I recently heard a woman from the Hoover Institute at Stanford University speak about the elusiveness of happiness in today’s world. It seems that we humans are seeking peace and joy for ourselves more than ever and somehow our searches are leaving us empty handed. In a time when we should be feeling more comfortable and joyful than ever, we are ironically filled with anxiety and guilt. Instead of groping aimlessly for answers, we should realize that true contentment is generally found in leading a purposeful life, but what is that actually, and how do we find it?
Purpose has as its object the finding of meaning or a grand design in life. It is going to be different for each of us. Unfortunately we are surrounded by many so called experts who seem intent on undermining our individual efforts to define what is most important, complicating our attempts to find ourselves in a world that can be quite cruel if it thinks that we have chosen unwisely. We are encouraged to use our talents well and often doing so involves being all things to many different people. We have many unique responsibilities, possibilities and characteristics that make us tick. The process of determining how to live can be quite overwhelming unless we are strong enough to follow our own hearts rather than the dictates of others.
I myself have been utterly confused from time to time as I mapped out a pathway for my personal existence. I wanted to be a writer but was told again and again by well meaning adults that thinking of myself as a word smith was a frivolous and self centered activity that would never amount to much. I decided to become a teacher but was often reminded that I might have been a doctor or a lawyer and made more of an impact on the world. I also felt a compelling sense of responsibility to my family which I believed should always come first. It was difficult and confusing to balance all of my personal desires with the needs and ideas of everyone else. It was only when I found out what gave me a real sense of purpose that I found the contentment that I sought.
I prefer the immaterial rewards of teaching to those that are monetary. I am altruistic by nature and need to feel a strong sense of meaning in my work. I have felt the most comfortable with myself in knowing that I have attempted to do my best to care for my loved ones and friends. I have learned how to carve out time to fulfill my desire to write alongside my life’s work. In other words I have found purpose along many different avenues and that has brought me much joy. Being myself has been a process of trial and error, satisfaction and disappointment. I have learned much about myself along the way and that self knowledge has helped me to know what I must do.
Because something works for one person does not necessarily mean that it will work for another. One need not seek careers in service to others to find happiness, nor is joy necessarily found in the more creative ventures. Sometimes the mundane is a font of delight for some folks.
My grandmother was the epitome of contentment and yet her life was built around an unchanging routine of cooking, sewing and gardening. She found true elation in rolling biscuits with the precision of a master chef. She marveled at the gifts of nature when she strode through the rows of vegetables that she had planted, wearing her sunbonnet and overalls like Paris fashions. She created quilts and crocheted tablecloths worthy of kings with little more than feed sacks and her imagination as her tools of the trade. She always wore a smile of satisfaction on her face.
My sister-in-law spent a lifetime working as an engineer in a world that was dominated by men when she first dared to enter it. By the time she retired she had done wondrous things and pioneered the role of women in a field that had once been hostile to her. She reveled in the challenges, determined to prove that women can be leaders in unconventional careers while still successfully raising a family. She fulfilled all of her desires in a very different way from me and my grandmother.
I have found that the key for anyone is to do what makes him/her excited about getting started each day. When that sense of expectation is missing, so will the joy be absent. Far too many people feel like drones in a beehive, working for the man rather than for themselves. They fear admitting their discontent and making the changes that they need to find relevance in the way they spend their days. It takes great courage to face down the devil of misery but the rewards for doing so are immeasurable, even when the whole world may see the move as being irresponsible or ridiculous.
I was only eight when my father died, but old enough to notice that he didn’t appear to like his work. He was a mechanical engineer who often switched jobs and who spoke longingly of other fields that he might have entered. He was the bread winner for our family and he had spent years getting his degree. I suppose that he felt honor bound to continue in his work even though it was seemingly joyless for him. He was a man of so many talents and perhaps he simply needed to try something a bit different but he never got or created the opportunity to do so.
I know a man who was also an engineer who left that career path to become a teacher. He is an extraordinarily talented educator who found his true vocation in a classroom. He has won awards for his ability to motivate youngsters and best of all he has discovered his niche, his purpose. He walks through life with a huge grin on his face. There were those who thought that he had lost his mind when he first announced his intention to change professions but his transformation from misery to elation has convinced even his biggest detractors of the reasoning behind his move.
Each of us has a special role to fulfill in this world. If we manage to find a perfect match for our talents and our interests our lives will be transformed. We all need to encourage those who are seeking satisfying destinies, not by insisting that they follow traditional routes but by supporting them as they try the things that make them feel most alive. Happiness is indeed found in purpose, in finding the justification for our existence. We must explore as we seek answers for not just how to live, but why. When we unravel that glorious personal puzzle we experience a sense of happiness that is indescribable. Everyone should enjoy such a discovery.