A Life Well Lived: Happiness vs. Purpose

Image credit: Trans4Mind

As part of my executive recruiting and consulting work, I have the pleasure of speaking with several seasoned professionals per week who are in some stage of “transition” in their personal and professional lives. While this has been accelerated by the COVID pandemic, the trend was in play even before the novel coronavirus upended our lives. Interestingly, even folks whose employment is stable are finding themselves in a very introspective and reflective place, questioning the extent to which their current efforts and commitments support outcomes that matter in some larger context vs. outcomes that simply achieve performance objectives or some other unsustainable definition of professional success. Certainly, the existential and life-changing nature of a global pandemic has pushed some of us to this place of introspection, but as with other trends, COVID-19 is probably more of an accelerant than a change agent in its own right.

When someone says they are looking for a professional change, I first ask them if they are just looking for a new job or if they are interested in exploring what they actually want to be true in their lives. Eight out of ten times the flood gates open and 45 minutes later they’ve shared a story of deep dissonance and conflict about what they’d like to be true vs. what is actually true.

The reality is that the youngest baby boomers and oldest millenials are now at a place where they have invested many years and even decades in professional careers, and starting even before the pandemic, many were beginning to ask themselves if all the long hours, sweat and sacrifices were time and effort well spent. Perhaps not surprisingly, a majority of the folks I talk to have come to the conclusion that if they had it all to do over again, they would focus less on things like status, money, climbing the professional ladder, and creating an image of the hard working, “I can do it all” professional, and more time and effort on things that support sustainability, wellness, human relationships, and make the world a better place. Many feel dissonance simply because so much of their work lives have been dedicated to other peoples’ agendas, often in environments in which values and culture were/are often misaligned with their own.

It’s not by chance that there is an almost universal “crisis of purpose” that hits people in mid life. The cumulative effect of living and working for decades in the absence of purpose, which is common in the Western world, where people frequently live to work rather than work to live, is to find oneself exhausted and divorced from a sense of meaning in employment. Most of us have accepted a Faustian pact which suggests that if we just work long enough and hard enough, we will be rewarded. The problem is that even when that comes true (and it often doesn’t), the rewards are usually material, which although “nice,” do not support the humanity in ourselves or others.

While there is a spectrum of reflection and dissonance from folks who are in outright crisis on the one hand vs. others who just don’t feel good about where they are and are actively thinking about how to change that, my sense is that the discord has become palpable for a very large percentage of people. This discord has likely been exacerbated by significant overlaying issues such as political divisiveness, climate change, racial disharmony, etc. I recently wrote an article about how this is affecting our mental health, which you can see here.

For some, the challenge is about how they can make a difference, while for others, who’ve done well professionally and financially, it falls under how they can “give back” after many years of nose to the grindstone work. Regardless, the status quo is no longer working for many of us. I suspect that part of the problem is that we were all sold a bill of goods about what “success” in life and work was supposed to look like. Many of us have also probably gone down the wrong path in our pursuit of a “good life,” which in the West at least, is unsustainably based on things like never-ending material acquisitions and pursuit of status, which we’ve erroneously thought would lead to happiness. In fact, happiness itself may not even be the right objective.

To paraphrase the great poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, the key to a life well-lived is not happiness. It’s purpose. He goes on to say that it should make a difference that you have lived. Based on the many, many people with whom I’ve communicated (if not commiserated) over the last several months, it’s clear that what most of us are doing now is not working in terms of feeling validated and nourished in our professional lives. We seem to be intuitively feeling what Emerson said—that without some meaningful purpose, hard work or possessions or status by themselves will not provide us spiritual sustenance. For the many folks who wake up one day realizing that they have not been sustained by purpose or achieved “happiness,” that can be a jarring and disconcerting realization.

For me personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that my efforts need to primarily be driven by the extent to which my relationships with others are additive and positive for them as well as the extent to which my own efforts make the world a better place. Of course, that is aspirational, but it seems to provide far more internal consonance, and a much more admirable vision, than what I built much of my previous career on. Fortunately, I have often “done well by doing good,” but I’ve also given the best of myself at times to other peoples’ agendas, more than once in organizations whose values did not align with my own.

Making a change is not easy because it also requires a reassessment of things we’ve built deep narratives around such as what success looks like, what really matters to us (time, relationships, things, status, integrity, etc.), and what changes we’re willing to accept in the way we live our lives, since trading money for time or status for wellness will have downstream implications that go beyond creating greater consonance and purpose. On the other hand, when it’s all said and done, the only thing you leave behind of value is your legacy. How many hours you worked, what your title was, or how much you paid for your car will not only be irrelevant, if that’s your legacy, then it may not “make a difference that you lived.” Ouch.

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