Travels with Myself

A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author

13. Purposefulness

Not content with mere Learned Optimism, our friend Martin Seligman turned to even bigger fish to fry: happiness. Marty’s goal for Pessimists, and their gloomy cousins, the Depressives, was not just to have a more optimistic outlook on life, but to be happy. Surely that it is the goal of homo sapiens, unique amongst animal species, though who’s to say all the other species are not happy already.

Well if you are a biological materialist as I tend to be, (rational realist that I claim, though living schizophrenically with my Idealist other identity), humans are no different than every other species and our whole purpose in life is not to be happy but merely to survive and reproduce. Dopamine and oxytocin does the rest.

But the 3½ pound universe inside our crania puts other ideas in our heads. We have created a sense of self and a grand illusion that our minds are separate from our brains. It is this delusional ‘self’ that has created the notion that there must be some purpose to life than merely carrying on our genes.

Illusion or not, it’s pretty powerful magic and while I doubt we humans are anything so magical, it’s hard to resist. So we may as well go along with it. Scott Peck and the Buddhists say life is suffering but if we can avoid it, suffering that is, why not? And even though I doubt we have any special purpose in the universe we may as well give our minds satisfaction by inventing some purpose it can actually do something about.

In his book, Authentic Happiness[1], Martin Seligman offers a cogent argument for how we people can condition ourselves to achieve it. It’s a rather convoluted set of conditions, but ultimately fairly straightforward: to be happy you need to live in the present, put thoughts of the past and future in proper perspective and concentrate on today. Some people seem to come by this way of operating naturally, others, not so much. Marlene was pretty much always happy, even up to her last weeks of life. I on the other hand, I fight my demons daily. I’m not much hijacked by the past but I do tend to wonder what the future may bring.

Seligman’s formula for authentic happiness (and by that he means living a virtuous life, not merely pursuing ego and status needs) is threefold: savouring the pleasures of life in the present, to my mind this is mindfulness; gratification, more abiding than savouring, comes about through the exercise of your strengths and virtues, creating as many opportunities as you can to be in a ‘flow’ state; and third, to use your abundant talents in the service of something larger than you are, in a word, purpose.

So this is Seligman’s notion of authentic happiness: to have a pleasant life – the successful pursuit of positive feelings; to have a good life – using your signature strengths to obtain abundant and authentic gratification; to have a meaningful life – using your signature strengths in service of something larger than you are. To have a full life is to live all three. 

Happiness is always only temporary so to maximize our happiness we need to create as many opportunities as we can for experiencing happiness episodes, to experience either savouring, or better, gratification.

Happiness can only be achieved indirectly: if you truly want to experience joy or meaning, you need to shift your attention away from joy or meaning, and toward projects and relationships that bring joy and meaning as by-products. As the great philosopher John Stuart Mill once wrote, “Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness.”

So beyond hopefulness there is purposefulness. Hopefulness is helpful for happiness – it is useful to have a positive attitude for the future. But beyond mere hopefulness there must be something bigger: Purpose. Even there, purpose is not mere wishing it were so: There must be action, hence Brian Little’s notion of ‘projects’.

In a previous blog, 73. Travels With Myself, repeated in my book, Travels with Myself, I discussed, among other things (Love, Grief, Friends), the importance of Purposefulness. I won’t repeat that post here but the essence was this:

<Purpose is to seek to be the ‘best version of ourselves we can be’, to live life vigourously, and to bring something of our best selves to others. If our purpose is enlightenment, and perhaps agency for others on their journey of discovery (at least for those willing to take the road less travelled), this seems highly worthwhile to me. 

<Purpose is not some vague abstract concept. We are all star dust, of course, but when people say this, as if it were some profundity, they have a dreamy gauzy sense of significance. I have no such fantasy. We are universal matter, but to seek understanding beyond that, it is an empty metaphor. Our purpose is not to be one with god, it is to strive for personal excellence.

