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Purpose in life: reconnecting to meaning & values

(This post on purpose in life: reconnecting to meaning & values, and tomorrow's on purpose in life: clarifying future goals & the challenges we will face in achieving them, have been combined into a handout that is downloadable both as a Word doc and as a PDF file)

I have already written a couple of posts recently on purpose in life - "Purpose in life: reduces dementia risk, increases life expectancy, treats depression and builds wellbeing" and "Purpose in life: how do you score on the questionnaire & why does it matter?".  In today's post I want to talk about how we can help ourselves and others clarify and connect more strongly to a sense of purpose in our lives.

I think many people often do have a fairly strong sense of purpose and clear values, but they may not have taken the time to realise that this is the case.  I typically talk to people (psychotherapy clients, friends, relatives) about their values before I ask about their goals.  I feel that values underpin goals.  So, in the post "The bus driver metaphor", I wrote: 1. The importance of values: It's hugely important for our health and wellbeing that we mostly focus on driving the bus (of our life) in the right direction. The "right direction" is determined by our values, by what truly matters to us. Our values are the compass bearing which we need to steer by. Values are things like "I want to live with courage and kindness", or "I want to look after my health", or "I want to prioritise those I love", or "I want to develop my interests and talents as far as I can". As the Hasidic rabbi, Susya said "When I get to heaven, God will not ask ‘Why were you not Moses?'. He will ask ‘Why were you not Susya? Why did you not become what only you could become?'" 2. Distinguishing values and goals: It's often helpful to distinguish values and goals. Values are likely to be compass bearings we use to steer by for many decades. We don't typically prioritise those we love for a while, or look after our health for a while, and then get to a place where we've arrived and can stop doing it. Our current goals however we may well reach. So we might want to arrange a surprise birthday party for our partner or train to run a marathon or target other goals that are an expression of our values. Hopefully we'll achieve these goals and then we'll want to make fresh ones. It's like driving on a particular compass bearing (values) and seeing that some way ahead in this direction is a landmark (goal) - maybe a tree or a hill - that we can steer towards for a while. The landmark is the goal we head for as we follow our values compass. When we reach it, we look ahead on our compass bearing for the next landmark to steer towards. Values are the way that we walk, the direction. Goals are checkpoints on the journey.  3. Values are not about the future, they're about now, today: This way of distinguishing ongoing values from checkpoint goals, leads to another realization. We live or don't live our values right now, today. Values (unlike goals) are not some destination that we're travelling towards. Values are the way that we are travelling, the way we make our journey. If my key values are to live with determination and courage, or with love and kindness - this is the direction, the way I want to travel. It's like saying "I've decided to travel North-West. This is the compass bearing I'm going to follow." I can start to follow the compass of my values right now. If I'm heading North-West right now, then I'm doing it. It's not something I have to wait for or work towards. It's now. As the Christian mystic Angelus Silesius put it (possibly rather over-bluntly) "'In good time we shall see God and his light' you say. Fool, you shall never see what you not see today!" While the founder of Soto Zen, Dogen, said "If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?" and the poet T. S. Eliot wrote "And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

So how can we clarify what our key values are?  It may be we simply know already, or we become clear very quickly once we start to think about it.  A fun, helpful exercise I often use here is "The respected figures" exercise (downloadable as a Word doc & as a PDF file).  Do try it if you haven't already come across it ... or even if you have, it can be well worth repeating occasionally.  The exercise is pretty self-explanatory.  I often get participants to do this exercise on the Life skills courses that I run and, while they're doing it, I often do it myself.  This means I've completed this "Respected figures" exercise many times.  I guess there's probably a collection of maybe ten to fifteen people from whom a variable group of five or so emerge as I jot names down onto the sheet.  These include relatives, friends and "famous" people.  What's interesting and reassuring is, whichever of these ten to fifteen names I write down, the values ... the key qualities I respect in the people ... stay pretty much the same year after year.  Courage to live our lives as truly & authentically as we can, clarity/intelligence/questioning/exploring, and compassion/kind-heartedness/love.  Warrior, Explorer, Healer.  Same strands year by year.  Fascinatingly, simply taking one of your top personal values and writing (or speaking) about it can nourish your resilience & wellbeing.  What does the value you've chosen mean to you?  Why is this value so personally important to you?  Can you describe an episode or a time in your life that illustrates how precious this value is for you?  Crocker & colleagues, in a paper published this year - "Two types of value-affirmation: Implications for self-control following social exclusion" - have shown that just writing for about 8 minutes in this way can have measurable effects on us.  To make a difference that can last more fully and longer, see the three blog posts starting with "Therapeutic writing (& speaking): inspiration from values".

I wrote in yesterday's post that Viktor Frankl - with his searing experience of living in a concentration camp - highlighted that meaning is not just about the future but is also very much about the present - "meaning in life is found in every moment of living; life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death." But in the next & last post in this series, I want to write about purpose and the goals we commit to in the future.


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