Keys to More Contented Living, Part 2: PURPOSE!

The second key to contented living is Purpose. Purpose is the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning. It provides a channel for passion. One might have multiple Purposes. Generally speaking, one can arrive at his or her Purpose(s) by thinking about goals and then zooming out to find the greater good being attempted. Some examples include: to help others, to work hard, to connect with others, to earn the respect of others, to create, to love passionately, to grow the healthy self, to be a good parent and/or spouse, to lead a spiritual life, to manage life's challenges with grace, etc. It's my belief that living with purpose(s) leads to a more content life. Let's look at how Purposes look different from Goals (goal-setting being highly touted in our society) and then examine why living with intention around your Purpose(s) works. 

How living with Purpose differs from living to accomplish a Goal

Goals are tangible, measurable accomplishments we try to achieve at a given point in the future. As such, they become another distinct marker of success or failure. If not approached carefully, goals can get co-opted by our propensity for black and white thinking; meet a goal, you're a success...fail to meet a goal, you're a failure. This is a risk. The real issue here, in my opinion, is that goals are typically celebrated only after they are achieved, and then another goal is quickly set and the past accomplishment is forgotten. As a result, there is little opportunity left on a day-to-day basis to celebrate one's good work. For those with eating disorders or other mental health struggles, goal-setting is especially tricky, because disorders are excellent at coming up with goals that serve their own purposes. Remember that numbers, rigid thinking, and tangible markers of progress can be easily co-opted by one's disordered parts.

Purposes are something you wake up and work with every single morning. One can actualize purpose in many micro-moments throughout his or her day. For this reason, living with Purpose offers many more opportunities for celebration and positive reinforcement. Because this motivator is harder to quantify, it becomes less likely to be storied as a failure. There are numerous opportunities to get back on the horse. You can sleep soundly each night, knowing you lived that day with your purpose(s) in mind. What are some Purposes in your life?

Why living with Purpose works

Purpose gets us out of our heads and into relationship with the world. As such, we're less likely to spin around our critical thoughts and feel isolated from others or alone in the world. Living with purpose creates connections that help us feel more grounded and present. Because Purpose is more generalized than a specific goal, we can even connect with others around our common purposes.

Here's the cool part of it: Approaching each day with purpose will ultimately lead to accomplishing goals. By shifting our attention to the purposes in our lives, we focus on the process and not the end result. As a result, we not only feel more content, but I believe we set ourselves up for greater and more frequent achievements.

 

Follow-up and Hypothesis Related to Key 1: Play

Before starting in on the second Key to Contented Living (which I will post soon), I wanted to offer some thoughts as follow-up to Part 1, which outlined the importance of play. I'm typically not one for sports analogies, references, or metaphors, but this just felt very appropriate to Key 1 and possibly illuminating in terms of offering another added benefit of approaching activities with a play mentality, rather than uber-competitiveness, extreme focus, or seriousness.

Leading up to Super Bowl 50, Cam Newton (phenom quarterback of the Carolina Panthers) had been receiving lots of feedback from the press/media which could basically be summarized with these kinds of sentiments: "Newton doesn't take the game seriously enough", "Cam will have to get more serious and focused to lead the Panthers to a win at the Super Bowl", etc...

Well, for those of you who watched that game and/or read the subsequent commentary on it, Newton's focus and serious approach in the Super Bowl stood out in stark comparison to the fun-loving, playful way he had approached games all season.

Now, I admittedly hadn't watched the Panthers play all season (or any football team for that matter!*) but apparently Newton had quite the reputation for big smiles, celebratory dances, and a fun-loving attitude on the field. Quite simply, he made it look easy and the game seemed to come naturally to him. Suffice it to say, he played really, really well.

I couldn't help but wonder if the press's critique of Newton's approach to playing football leading up to the big game** negatively affected his ability to perform on the big day. Approaching the thing with serious and rigid focus really seemed to throw him off. Perhaps it added a kind of stress and pressure that wasn't helpful to him and didn't allow him to naturally play the game the way he had all year. 

So, I offer the hypothesis that approaching activities with a "play" mentality MIGHT in some cases actually allow us to perform better. Competition can be healthy too, but we need not dismiss play. 

*Full disclosure: I did watch almost all of Super Bowl 50, but it was more out of anthropological interest than for the game itself. I tend not to support football as an enterprise, due to all of the research relating the sport to chronic traumatic brain injury and early onset dementia (along with other mental health issues). Read "League of Denial" for more on this. 

**it seems worth noting that we still refer to these things as "games" even though we criticize players who don't take them seriously enough

Keys to More Contented Living, Part 1: PLAY!

I try to keep things simple for my clients, believing that life enhancement need not be some version of rocket science or require one to empty out his or her pockets. We can make noticeable improvements by turning our attention to some free and accessible areas just waiting to be tapped. So, when asked about some simple ways to improve one's current situation, I always return to three main points, which I'll spend some time outlining in a three part blog series in the coming weeks.

It's my belief that when someone experiences the feeling of life being out of balance, typically it can be traced back to some imbalance or scarcity in one, if not multiple, of the three areas I'll be writing about. Finding balance with and putting energy into these three areas are surefire ways to move toward more contentment, so STAY TUNED. To start off the series, the first topic is PLAY!

Play

As adults, most of us forget how to truly play. Read the opening to The Little Prince (one of my favorites!) for more on this. Children are the best, but oft ignored, teachers of this precious pastime. Why does this matter? Researchers are now linking stress to many major illnesses, both psychological and physiological in nature. For many years, mysterious physical and psychological pain has been mystifying all types of clinicians. What we now know is that many of the symptoms we haven't been able to explain can be linked to stress. Interestingly enough, no drug on the market is being prescribed that can match the positive effects of a simple behavioral intervention. It turns out, PLAY is the antidote to stress. It can literally undo the harm and fatigue caused by too much stress hormone release. Sadly, however, without our awareness, we slowly lose touch with the childhood activity known as play and turn to the pressures, responsibilities, demands, and competition that run rampant in our adult lives.

Simply put, play is light-hearted, spontaneous, imaginative, flexible and creative activity that exists outside of the stress of rigid time limits, competition, and/or hard and fast goals. Ask adults how they play, and they will quickly respond with things like: going to the gym, writing, running, cooking, gardening, painting etc. While these all might be considered play, it could be beneficial to subject the activities we do to the qualifications listed above, and see how they fair. With further scrutiny, I typically find that what most adults consider to be play, is actually another source of stress, guilt, self-harm, and worst yet, sometimes even shame. For example: "I don't make it to the gym enough...I'm just so lazy" "I'd like to sell more of my art, but it's not that good" or "I used to be really good at guitar, but I hardly have time to practice now." In many cases, the things we think we do to relieve stress are actually increasing the stress in our lives. This is not say that competition, pressure, and goal-setting can't be healthy and promote other types of personal growth. It's just that activities that revolve around these things shouldn't be filed under the category known as play, and they probably are not serving to counter stress in the way that play activity could.

One of the easiest ways to get back in touch with play is to watch your own kids, or friends' children play. If this isn't an option for you, I invite you to ask yourself these questions as you engage in your activity and try to determine if it counts as play in the way I've outlined here:

Am I smiling while I do this activity?

Is it impossible to do the activity the "wrong" way?

Will I feel better about myself after the activity concludes?

Am I doing this activity because I want to, and not because I feel I must?

Does this activity allow me reprieve from the pressures of everyday life?

If you can answer "yes" to these questions, you're probably onto something.

Give yourself permission to play more and you will reduce the stress in your life!