<To be real, purpose needs to be made manifest. To have purpose is to put purpose into play. Like virtue, it is not merely an intention, it must be action. You can’t be virtuous, you must do virtuous things. We are not merely human beings, we are also human doings. Purpose needs projects, something to accomplish, to convert from idea to reality, with inputs and outputs, goals and timelines, and some sense of reward when the project is done. And when the project is done the purpose is not done; you need another project.>

I have to remind myself, almost daily, what my purpose is. When I get discouraged and disheartened, as one is want to do at times, especially in these dark days of waning Autumn, and corrosive corona virus, I have to resuscitate my sense of purpose, resolve once again to be the best version of myself I can be, to use my best talents as purposefully as I can, especially in service to others. So I write, I try to take care of my two families, in Canada and in The Philippines, and I try to savour the moment. These strategies are harder than merely being hopeful, as psychologically constructive as that might be, but ultimately more ‘abiding’.

In my next post I would like to close the year with a year-end review, not the proverbial ‘Christmas Newsletter’, but an evaluation of how well I have hewn to my purpose. I will invite you to do the same. And then we will look to a few ‘New Year’s Resolutions’.

Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata Ontario

© Douglas Jordan & AFS Publishing All rights reserved. No part of these blogs and newsletters may be reproduced without the express permission of the author and/or the publisher, except upon payment of a small royalty, 5¢. 


[1]For a more thorough discussion of this topic, short of buying Seligman’s book, you could buy a copy of my book, The Dynamics of Management! Of course, you’d end up paying more for my book than Seligman’s but there are other Jordan gems in it too.

3 thoughts on “13. Purposefulness”

  1. David Bradley

    Another very interesting and insightful piece Doug – thank you. I haven’t heard that quotation from John Stuart Mill before but I agree with it and I like your thesis with respect to using your own talents for the benefit of others.
    I am eating my own words with respect to Martin Seligman, I was wrong last time. Perhaps being force-fed Piaget at college/university put me off psychology?
    I have always concentrated on today, almost ignoring the past and future, but in the wake of significant personal loss I have to remind myself to focus on today. I keep coming back to your idea of grief not going away but simply getting quieter – thanks for that as well!

  2. On purpose and action:

    Doug, I reread your post on purposefulness as we’re entering the new year. Like you, I am motivated to turn purposeful thoughts into action to make them more meaningful. Of course this runs counter to Seligman’s advice of “savouring the pleasures of life in the present”, since it assumes that we must “do” something in order to move beyond the present moment, to make our lives more “purposeful”.
    I might add to your thoughtful post that, beyond active pursuits “in service of something larger than you are”, it is possible to be purposeful by simply being receptive to what and who surrounds us: What are people feeling? What do they need? What is beautiful that we can simply admire and breathe with?
    The balance of receptive and active purposefulness relates to the yin and yang of Oriental philosophy; though we don’t have to live in the East to nurture it. In the new year, one wish for myself and others who feel we have to be “active” to be purposeful, is to be more indulgent toward ourselves, when simply being at peace in the present moment, without even being conscious of it, is in fact our best self! Having worked on this a bit in recent years, I would say that awareness and acceptance of this other way of being “real” can also make us kinder and more patient with others who don’t feel so compelled to go out there and change the world around them, to experience meaning in their lives. Just be 🙂

    1. Seligman does not advise savouring [sensual experience] only as the formula for happiness, he also advises using your signature strengths as frequently as you can to experience ‘flow’, and express gratitude for the gifts you have. And beyond savouring the beauty, and gratitude for our talents, altruism becomes a transcendental experience. I doubt he would agree that being merely receptive to others ‘being’ is sufficient. As Comte-Sponville advises, virtue in not merely intentional it must be acted. Balance is a useful concept. Constant striving is probably counter-productve – in the long run it is exhausting. You may have something in mind closer to the ‘serenity prayer’:
      God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
      courage to change the things I can,
      and wisdom to know the difference.(Reinhold Niebuhr)
      For me though, I still cleave to the Socratic claim that the unexamined life is not worth living. i also like this [surprising] quote from Robert Louis Stevenson: “To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.” (‘Familiar Studies of Men and Books’)

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