a foreign country. I’m fortunate to be independent and able to shape my lifestyle.” I was repeating to myself.
After some time the practice got harder. I ran out of things to be grateful for. I didn’t feel happier. I started to doubt the concept and left it untouched for years.
One day I was reading articles and digging into the wisdom of self-help gurus and came across a powerful statement. You must define your purpose in life.
No one is going to do it for you. You don’t need to wait for anything or be entirely sure. You’ll never be ready. If you feel it is right, do it.
I reflected on my life and saw that some people were looking after me, they were inspired by my actions and followed my example. Whether it’s starting a blog, moving abroad to study, cutting sugar, watching diet, exercising or running. I was making an impact by just being myself. Without trying to influence anyone I still was.
I was fascinated by the fact.
But then I realized, my thinking and actions are shaped and influenced the same way. People I meet, books and articles I read, videos I watch, podcasts I listen to, they influence my life with their lives, actions, and ideas.
How Pain Sparked Inspiration
One day I was running up the hill, and the very first statement for my life’s purpose struck me.
“I’m so exhausted running up the hill, yet I feel I’m conquering my mind, improving my body and growing stronger. The things I do inspire people, but others also inspire me. There is this healthy inspiration ecosystem that everyone contributes to.”
That day I finished my workout, showered and wrote down my mission: to inspire and be inspired.
First, I wanted to take responsibility to shape my life in a way that would make me proud. The decisions I make, the work I put in, the way I talk, act and connect with people is going to happen only once. The path I’m taking in my life is going to be only one. I can’t come back and fix one thing or another.
“At the end, I want to be proud of what I did in my life.” This thought empowered me to become more responsible in how I design my lifestyle.
First, it’s me, my life, I want it to be grand, and I want to impact people’s lives positively. I don’t want to wear masks and be talked about or admired just because of what I’m not. I want deserved recognition, for the work I do and impact I make.
I might be naive, but I believe if I show up daily and do my best, good things will happen. I don’t know how, when and why, but I feel I’m onto something. Since that day, I started using the slogan, “To inspire and be inspired” with my writing and after some time I completely internalized it.
Inspiration is powerful. It can only happen internally. You can’t force it, it’s involuntary, and that is why it’s so powerful.
The definition of my mission was still vague, but at least I found a new concept to work on. I felt inspired.
You must define your life purpose by questioning yourself.
It’s not that someone will come to you one day and will say, “you know, you must change the world, that is your purpose.”
If you feel your purpose is to save all the pets in your town, do it. It’s powerful, and if it empowers you and allows you to forget yourself and dedicate for the cause, it’s going to provide you with ideas, drive, energy, and persistence. You might improve, change and crystalize your purpose but you have to start somewhere.
If you don’t feel comfortable sharing it, don’t. You don’t want the naysayers to extinguish that emerging fire inside. Keep it safe within yourself. Work towards it to make it grow bigger and once you feel ready, put it to the test. Let people talk bad about it and see what happens. If you genuinely care about the cause, you’ll gain even more confidence. You’ll stand for something.
Throughout my journey of lifestyle design, my purpose has changed. I came back to gratitude practice. I learned that relying on emotions and seeking happiness won’t make my life meaningful. I understood that I don’t want to be happy. I want a reason.
Once you know your purpose and embark on a journey to complete your mission, you’ll have ups and downs. But all of it won’t matter.
Your purpose and your dedication will give you energy. It will justify the hard times. You’ll get stronger when you feel hopeless and feel like giving up. You’ll be a part of something bigger than yourself. You’ll internalize leadership, responsibility and full ownership of not only your life but your cause. It will make your life meaningful even if you go through hell. It will make you anti-fragile. It will teach you the impermanence of life and make you happier even when you’re sad, lonely, helpless or angry.
You’ll find happiness, even in the darkest of times, because you’ll know how to turn on the light, that is, remind yourself of your purpose.
You Need a Reason for Being
You don’t want to be happy. You want to matter and have a purpose in life. You want to find the meaning of your mission. You must take the first step into the unknown. You must define your purpose and start your journey. That’s what you want but and you already knew it. I just wanted to remind you that.
Dan Buettner wrote a bestselling book on the topic of anti-aging and longevity, The Blue Zones, where he traveled and explored the particular areas in the world where people live the longest (100 years and more).
In Sardinia, an island in Italy, people live longer because of their unique diet, lifestyle and a sense of purpose. Buettner met up with 75-year-old shepherd Tonino Tola, who has climbed the hills of Sardinia for his entire life. Here’s an excerpt from the book:
“Do you ever get bored?” I asked impulsively. Before the words left my mouth, I realized I’d uttered a heresy. Tonino swung around and pointed at me, dried blood still rimming his fingernail. “I’ve loved living here every day of my life,” he boomed. After a pause, he continued. “I love my animals and taking care of them. We don’t really need the cow that I butchered today. Half of the meat will go to my son, and most of the other half we’ll share with our neighbors. But without the animals and the work it takes to raise them, I would be sitting in my house doing nothing; I would have little purpose in life. When I think of them, I think of my children. I like it when my kids come home and they find something here that I have produced.”
Later, Buettner traveled to a Japanese island Okinawa, located thousands of kilometers south of Tokyo. In Okinawa, people live astonishingly long, and most of them are functional and don’t need help from their family. The key to long life, emphasized by one of the centenarians, isn’t to lose your ikigai. Ikigai is a Japanese concept that means “a reason for being.”
Everyone, according to Japanese culture, has an ikigai. Finding it requires a broad and often lengthy search of self. Such a search is essential to the cultural belief that discovering one’s ikigai brings satisfaction and meaning to life. Examples include work, hobbies and raising children.
Once people lose their ikigai, they tend to die sooner. It’s especially prominent for retired teachers, police officers, firefights and such. After their career is over, they don’t have a clear purpose in life and die sooner than those who are electrified by their ikigai until the very last day.
Another special place Dan Buettner visited with the National Geographic is the Nicoya Peninsula, which until very recently, this was one of the most isolated parts of Costa Rica.
Here’s what he writes:
“We notice that the most highly functioning people over 90 in Nicoya have a few common traits,” she told me. “One of them is that they feel a strong sense of service to others or care for their family. We see that as soon as they lose this, the switch goes off. They die very quickly if they don’t feel needed.”Indeed, in every Blue Zone, centenarians possess a strong sense of purpose. In Okinawa it was ikigai—the reason to wake up in the morning. Here, said Fernández, the Costa Ricans called it plan de vida.
Now, if you’re still asking yourself, “what should I do with my life?” Here’s the main takeaway: you need ikigai or plan de vida to not only live longer but be happy, fulfilled and loved.
Now go and write something down — a grand plan for your life.