A couple of days ago I happened across an article in the New York Times stating that there was a link between having a purpose and your overall wellbeing. It really resonated with me. Indeed, I found myself thinking about it on several occasions since reading it, and therefore decided to jot down my immediate response to the piece and why it struck such a chord with me.
First and foremost, I find the piece is beautifully written. That’s a huge plus for me as an avid writer myself. I found myself being sucked into the article and really understanding what it was trying to say to me.
The piece links together the idea that as humans we need to have a purpose in our lives. For many of us, that’s work. But it also looked at the time we spent outside of work, or how people who were retired or otherwise didn’t have a standard 9 to 5 job injected meaning into their everyday lives. Some of the ways they did this included volunteering and taking on personal projects.
Two ideas struck a note…
Every time I found my thoughts flitting back to the article, I was primarily thinking about one of two things. Firstly, the idea of a purpose in our lives, almost a calling, that is what gets us up in the morning. As of a few months ago, I put on my big girl pants and took the leap into freelance life, leaving my cushy 9 to 5 for a life of unstable income and the unknown. When I was making the decision, I kept telling myself that I needed a challenge. Looking back, I probably would describe it as needing a purpose. I used to struggle to get up in the morning to go to a job where I wasn’t challenged and where, to be completely honest, I wasn’t putting all my skills to good use. I felt like I wasn’t really making a difference in the world.
I hate feeling like I’m wasted. I don’t know why, but I’ve always been acutely aware that there’s a finite amount of time on this planet. I’ve also felt that everyone has a unique set of skills that they can offer the world. For me, a little over a year ago, I suddenly realised that mine was writing. That’s not the only thing that I do, but it’s the one thing where I really feel 100% fulfilled and where I could potentially make a massive impact. I’ve always imagined myself in retirement, sitting in some lovely old style study, writing books or articles and drinking copious amounts of coffee. To be honest, I don’t know why I never realised that writing was my special thing sooner!
The link between your purpose and your health
Moving onto the second thing in that article, the link to health. More precisely, the link to mental health. Again, mental health is something I’ve been thinking about on and off for the last few months. So much emphasis is put on our physical health, too often we can forget about our minds. But now we see more workplaces (and society in general) paying attention to mental health and ending the stigma associated with it. Which can only be a good thing.
Before I made the decision to leave full-time work I was in a terrible place mentally. I was burnt out and feeling rather blue. The sheer strain of going to work and not feeling fulfilled took a big toll on my mental wellbeing. I spent months fretting over what to do and whether to take a chance on freelance life. There was a fear of going into another full-time role and finding the new company to be exactly the same as my current one that stopped me from looking for permanent roles. So in my head, it was freelance or nothing.
A lack of purpose and meaning in your life can do many things to your mental health. By feeling like I wasn’t being utilised well in my fulltime role, I pretty much felt next to useless. Imagine what that does to your self-esteem.
Looking at other cases
Now that’s just a personal experience. But when reading the article my mind flashed to several other people I’ve come across in my life and how their purpose (or lack thereof) shaped their lives.
I have two uncles in Malaysia who I met on a trip over there and they are chalk and cheese.
One of my uncles worked for the oil giant Petronas for pretty much his entire life. His job took him all over the world and he found great fulfilment in it. Having recently retired, he now dedicates all his time to raising his many grandchildren. In turn, all his children (save one) have gone on to work for Petronas. In his job, and now his grandchildren, my uncle has found a purpose for his life and something for him to dedicate his time and energy to. Indeed, he’s probably one of the most proactive and energetic members of my family despite pushing 70.
On the other hand, my other uncle hasn’t led a very productive life. That might sound a bit harsh, but for as long as I’ve known him he has seemed to be aimlessly living each day, with nothing to do. This uncle has had a gambling problem for my whole life, and probably most of his. He’s almost a shadow of a man. He now lives alone, with many family members avoiding his company because of his angry outbursts and bitter comments. My mum once told me that he was a brilliant man. But he never got to fulfil his potential and that was what made him the man he is today. Probably the most important lesson I got from him was this: that even if life sucks and pushes you down, you’ve got to get back up again, otherwise, you’ll forever live your life with resentment and regret.
Speaking of my mum, she’s another who has found her life’s purpose through her many businesses. My work ethic and drive to succeed boils down completely to her. Her life is her work. But this also means she cannot really ever retire. In fact, she’s coming up to retirement age and our family have been floating the idea to her for a while now. I know she fears doing nothing. So far, her plan is to write a book (sounds familiar!) and travel.
On a slightly different track, my partner’s mum offers another good example of finding a purpose. She’s been retired for the last couple of decades. A couple of years ago she lost her husband. Up until then, they’d been enjoying retirement together. With him gone, her reason for getting up in the morning diminished. Fearing that she might never leave the house again and instead spiral into depression, we got her a puppy. They say dogs are man’s best friend. Coco is one old lady’s reason for being.
A lack of purpose can lead to other problems
These are just a few examples that I’ve come across, but in them, I already see many different types of purpose and what a lack of it can do to your psyche. Another thing I’ve experienced when I’ve had a lack of purpose is that everything becomes so much harder to do. If you have no reason to get up in the morning, even doing basic household chores or going to dentist appointments is instrumentally harder. It just seems like having that core reason for being is what holds everything else together. If you don’t have it, or you lose it, then getting enough momentum takes a great deal of effort. Plus it can spiral. After a few months of lacking purpose, you’ll find it a lot harder to dig yourself out of the negative mental health hole you wind up in. Remember I mentioned the impact on my self-esteem? Well, by switching things up and going freelance, plus by winning clients and getting good feedback for my work, that’s finally being rebuilt.
But I can see it happening in others too. People who feel stuck in their jobs or who haven’t found a career that works for them. I now wake up every day and no matter how it goes, I end up thanking my lucky stars that I chose to work for myself. Yes, there’s ups and downs like any job, but the overarching feeling that I get now is that I am using all of my skills, learning new ones and fulfilling what I think I was put on the planet for. Having a purpose is the best wake-up call you can get.
So what do you think? Have you found your purpose? What (if anything) has it done for your health? Do you believe that there is a link between your purpose and your overall wellbeing?