Our Need for ‘Purpose’
Very often I am approached by people who want to share with me about their search for purpose. ‘I don’t really know what to do with my life’ is a phrase I hear quite often and recently I have started to question why so many people are on this search for meaning. The self-help industry is worth millions of pounds, there are hundreds of books and seminars available that claim to help people become the best version of themselves and there are also hundreds of life coaches emerging all over the place offering to help us find out what our true calling is, but why there seems to be a stronger or bigger need for people to find out what their purpose is, that is something that I have been reflecting on and asking people about. Here are my thoughts:
Our need for purpose is now greater than ever before
After the war, people were not asking themselves what their purpose was. There was poverty, depression and financial crisis. The economy was contracted and it wasn’t really the time for testing out new ideas, pursuing passions or conquering creative self-expression. People’s lives were spent rebuilding cities, countries and society. In a way, their purpose was predetermined for them as a result of the time in which they grew up. They had to get a job in the local factory or provide a basic service that would support the struggling economy. For individuals, security, stability and predictability were key.
During the 1950s and 1960s, our parents and grand parents didn’t have the options we have now. To make a living their options were more limited. Their world was smaller, there was no Internet and their lives were somehow circumscribed to their towns and countries and the companies that were there. In a nutshell, the less options, the less difficulty in choosing what to do.
Our need for self-actualisation
Today, we live in a very different world. We have more options than any generation before. We live in a global market that goes beyond our understanding and imagination. Almost any products you can think of have already been invented. Any passion, interest or hobby, regardless of what it is, probably already has a following and a Facebook page. Technology and globalisation have allowed us to look beyond our previous borders, limitations and geographical constraints.
We no longer have to worry about growing and sheltering food; we can now walk in into a supermarket and get anything we need. Not only are our very basic Maslow’s needs for shelter and food covered, but we live in safe cities and societies with plenty of jobs and opportunities available and thousands of network and communities we can engage with if we want to. Our society has evolved so much that we moved from covering Maslow’s basic hierarchy of needs to being on a quest for self esteem and self-actualisation. At this stage, we start thinking about achievement, creative self-expression and creating a dent in the universe. Life becomes more about meaning and not so much about our needs. Only recent generations have had this problem. Before that, we were too busy sorting out food, shelter and safety. Being in this privileged position has led us to think more about our purpose, fulfilment and self-actualisation.
Social Media and the Ego
In addition to living in a world of possibilities, the media is constantly feeding us with photos and news of celebrities, gurus and high-achievers. Social media platforms are bombarding us with images of what we could be, what we could have or what we could experience and shows us how others live. There comes a point when unconsciously we start to question if the lives we have are the lives we really want to have.
Social media exacerbates in us (or in some cases, unconsciously ‘imposes’) a desire to be something or do something. Facebook photos show us the amazing things other have or do. LinkedIn reminds us everyday that a colleague got this or that amazing new job and that this other person has now launched a new business. Thought leaders, TED speakers and personal development gurus seem to be on a mission to sell us the idea that we can become whoever we want to become, build passive income streams and work from anywhere doing something we love.
Particularly in the West, our society has become predominantly obsessed with fame, individualism and capitalism. We work hard to achieve more because we feel the pressure to ‘be someone’ or to have this or that, or to be here or there. This is where our ego unconsciously starts fighting for its own space in this sea of anonymity; at the end of the day, that’s what we see everyone having or doing and we want some of that too; some of that fame, that money and that excitement.
This exposure to opportunities, possibilities and other people’s lifestyles is overwhelming and shows us all the other things we could be doing and how others are doing it. We then ask ourselves if these are things we could be doing too or if we are missing out on something? How would we not question what our purpose in life is when we have so many possibilities in front of us? All these options become derailers and distractors or what we know deep within is what we want to do.
Our need for ‘purpose’ is greater now than ever before. We live in different times and we now have the opportunity to choose the jobs we do, to pursue our hobbies and passions. Taking some time to reflect on what we do, why we do it and what we want to do is critical for our fulfilment and happiness but also for the world.