Purpose of Living – Part 7: The Psychological View Point
We explored the notion of purpose from the view point from Abrahamic Religions, Eastern Philosophies, Early Sciences, Modern Sciences and Philosophy in the last few blog posts in this series. Let’s now have a look at this notion from some of the Psychological viewpoints.
Although having been appointed to boards of two of the companies of John Keells Holdings, at the age of 27, after having been appointed Marketing Manager of that company at the age of 24, largely due to the gold medal I won at the final examination of the UK based Chartered Institute of Marketing examination, and many corporate successes, I had a sense of emptiness and meaninglessness in my life during my early thirties. The various solutions applied to deal with this emptiness were related to attempting to think and act positively after having attended the ‘Mastery of Self’ playshop under Omar Khan during that period. I also find many of the participants attending workshops I facilitate grappling with such emptiness.
Positive psychology – A science of positive subjective experience, positive individual traits, and positive institutions promises to improve quality of life and prevent the pathologies that arise when life is barren and meaningless – addresses this feeling of emptiness, described with the word ‘barren’. The exclusive focus on pathology that has dominated so much of our discipline results in a model of the human beings lacking the positive features that makes life worth living. Hope, wisdom, creativity, future mindedness, courage, spirituality, responsibility, and perseverance are ignored or explained as transformations of more authentic negative impulses (Seligman, Csikszentmihalyi, 2014, p.5).
This feeling of emptiness and meaninglessness drives most participants to search for solutions according to ‘positive psychology’. They try out the concepts and tools shared at the workshop as they are presented with examples and experiences that help create belief and hope. Perhaps this could be their last resort. While such concepts and tools have worked for many people I know and for myself, I am not claiming that it works for everyone as I have met people for whom such concepts and tools had even had a negative impact. However, I feel positive psychology helps us understand the minds of people who are experiencing emptiness and meaninglessness in their lives and using it as a motivation to give life another chance.
Another aspect that helped me to deal with the emptiness and meaninglessness in my life was the attempt to construct a reality by formulating a purpose statement and attempting to live up to it. Listening to the stories, poems and metaphors narrated by Omar Khan helped me move towards an ideal state defined by an articulated purpose statement, as per the heliotropic notion where certain flowers turn towards the direction of sunlight. I start having conversations with members of my family, colleagues and friends about the notion of purposeful living. I consult my inner self, which I refer to as the subconscious mind about the purposefulness of my choices. The word “subconscious” represents an Anglicized version of the French subconscient as coined by the psychologist Pierre Janet (1859-1947), who argued that underneath the layers of critical-thought functions of the conscious mind lay a powerful awareness that he called the subconscious mind.
I use appreciation to reinforce purposeful behaviour of others and myself. This description resonates with the theory of ‘Appreciative Inquiry’, where Bushe (2001, p.1) describes five different ways of thinking about how an appreciative inquiry can create change in social systems. These are the social construction of reality (articulating a purpose statement), heliotropic hypothesis (attracting the resources and energy required for purposeful living), the organizational inner dialogue (consulting the subconscious), paradoxical dilemmas (making choices) and appreciative process (reinforcing helpful behaviours). Each of these five aspects directs us to think about and implementing an appreciative inquiry practice about our purposefulness. The key data of appreciative inquiry are people’s stories. Therefore, when participants at our workshops hear stories of success about purposeful living of each other, that starts the healing process that leads to full recovery and growth. The length of the process and the level of success differs from person to person and therefore this theory of change requires further Inquiry.
An important lesson I have learnt during this work is about the difficulty in helping someone whose basic needs and security needs are not met, to be purposeful. These are the first two needs in Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. Perhaps the purpose of such people is to earn enough money and/or to have a support system to look after their basic and security needs. Commenting on the theory of motivation, Maslow claims; Such a theory should stress and centre itself upon ultimate or basic goals rather than partial or superficial ones, upon ends rather than means to these ends. Such a stress would imply a more central place for unconscious than for conscious motivations (Maslow 1943). This is an important point, where Maslow refers to a ‘ultimate or basis goal’, comes across to me as an ‘outcome’ (e.g. financial stability) and the ‘partial or superficial goals’ as the process (giving up smoking to save money towards financial stability). Where I defer in this claim, based on my own experience, is that being in the process and gaining satisfaction from the learning and growth it provides, is important in improving the possibility of achieving the end goals and therefore being in the process too could also have an impact on the unconscious. I also feel that establishing the reason why (higher purpose) for ultimate goals would motivate people to be in the process on behalf of the end goal and this point seem to be absent in Maslow’s work.
