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WHEN ALBERT EINSTEIN reached 70, he retired. He had reached his goals, assumed he had expended his usefulness to the world, and retired. He didn't set any new goals. He became depressed and listless, as people often do when they no longer have a sense of purpose. He stopped taking his dog for walks. Life lost its luster.

Then one day he realized it might not be over; he might still have something to contribute to the world. He decided to do two things:

1. develop a plan to control the destructive use of atomic power

2. to discover peacetime uses for atomic power

He came alive! The luster was back. He took his dog for walks again. He had a purpose. And as a result of his decisions and the ensuing efforts he made to make those goals a reality, medical and electrical uses for atomic power were found. He gave speeches and helped stir up interest in a worldwide police force that eventually culminated in the founding of the United Nations.

"Nothing contributes so much to tranquilizing the mind," wrote Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly, "as a steady purpose — a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye."

It is physically and psychologically healthy for a human being to have a strong sense of purpose. The state of mind you have when you're absorbed in the accomplishment of a purpose is called "flow," which is an engaged, pleasant state of focus. Those who have learned to develop a sense of purpose and who have learned to become engrossed in the achievement of purposes are the most likely to be happy and healthy. This has been shown in scientific studies and in everyday observations. Happy people are purposeful people because the most reliable self-created source of happiness is taking action along a strongly-held purpose.

Flow has been the subject of quite a bit of research. For example, swimmers who experienced flow while training made the most progress by the end of the training. In other words, experiencing frequent flow allowed them to develop their ability faster.

Another study accentuated those findings. It found that of all the things that influence how successful a person might become in their sport or skill — in whatever field — the most influential factor was how much flow they experienced while doing it. In other words, the amount of absorption they had was the best predictor of who would develop their talent the most.

A sense of purpose brings out the best in people. In his book, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys, Michael Collins wrote about the enthusiasm of the people in the Apollo space program in 1964. "…the goal was clearly and starkly defined," wrote Collins. "Had not President Kennedy said before the end of the decade?"

They had a clear goal that the people at NASA were excited about. The moon! The impossible goal! The goal they said could never be done! People showed up early, worked hard, and stayed late. As Collins put it, "People knew that each day was one day closer to putting man on the moon…" This is the electrifying power of a strong sense of purpose.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the principle researchers into flow, says we usually see work as a necessary evil, and we feel leisure is what we want: time on our hands. Free time. Time with nothing to do. We long for it. And yet, he says, "free time is more difficult to enjoy than work." Or as Jerome K. Jerome put it, "It is impossible to enjoy idling unless there is plenty of work to do."

Work provides clear goals more often than leisure and a clear goal is the first and most important requirement of flow. If you want to experience flow, you must have a purpose. Work provides a purpose. It provides something to become absorbed in, so it provides opportunities for flow. To get flow from leisure, you have to provide the purpose. Many people don't know that, which means many people don't get much enjoyment from their coveted leisure; it isn't satisfying like they wish it would be. Some even suffer during leisure.

Sandor Ferenczi, a psychoanalyst in the early 1900's discovered that anxiety and depression occurred more often on Sundays than any other day of the week. Since that time, many observers have noticed that vacations and retirement also tend to produce anxiety and depression. When we are not on the job — when we are not given a clear purpose — many of us are feel adrift and don't know what's missing. Clearly, a large percentage of people don't have a strong sense of purpose for their off time, and it's a shame. Purpose is king.

A purpose to sink your teeth into gives your mind a healthy, productive focus and prevents it from drifting into negativity. Without goals, wrote Csikszentmihalyi, "the mind begins to wander, and more often than not it will focus on unresolvable problems that cause anxiety."

 

POWER OF CAUSE

Goals put you in a causal position rather than a victim position and that is good for your psychological well-being. In the book, Survive The Savage Sea — the true story of a family who survived a shipwreck — the author and father of the family, Dougal Robertson, describes how their whole attitude changed when they shifted from "hoping for rescue" to "we're going to get ourselves to shore on our own; we're going to survive."

A ship was cruising by fairly close, seven days after their boat sank. They spotted it from their life raft. They lit off flares and yelled at the top of their lungs and waved their shirts in the air, but the ship sailed right on by. They were heartbroken.

Dougal looked at his empty flare cartons bitterly and, "something happened to me in that instant, that for me changed the whole aspect of our predicament," he wrote. "If these poor bloody seamen couldn't rescue us, then we would have to make it on our own and to hell with them. We would survive without them, yes, and that was the word from now on, 'survival' not 'rescue' or 'help' or dependence of any kind, just survival. I felt the strength flooding through me, lifting me from the depression of disappointment to a state of almost cheerful abandon."

Purpose has an almost magical quality. It can imbue us with extraordinary ability. It can make us almost superhuman — more capable than humans in an ordinary state.

Ulysses S. Grant was writing his biography near the end of his life. His publisher was Mark Twain. Even though Grant was famous and had been President, he was broke. Twain had assured him there was a market for the book if he could finish it. Grant had cancer and was dying. But he couldn't die. He had something to accomplish. It was very important to him to finish this book and do a good job because his wife would be destitute otherwise.

So he persisted. When he could no longer write, he dictated. Doctors said he might not live more than two or three weeks, but like I said, purpose has a mysterious power, and Grant continued dictating until he finished. He died five days after he completed his manuscript. And, by the way, Twain was right: The book, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, was very successful and is even to this day considered one of the best military memoirs ever written, and Grant's wife was set for life.

Charles Schulz declared many months ahead of time when he was going to end his comic strip. His last strip was published Sunday. The night before, Schulz died in his sleep.

