Why Activating Purpose is at the heart of creating a good life

By March 28, 2017 purpose No Comments
Chris Johnstone

Given the turmoil of first few month’s of Donald Trump’s presidency, and the on-going anxiety w feel about Brexit, you could be forgiven for losing all sense of hope of a thriving future for people and planet. To see the chaos caused at airports over his sudden lurch towards banning access to the US for refugees and passport holders from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, and to witness the disappearance of all mention of climate change from the White House and Environmental Agency’s websites, are alone cause for concern. But could these kinds of decisions act in a positive way for us, activating the primordial sense of survival that kicks in whenever we are in danger? Can the on-going uncertainty and volatility propel us forward in our goals go creating a good Life and a thriving future?

What do we mean today by a ‘good life’? The prevailing wisdom of the 20th century was that a good life was a picture postcard vision of good. A vision which included a successful career, high income, big house, big car, big holidays. Where our challenge was how to make our lives a picture of happiness, populated by all the things that advertisers told us we need for happy life. Our lives became about collecting the things that you need for a picture of happiness. But did that make us happy? Research suggests not. Today we are more medicated, stressed, addicted and depressed than ever before. We have an epidemic of loneliness slowly spreading across the ‘Western’ world. What’s gone wrong and what can we do?

Having purpose is at the heart of a good life

This is where Trumpy might just be doing us a little favour. Let’s think about what happens when someone is drowning. They don’t stop and think about whether or not they might survive, they don’t stop and have a think about the odds of survival, they instinctively take action and strike out for the shore. They act with purpose – even if that purpose is only their own survival. One of the things that feeling threatened can do to us, is activate a positive future-minded attitude.

On the one hand, being faced with seemingly overwhelming force and power set against us when our future mindedness and vision of a good life is blocked or threatened, our sense of hope changes for the poorer. Hope is about having a positive relationship with the future. There are better versions of that future, and worse versions. There are many different ways in which the future can go. Hopes are our preferred versions of where we want the future to go. When we are confronted with what appears to be overwhelming challenge, our sense of hope becomes suddenly passive. We remain hopeful but we feel the victims of circumstance instead of acting positively with hope in mind.

But it can also go the opposite way if we focus on being purposeful. This is what puts Purpose at the heart of living a good life. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that living life with purpose is more satisfying. That people who live and act with purpose, live longer than others. People who are acting for something greater than themselves, acting withe the future wellbeing of life in mind, are happier and more satisfied with life than those pursuing the picture postcard version of a good life.

In their great book Active Hope, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone defined the difference between being merely hopeful of a good future and active hope, as being a different way of thinking about success. If we are realistic about where we are at any given moment, identify what we hope for in the future, and then actively work towards making that future happen – then we are working with active hope. We can be become a servant of that identified hope and purpose, a type of hope that is different from hopefulness. A type of hope you can bring to bear even if things seem hopeless. A quality of being you bring into a situation where you place yourself behind the goal of the best possible outcome. Even when you don’t know if it is likely to happen, but it is the version of the future we most strongly vote for and can put our energies behind.

So our first step is to cultivate an attitude of active hope. An attitude of active hope is most easily sustained when we have clearly envisioned the future we prefer, set out with a purpose in mind, and navigate a course towards our destination – even though there may be choppy waters ahead, and reaching the destination is far from sure.

Do we need to change our view of happiness?

In an interview for The Purposeful Enterprise Summit last year, Chris Johnstone reminded me of a lecture he once gave in Bristol entitled “How facing world problems makes you happier”. Given that there is a strong movement to look away from world problems to avoid deflation and depression I was intrigued by his concept of sustainable happiness.

A second way to sustain ourselves on this quest for a better world is to think about how we can create sustainable happiness for ourselves and the world. If a picture postcard vision of the world doesn’t create sustainable happiness, what does?

It’s worth looking at industrial approaches to sustainability in the last century in terms of sustainable happiness. Let’s look at agriculture. There are many different ways you can farm land. The way in which palm oil producers farm land in the Amazon for example is deeply unsustainable. It intensively uses up all the good nutrients in the soil which cannot be replaced in a very short space of time which leaves the land devoid of the ability to produce any kind of crop. In sustainable agriculture you’re aiming for a crop that can be sustained for many years rather than a single good crop which depletes the soil ending up with dust.

Creating sustainable happiness is like paying attention to the topsoil of our lives. Creating enjoyable moments of happy experiences which can last into the future. Pay attention to the topsoil of our enthusiasm in a way that we can live with purpose in the long term.

The fisheries industry is another great example of living and working with unsustainable happiness. During the 20th century, the fishing fleets of the North Atlantic saw a resilient future as being about catching more and more fish. So they developed bigger nets, more effective sonar. There was a steady rise in catches. But they were so successful they were left with hardly any fish.

The 2008 economic crisis showcased a similar story. The dominant business view for many decades has been that the best way to drive growth is to focus on narrow economic indictors in a short space of time. 2008 brought home how limited that story is and the vulnerabilities it exposed us to by underpricing risk and aiming for short term gain in a way which increases the risk of long term harm. We moved into a situation of overshoot and close collapse of the system.

How do we act for what we value? The key question to ask ourselves each day, is whether the actions we are taking are about grabbing more resources for our individual units – as people or organisation – that might rob us of future happiness. A bottle of wine today might temporarily blot out our anxieties and worries, but it leaves us with a stinking hangover and slowly rots the liver – depleting our possibility of a long and happy life.

Living a good story is more satisfying

A final way to think about a good life the Stoic idea of living a good story. What helps me is thinking about the story that’s happening through me. Stories flow through people like electricity through a light bulb and lights you up. When there’s a larger story that is much bigger than me, it breathes life into me and energises me. The biggest story I’m part of is life wanting to happen on this planet. Despite everything that we are throwing at the planet and ourselves, somehow life – all life – is still struggling to regenerate and continue. One of the most powerful forces is the regenerative capacity of nature. A forest can be blown down but can grow back. We can have a broken bone but it will knit and heal, sometimes even stronger than before. A termites nest can be trampled on, but it will be rebuilt.

What we are seeing activate across the world is a story of facing danger and bringing about some kind of turning point. Whether you consider the danger to be Trump or climate change, or poverty, or any of the other global challenges framed within the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Millions of people have really got it and understood – even though they may not be making Breitbart’s headlines. The women’s marches showed us that we can mobilise against overwhelming power and odds. If we want it to continue we need to act for the larger living systems that sustain and support us.

This is the Story approach to happiness and to living a good life. And guess what? Stories have purpose, ups and downs, and low points. They are about adventure. A good story with a great plot is where you want to turn the page. Something deeply important is at stake which is threatened. The threat may be so big it makes the whole thing seem hopeless. The odds aren’t favourable. But. There’s a merry gang who act together. Who are prepared to go on a journey, always looking for what’s needed to move their purpose forward.

We are all part of this adventure story. What makes a Good Life? Living a good story. that we really have our heart in. A story that gives us a reason to get up in the morning.

Activating Purpose in your life – whether that’s for you personally or throughout your whole organisation – is one of strongest acts of resilience you can take.

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