“One path to happiness is through living a life on purpose”
The biggest contributor to my unhappiness and dissatisfaction before I left, on what was to become an epic cycling pilgrimage to Bhutan, was my inability to find purpose in what I was doing in my daily life. I could have easily written and published another academic article about happiness and well-being, but what was the point?
I thought that by cycling to Bhutan I could make my life feel purposeful again. It was to be a journey as much about purpose as it was happiness, and along the way I found much of both. Yet the depth to which I came to understand something of my life purpose was very unexpected.
The importance of purpose
The search for, and presence of, purpose and meaning in life is a major existential dilemma for most humans. The presence of meaning in one’s life explains close to 50% of an individual’s happiness. Yet what does it mean to live a purposeful life – how do we find purpose? Sadly, there does not seem to be much guidance as to how to live one’s life purposefully, nor does there really seem all that much public recognition as to just how important having purpose in our lives really is.
It is often much easier to push away or side-step personal and collective concerns about purpose, and just get on with it, but in doing so, do we also give up on a more fulfilling type of happiness?
The purpose of my journey was about exploring happiness. That purpose gave my journey direction. I explored happiness through the deep connections I made with many people throughout the world, I learnt some profound insights about happiness that I would otherwise not have learnt, and I brought attention to ideas about happiness that I had been struggling to do as an academic.
These things alone were everything that I had hoped would come from my trip.
Creating conditions to allow human flourishing
What surprised me, however, was that I have also returned with a strong sense of life purpose that transcends my journey to Bhutan. A sense of purpose that not only encompasses the time I spent academically researching happiness and well-being, but also, unbeknownst to me at the time, many of my life choices even before that. I have no doubt that this deeper sense of purpose will help guide me in my life from here on.
Every human being needs an environment which allows them to flourish; that is, allows them to be exactly who they need to be, reaching their full potential of experiencing positive emotions, social and psychological functioning. And, so long as that doesn’t encroach on others abilities to also flourish, each human, I believe, deserves that.
I would like to be part of a society in which there are conditions that enable more flourishing (including non-humans). My purpose is to take the necessary steps to foster conditions that might enable that for more people. That was my intention behind why I wrote academic papers. That was my intention behind cycling to Bhutan. Though that deeper purpose lay mostly hidden from me.
(a clear purpose behind this widely read piece that I wrote for The Conversation)
A life on purpose
Now I have received this clarity around purpose, being neither an academic nor cycling to Bhutan are objectives I have needed to pursue in and of themselves. Instead they seem more like strategies that may have helped, and could still help, with that deeper purpose that many hours on a bicycle in various parts of the world have helped me realise.
Now that I am back, scary and challenging though that has often been, I sit with a wealth of ideas about what I could do next – going back to writing more papers, continuing to cycle and writing things like this, re-training as a mental health professional, sharing my journey more fully through talks or a book, exploring and sharing a communication practice. . .
I am experiencing a strong temptation to deal with the anxiety I feel by just doing something, anything. That has been a powerful driver for me in the past and I would like to avoid too much of that anxiety manifesting in the decisions I now make. Instead, connection to my deeper purpose reminds me to slow down. I want to take the time to figure out what is the best way for me to use the gifts that I have been bestowed with to meet this deeper purpose. Therein lies my own ability to flourish.
***I am back in Scotland and still on my bicycle. I am roaming about between Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Stirling, meeting up and talking with people. I intend to keep doing this until I find clarity on “what next?”. Though that big “what next?” may never come and that is OK because I am taking the time to be fully present in the conversations I have with others. I am in many senses flourishing, and I can’t help but also notice how simply being fully present with another creates something of a shared flourishing. I am becoming more aware of what I am and what I have to give to others in the simplest of ways by just being.