After his family was shipwrecked, Dougal Robertson started adding up their stock. He discovered they had enough food and water to last them ten days. They were two hundred miles downwind and downcurrent from the Galapagos Islands: an impossible feat to get there. They were 2800 miles from the Marquesas Islands, but without a compass or means of finding their position, their chance of missing the islands was enormous. The Central American coast was a thousand miles away, but they had to make it through the windless Doldrums. They wouldn't be missed by anyone for five weeks, and nobody would have the slightest idea of where to start looking anyway, so waiting for rescue would have been suicide.

There were two possible places to be rescued by shipping vessels. One four hundred miles south; the other three hundred miles north.

Having roused himself enough to assess his situation accurately, his heart sank again. Their true and accurate situation wasn't very hopeful. His wife, Lyn, saw the look on his face and put her hand on his. She said simply, "We must get these boys to land."

This singular, clear purpose focused his mind the whole journey. The thought kept coming back to him, spurring him on, making him try when it seemed hopeless. This is the power of a definite, heartfelt purpose. They made it to shore alive.

THE MEANING OF LIFE

Purpose gives meaning to your life. In many ways, your purpose is the meaning of your life. That gives this subject a superimposing importance.

Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist in Germany when Hitler took power, and he spent many years struggling to stay alive in concentration camps. During that time, he lost his wife, his brother, and both his parents — they either died in the camps or were sent to the gas chambers. He lost every possession he ever owned. Because he already knew a lot about psychology and then experienced these extreme circumstances — and even managed to find meaning in his struggle — his slim book, Man's Search for Meaning, is definitely worth reading. His perspective on finding meaning in life is different from any other I have encountered. He writes:

The meaning of life differs from person to person, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion, "Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?" There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one's opponent. The same holds true for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment.

I love that line: "…to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment." And Frankl gives many good examples of what he means. For example, he tried to keep his fellow prisoners from committing suicide. The Nazi camps strictly forbid prisoners from stopping someone who was killing himself. If you cut down a fellow prisoner who was in the process of hanging himself, you (and probably everyone in your bunkhouse) would be severely punished. So Frankl had to catch people before they actually attempted to kill themselves. This, he felt, was a concrete assignment which demanded fulfillment. He was a psychiatrist and was the most qualified to answer this call from life.

The men would often confide in Frankl, since he was a psychiatrist. At two different times, two men told him they had decided to commit suicide. Both of them offered the same reason: They had nothing more to expect from life. All they could expect was endless suffering, starvation, torture, and in the end, probably the gas chamber.

"In both cases," wrote Frankl, "it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them." After talking with the men, he found one of them was a scientist who had written several volumes of a book, but the project was incomplete. It couldn't be finished by anyone else. The other man had a child in another country waiting for him.

Each of our lives is unique. The concrete assignment needing to be fulfilled is different for every person. And Frankl found that a person would not commit suicide once they realized their specific obligation to life — that life expected something of them.

Michael W. Fox, a veterinarian and author of Superdog: Raising the Perfect Canine Companion, was a lover of animals, as most kids are. One day he was walking home from school when he looked through a fence and saw a ghastly sight. It was the backyard of a veterinary clinic, and there was a large trash bin overflowing with dead dogs and cats. "I never knew the reason for this mass extermination," Fox said, "but I was, from that time on, committed to doing all I could to help animals, deciding at age nine that I had to be a veterinarian." Here was a concrete assignment life had presented to Fox, and he answered the call. He became a veterinarian and has done what he could to reduce the suffering of animals. He has spent his life educating people, writing books, and lobbying to create new legislation that reflects more respect for animals.

Dr. Seuss had a mission when he started. He wanted to turn children on to reading. "Before Seuss," wrote Peter Bernstein, "too many children's writers seemed locked into plots that ended with a heavy-handed call to obey one's elders. By the 1950s, educators were warning that America was losing a whole generation of readers." Dr. Seuss wanted to do something about that. And he did. He wrote books kids wanted to read. The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and forty-six others which have sold over two hundred million copies worldwide.


YOU MUST HAVE A GOAL

During the Korean War, the Chinese government systematically tried to brainwash the U.S. POWs. Their methods included deprivation and torture, and the captives suffered tremendously. At one point, in one of the prison camps, three-fourths of the POWs had died. Things were incredibly bleak for the rest of them, and they were all feeling desperate and hopeless.

Then one man said to the others, "We've got to stay alive, we've got to let others know about the horrors of Communism. We've got to live to bring back the armies and fight these evil people. Communism must not win!"

This was a turning point for every man there because their meaningless struggle was transformed into a mission. Simply staying alive against the odds was their goal. Their despair was turned into resolve. Their hopelessness was turned into determination. And their death rate went way down.

Speaking again of his experience in a concentration camp, Frankl wrote, "As we said before, any attempt to restore a man's inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal...Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost."

Sometimes it takes a scientific study to prove the obvious. At least you find out that what you think is self-evident is actually true. Researchers at New York State Psychiatric Institute asked an unusual question of suicidal people. Rather than asking what makes them want to die, the researchers asked what makes them want to live?

They studied eighty-four people suffering major depression trying to determine why thirty-nine of them had never attempted to kill themselves. The study revealed that age, sex, religious persuasion or education level did not predict who would attempt suicide. But not having a reason to live did predict it rather well. The depressed patients who perceived life as more worth living were less likely to attempt to kill themselves.

click here for part two

Author: Adam Khan
author of the books, Self-Help Stuff That Works and Antivirus For Your Mind
and creator of the blog:
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