Let’s face it. We are not special. We like to think we are, that our goals, rants, aspirations, and struggles really matter. But we are stardust, as Neil deGrasse Tyson reminds us. Sounds poetic but it is also true. We are made up of molecules constructed from the crucibles of stars from deep space. When these stars exploded, they ejected their elements, becoming building blocks upon which increasingly heavier elements could be formed and finally combining with one another to form matter: new stars, planets – and, yes, little us too.
Look at Earth, our home. A pale dot amidst billions and trillions of other planets out there. A mote of dust, as the late Carl Sagan remarked. And if the entire 4.6 billion years of Earth’s history was condensed into a 24-hour clock, humanity’s history would emerge only less than two minutes before midnight. That is how insignificant we are compared to the grand scheme of the universe. Our 80-or-so years of life on Earth is but a negligible fraction of time.
But we like to be extraordinary. Today’s sages tell us to. They feed upon our narcissism that yearns to be extraordinary, to do the extraordinary, and to live extraordinary lives. But the advice to be extraordinary is itself contradictory. If everyone was extraordinary, then no one, by definition, would be extraordinary because no one would stand out from the rest.
So, yes, we are not special.
But that should not depress us. Instead, it should drive us to appreciate that our time on Earth is very short and finite. We may not be special, that on the scale of the universe, we are insignificant and our lives a fleeting moment in history, but this does not mean our lives should not matter. The idea that we are not special should humble us. It should challenge us to re-orientate our lives to make it count with what little time we have left, that our lives will make a significant impact on those around us. Because we have lived, others have been changed and have benefited.
So, what then is our purpose in life? What is our legacy, our immortality project? Our life’s purpose is a compass that helps us to distinguish between the important, trivial, and irrelevant in our lives. It separates the wheat from the chaff. It distinguishes between struggles and aspirations that matter, those that deserve our full energy, attention, time, and money and those that we should ignore or at least, emphasize less. Our purpose in life liberates we because it provides us guidance, that we are dedicating our lives on goals or pursuits more noble than ourselves.
But it is not all psychology and pep talk. Having a strong purpose in life cascades down to even at a biological level. A 2013 study by Steve Cole from the University of California found that people with more hedonic lifestyles had genetic expressions similar to those seen in people suffering from loneliness and stress, compared to those with people choosing more eudemonic lifestyle, a life driven beyond self-gratification. And brain scans of people with a higher eudemonic lifestyle showed lower stress response than those with lesser eudemonic lifestyle. In other words, people with long term life purpose live longer and are healthier.
But thinking about our purpose in life, let alone setting one, is hard. It is scary – and as blogger Mark Manson wrote in his book ”The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”, we don’t do it because we have no clue what we are doing.
The late Steve R. Covey in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” probably said it best on how we can find our purpose in life: “[Imagine attending your own funeral] … What would you like each of the speakers to say about you and your life? … What character would you like them to have seen in you? What contributions, what achievements would you want them to remember? … What difference would you like to have made in [people’s] lives?”
Our deaths are inevitable, but rather than dreading it, our deaths should warn us of wasting our lives. But change is difficult and fraught with pain, suffering, and struggles. Athletics, for instance, are willing to bear the tedium and pain of training because they know the outcome of their struggles is becoming fitter, stronger, and faster. No one likes pain, but people are willing to face and endure it provided the outcome is worthwhile and fulfills their purpose in life. Mark Manson says it best: our self-worth isn’t a measure of how we feel about our positive experiences but about how we feel about our negative experiences. Pain is telling us to pay attention and to learn. Our pain, if we respond correctly and are willing to learn, initiates meaningful change. Trying to pursue a pain-free life is instead foolish because it avoids learning and meaningful change, and it leads to inconsequential and perhaps even selfish, self-indulgent lives.
Achieving the extraordinary is then not a target by itself but an outcome, perhaps even by accident, due to our pursuit of our aspirations. We may dedicate our lives in helping the poor, for instance, and our efforts might gain us recognition, awards, and even a celebrity-like status, but they are an outcome, not the goal, of our purpose.
But what characterizes a meaningful life purpose? Obviously, identifying one’s purpose in life is highly specific to individuals. Mark Manson however offers that a person’s purpose in life should encompass good values, and such values are those that are reality-based, socially-constructive, and immediate and controllable. Honesty is an example of a good value, says Mark, because it is real, it benefits others, and it is under our control, whereas popularity isn’t because it is out of our control (i.e., we need to convince others to like us), may not be real because people may not really see us like we want them to, and being popular is, well, selfish, indulgent, and does little to help others.
Alfred Hitchcock once said, “Drama is life with the boring bits cut out.” So, if our lives were to be made into a TV drama, what would our story be, after all the boring, doldrums bits of our lives cut out? Did our lives matter?
- Burrell, T. 2017. Why am I here? New Scientist. 28 January 2017. p. 30-33.
- Fredrickson, B.L., Grewen, K.M. Coffey, K.A., Algoe, S.B., Firestine, AM., Arevalo, J.M.G., Ma, J., and Cole, S.W. 2013. A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110, no. 33: 13684-13689. [link]
- Manson, M. 2016. The subtle art of not giving a f*ck. A counterintuitive approach to living a good life. New York: HarperOne.