Who Needs a Purpose?






Saturday morning, my to-do list hit the seesaw in my sleepy brain (snooze again? get up? snooze?) and bounced me out of bed. Moving briskly, I made my husband’s coffee and smoothie, fed and walked the dog, did the grocery shopping, dropped stuff off at the recycling center and the thrift shop, picked up library books, dealt with emails, and settled in to work. Somewhere between Schnucks and the town dump, I found myself yearning for a different life—one with no agenda, no to-do list, no errands or obligations. What heaven, to wake up when I felt like it and drift through the house in a bathrobe, idly stopping to putter with one thing or another, then curl up on the sofa and watch whatever came on. A lily in the field, I would be, toiling not, indifferent to deadlines and expectations.

And I would be miserable in two days’ time. When human beings pop themselves off the grid of connected, purposeful activity—or fall through its holes—they tend to fall apart. In Independence Day: What I Learned About Retirement From Some Who’ve Done It and Some Who Never Will, Steve Lopez ruminates about whether it is time for him to pack up his desk at the L.A. Times, quit writing columns, cultivate hobbies and ease. Then an eighty-year-old (still working) geriatrician informs him that people who retire “to sleep late, stay in their pajamas all day, and start cocktails at three thirty instead of seven—those people go rather rapidly to hell in a handbasket.”

Purposelessness sends you to hell even when it was never your choice. A woman called me in December, hoping I would help her write a memoir of her struggles. We talked a bit about her life, then about logistics of such a project and how others had suggested she write a book. We agreed to talk again in the new year. And then she burst into tears. “I have no purpose,” she wailed, sick of feeling sick and sad and useless.

Depression, emptiness, anomie, acedia—we have all sorts of words for this soulsickness. A midlife crisis is simply the announcement of a need for a different, more compelling purpose. Quiet quitting says the job was not worth doing. Empty nesters feel adrift until they reorient their lives; so do those who are unemployed and those we write off as unable to contribute to society for a long list of usually bogus reasons (but really because we are too lazy to figure out a way it could work).

Bestsellers urging us to do nothing, to cultivate the art of doing nothing, are good corrections. We need to know we are enough already, and we can stop spinning our wheels with lists and projects. On the flip side, keeping busy keeps your mind off yourself, and how dare we take up oxygen and give nothing back when even a plant reciprocates?

Finding the right balance is tricky, because the point of equilibrium moves as we age. In our twenties, most of us are still combing the universe to find our purpose. Then we hit it full force. And then we lighten up a bit. In Independence Day, Lopez is honest about the ego rush of his job and the thrill of feeling relevant. So honest, in fact, that you can tell from the first chapter, as he pretend-agonizes and savors the chance to choose, where he will land. He has a laissez-faire buddy, living the good life with endless rounds of golf and cocktails, to use as a foil. But Lopez spends more time quoting Mel Brooks, still working at ninety-four, “because if you don’t, the devil will find ways to occupy your mind,” and Norman Lear, still working at one hundred, who has “never for a second” thought about retiring, and Father Greg Boyle, who tells him Jesuits retire in the graveyard. By the book’s end (and probably before he began it), Lopez has decided he will slacken up a bit—but continue working.

This, of course, is because he has a job he loves. Stressful, miserable jobs are best shorn as soon as possible. All sorts of purposes are out there waiting, some of which even pay. And though talking about Purpose inevitably sounds preachy, a purpose need not be righteous or noble. Weirdly, time in prison can give people purpose, focusing them far more effectively than drug deals ever did because their struggle to be released early or have their conviction overturned matters. In the sickest way possible, mass shooters and serial killers are galvanized out of passive, seething rage when they land on a single, dark purpose.

For most of us, purpose is far gentler, bent on helping rather than killing. The old people who go religiously to a park bench to feed pigeons? That is not an eccentric whim; it is a scaled-down purpose. Old age is tough because we are used to far-horizon purposefulness, goals we can work toward for years. When the horizon shrinks, it is hard to find goals the right size. People dote on grandkids, monitor their health like lab scientists, spy on their neighbors, obsess over Bingo or mah jongg. News crews get all excited when someone gets a degree at an advanced age, I suspect because there is such audacity to the act, which chronology has stripped of practical purpose. Most of us, once that forward vector has stopped propelling us, head for an overstuffed recliner to wait out our time.

Both my mother and my mother-in-law adored hard physical work. They took up hot, gritty projects with alacrity, glowing with purpose as they scrubbed or painted. When the job was done, they were elated, satisfied, and content for the next ten minutes. My husband and I were just exhausted, and we snuck back to our books and movies whenever we could. It took me five decades to catch on to that motherly wisdom. Doing something, anything, is a lot more fun than slumping on the sofa. The best times I have with friends are when we are teaming up on a project or playing a game or having an adventure. Sitting around in living rooms? Only good when the conversation is so funny or fascinating or real that it is sufficient purpose in itself.

The Templeton Foundation recently pulled together a major report on purpose, gathering study after study that found a sense of purpose to be “one of the best predictors of happiness.” Older women who were purposefully engaged in life had lower levels of stress hormones and cholesterol, healthier weights, and less inflammation. Adults with purpose were less likely to suffer physical disabilities or to be diagnosed with dementia. People without a purpose in life, meanwhile, “are more likely to suffer from depression, boredom, loneliness, and anxiety.”

The report is quick to concede that these are only correlations; obviously, it is easier to have a sense of purpose when you are already healthy. Other variables in a purposeful life, like increased social connection, might be working the magic. Nonetheless, it is purpose that directs our energy, keeps our life intentional. Some of us are here to make someone else’s life a little easier; some to prove something to ourselves or to the whole damned world; some to learn or teach or soothe or spread fun. Drifting around in a bathrobe can be restorative, but it is not the ultimate point.

Ask someone their purpose, and they might slap you, assuming you are demanding that they justify their existence. But the purpose of purpose is to live your life, not excuse it. Purpose is wired into us ahead of time, not demanded by society after the fact. (Those are the purposes we should be leery of.)

The Templeton report opens with the insight Viennese psychologist Viktor Frankl gleaned when he was imprisoned at Auschwitz and Dachau: those who had a sense of purpose, a why to their lives, showed greater resilience, no matter how cruelly they were tortured and starved. “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone other than oneself,” he wrote. “The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is.”

The purpose of being human, it seems, is to act with purpose.

That ought to get me off the sofa.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.