Although Maslow’s suggests that needs can differ from person to person based on what stage of life they are in, those who have grand goals such as travel the world, work for their dream company, obtain a Phd from a top university in the world etc., who are struggling to meet their basic need of financial survival, feels hopeless and depressed. I feel that understanding the higher purpose behind these goals and learning to be in the process of developing oneself, while dealing with the financial struggles could help them overcome their frustration.
Carl Jung who emerged as a healer from skills he acquired after having first attended to the wounds of his own soul, and started being his real self after he was free from the influence of Sigmund Freud (Dunne, 2002) is an example of a different nature. Jung a student of Freud perhaps discovered that his purpose was to heal wounded souls and chose to be Freud’s student as a path to his purpose. However, he found that he was over-influenced by Freud and was emotionally imprisoned by Freud. He then started rebelling against Freud and that struggle which resulted in him getting free from Freud helped him develop the skills to heal his own imprisoned soul. Therefore, sometimes we may take action that seems to be ‘right’ in the pursuit of living purposefully, but find that the path taken is painful and uncomfortable. Part of the journey is to learn new skills during the struggle, which stands in good stead to live a purposeful life once some clarity of what our purpose is emerges.
Many people I have discussed the notion of ‘purpose’ with, felt that ‘purpose’ was something very individualistic, about acquiring, about amassing, about achieving etc. This leads to frustration as one cannot fully decide what to acquire, achieve, and amass, and influence the desired outcome, without being in sync with the universal system they are connected to. This is explained by Carl Rogers, regarded as a founder of the humanistic approach to psychology, with the nineteen propositions of his theory, which cover areas related to ecological thinking and purposefulness, such as the existence of individuals (organisms) existing in a continually changing world of experience (phenomenal field), which they are the centre, reactions are based on the perception of an organized whole. Perception includes reality, goal directed behaviours, emotions, values, and self-structures (Rogers, 1951). Therefore, helping people to change their notion of purpose to be more ecological, holistic, mutual, mindful and oriented towards service to the process of life could help them liberate themselves from the materialistic rat race and find real peace and happiness.
People who do not understand this concept develop a false sense of hope, partly influenced by motivational speakers who show how easy it is to achieve any dream by being purposeful, positive etc. I have come across many such people, who could not achieve their dreams and have given up hope about life, lost faith in their religious beliefs, become cynical about anything bordering positivity and have even gone in to depression. A concept that helps make sense of this phenomena and provide a possible solution is based on Logotherapy introduced by Victor Frankl (Frankl 1985). Logotherapy is a meaning-centred psychotherapy, which focuses on the meaning to be fulfilled by the patient in his/her future. At the same time, Logotherapy defocuses all the vicious-circle formations and feedback mechanisms which play such a great role in the development of neuroses. Thus, the typical self-centeredness of the neurotic is broken up instead of being continually fostered and reinforced. While this kind of statement is an oversimplification; yet in Logotherapy the patient is actually confronted with and reoriented toward the meaning of his/her life. And to create aware of this meaning can contribute much to his/her ability to overcome neurosis. Frankle explains that he employed the term “Logotherapy” as the name for his theory based on Logos, a Greek word which denotes “meaning.” Logotherapy, or, as it has been called by some authors, “The Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy,” focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man’s search for such a meaning. According to Logotherapy, this striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man. That is why Frankle speaks of a will to meaning in contrast to the pleasure principle (or, as we could also term it, the will to pleasure) on which Freudian psychoanalysis is centred, as well as in contrast to the will to power on which Adlerian psychology, using the term “striving for superiority,” is focused.
The notion of ‘will to meaning’ resonates with my notion of ‘Purposefulness’ and being in the process of inquiring about meaning rather than the ‘outcome orientation’ synonymous with the Freudian pleasure principle or the striving for superiority based on Adlerian psychology. Therefore, people who are struggling with the inability to achieve goals could be helped by getting them focused on finding meaning, although my attempts show that it is not easy. Yet again the lack of ease of doing this work does not bother me as I believe it is helping me find meaning in my life. While this sounds quite selfish, I hope it will help me help other find meaning in their lives.
Bushe, G. R. (2001). Five theories of change embedded in appreciative inquiry. Cooperrider, D. Sorenson, P., Whitney, D. & Yeager, T.(eds.) Appreciative Inquiry: An Emerging Direction for Organization Development (117-127). Champaign, IL: Stipes.
Dunne, C. (2002). Carl Jung: Wounded Healer of the Soul: An Illustrated Biography. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning. Simon and Schuster.
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370.
Rogers, C. R. (1951). Client-Centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications, and Theory, with Chapters. Houghton Mifflin.
Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 5 – 14.