On purpose

I have recently returned from a leadership development course at Harvard in Boston where I was joined by 164 other participants from 30 other countries. This course is only run twice a year and it was a personally very rewarding week providing not only for new experiences but also providing clarity around my previously held beliefs.

The great thing about having such a diverse attendance is that you get to experience the commonalities that we share as human beings and I came away thinking that despite our diverse backgrounds we are much more alike than we are different.

There were many topics and case studies covered over the week but one that really stuck with me was the topic of what provided us with happiness. In particular the difference between pleasure and purpose in providing us with meaningful happiness in our lives.

The case study was of Victor Frankl who was an Austrian Jewish psychiatrist who despite being approved to emigrate to the USA at the start of World War 2, decided to stay to support his elderly parents who he knew would die or be killed without his support as anti Semitic sentiment grew. All ended up in a Nazi concentration camps, including Victor’s pregnant wife. Victor ultimately survived but unfortunately his parents, his wife and unborn child all perished. He wrote a now famous book called Man’s Search for Meaning about his experiences in the camps.

He continued his psychiatric work inside the camps and his clear assessment was that those who felt they had a meaningful purpose in their lives were more likely to survive in the camps than those who didn’t. Given that they had been stripped of nearly all their physical possessions, all they really had to support themselves was their attitude to life and what was a meaningful purpose to them and thus a reason to keep living. Those who perceived they had nothing to look forward to were much more likely to perish.

We then explored the concept of purpose versus pleasure in providing happiness in our lives.

Examples of the two are that for many of us our families and close friends provide us with purpose and meaning in our lives even when things are difficult. Studies have shown that parents of young children are often very unhappy and challenged through this period of their lives because they are exhausted and it was not what they were expecting it to be like. They keep going because of their higher purpose of raising a happy family despite their day to day struggles.

On the the flip side, short term pleasures rarely provide meaningful happiness. They are just distractions. Getting drunk, buying pretty things and travelling to exotic places can all provide us with short term pleasure but as soon as you sober up, get used to the new purchase or return home, the pleasure wears off as does the happiness we temporarily felt around those events.

Knowing the difference between these two concepts can be very empowering.

When surveyed, the participants in the course determined that service to others provided them with the most meaning in their lives. This can take many forms. Whether it’s supporting your family, friends, colleagues or even your clients all can provide a higher purpose in your life, which in turn provides a substantial level of satisfaction as you receive thanks and a feeling of being needed, vital and loved. Volunteering for worthy causes only exists because it has such a positive and satisfying effect on those who do it. Often this support and effort can be challenging at times but the overall pursuit is worth it.

For me personally it clarified why I work to provide a great life for my family, why I love seeing my work colleagues grow personally within our business, why I run the local music festival each year and teach kids to surf each summer in the Nipper program. There are plenty of individual days I don’t enjoy it because it takes effort but overall the results are worth it and it provides me with purpose and meaning, even if I hadn’t completely realised it until now.

Interestingly there were a lot of participants at this course, most of who were very successful in their corporate lives who realised that they were unsatisfied in their lives due to this lack of higher purpose. They realised that the financial rewards they had been focused on up until now was just not providing the meaningful purpose that is missing in their lives. It was actually a confronting realisation for some.

The positive thing is that they now have clarity around the difference between pleasure and purpose and can now identify ways to improve that part of their lives. It does take effort, it does take some self exploration and most of all it takes complete honesty with yourself to determine what you need to change. Although this can be challenging the research is very clear that it will be very much worth the effort.

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