Purposeful Living: The Key to Long-term Happiness and Success

Donald NorfolkAbraham Maslow, the pioneer Humanist psychologist, spent a lifetime studying people who’d come close to achieving their full intellectual, emotional and physical potential. ‘In all cases, at least in our culture,’ he affirmed, ‘they are dedicated people devoted to some task outside themselves, some vocation or duty or beloved job.’ We achieve fulfilment, and give purpose to our lives, through our personal commitments. What that commitment is matters little. For some it may be maintaining a magnificent garden, for others running a local scout group, raising a family or researching the family history. To be at our functional best we need to be active participants in the pageant of life rather than passive observers. Every morning we should wake up eager to pursue our chosen goals and perform our self-selected schedule of tasks.

This firm sense of purpose helps to keep us alert and alive, as was shown when a study was made of Jews living in New York and Budapest. This revealed that the anticipation of a meaningful event – a landmark birthday or the celebration of Yom Kippur – can lead to a notable drop in the death rate. As the sociologist who led the project concluded: ‘Some people look forward to witnessing certain important occasions and are able to put off death in order to do so.’ Having a keen sense of purpose also helps to preserve our mental health. This was the experience of Carl Jung, the world famous psychoanalyst, who reported in Modern Man in Search of a Soul: ‘About a third of my cases are suffering from no clearly definable neurosis, but from the senselessness and emptiness of their lives. This can be described as the general neurosis of our time.’

To give life meaning we must have a sense of purpose. This determination, and sense of commitment, can help preserve our lives especially when the going gets tough. Psychological interviews with American soldiers returning from prisoner-of-war camps in North Vietnam showed that the men who had been most successful in maintaining their cheerfulness and mental health were those who’d managed to maintain a sense of purpose during their captivity. Some had set themselves the task of keeping fit.  Others organised competitions and games, invented things, studied the behaviour of insects, or simple matched their wits with the Vietcong guards. These meaningful activities helped to elevate their mood, probably by altering their output of neuro-hormones such as noradrenalin and monoamine oxidase.

Commitment is a perennial source of happiness, longevity and personal fulfilment. To live life to the full we need to be wholeheartedly committed to a cause outside ourselves. Thomas Edison was one of the world’s most prolific workers, credited with over a thousand separate inventions including the incandescent lamp, the phonograph and an early movie camera. Often he would spend eighteen hours a day in his laboratory where, to save time, he would eat and sleep. Yet towards the end of his career he could look back on his life and say with total honesty: ‘I never did a day’s work in my life: it was all fun.’ Some people think our destiny depends on luck, having the right genetic make-up, or the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. But these are only aids to help us reach our appointed goals. As Montaigne observed: ‘No wind favours him who has no destined port’. This was the experience of T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oil billionaire, who spent forty years building up Mesa Petroleum, one of the world’s leading oil companies. At the age of eighty he altered course, having decided that the day of fossil fuels was over. In future his goal would be to launch a firm reliant on developing green energy sources. He attributes his success in this new venture to following his father’s favourite adage: ‘A fool with a plan can outsmart a genius with no plan.’

© Donald Norfolk 2010


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