Studies show that happiness increases with wealth up to the point where we get our needs met. After this point, it is believed, that we must then fill our lives with eudaimonia (doing good) instead of hedonia (feeling good) since hedonism has a limited impact on life satisfaction.
Doing good work often stems from a sense of meaning and/or purpose. My wise friend and fellow purpose-junkie, J. Kyle Howard says that purpose comes from either inspiration or desperation, or in my experience, some combination of the two. I believe I’ve experienced the spectrum with different outcomes. I know which one I would choose.
My first sense of purpose came from inspiration. I loved school. I loved my teachers. I stumbled upon the profession of pharmacy and pharmaceutical research by serendipity (I used to park my car by the School of Pharmacy building on the University of Texas campus, and I thought “huh.”) After 15 years of a reasonably good career and the ultimate prize (tenure in pharmaceutical sciences), I realized I hated doing research, the main thing I was supposed to do as an academic.
So much for inspiration.
I managed to segue my work into activities that were a better match for my interests and strengths, going into administration, then leadership, career, professional, and personal development. I was really enjoying my work until one day I realized that I was downright joyful and that I wanted to do this work full time. I had found my calling.
Score one for inspiration! Now we’re even.
At least for now…
…Because though I landed my dream job after a six-year transition into this new field, my husband and love-of-my-life Chris told me I would eventually get bored and want to move on. He was right. I could feel the excitement dwindling as I became more competent in my work. My calling started to feel like a burden because of diminishing challenge and learning. The challenge kept it exciting and fun.
Be careful what you wish for.
Tragedy struck in 2018 when I lost both my beloved husband and sister to cancer. In an act of desperation, I turned to the divine which inspired me to quit my job and start a nonprofit educating the world on how to create healthy and rewarding relationships. The magnitude of this ambition to change the world, on top of two back-to-back stunning losses would ensure that I would Never. Get. Bored.
People tell me it’s remarkable how I turned tragedy into resilience and a personal and global vision for change and healing. I suppose that’s true. Frankly, I feel fortunate because though my losses were tragic, there are so many who are far worse off than I am. I have financial security, good health, and loved ones that I can turn to. People normally lose their spouses and parents. That feels like the proper order of things; losing a child would feel unbearable. I’m not in a war-torn country and aside from the pandemic, have the freedom to resume my life in how I wished.
And while I’d never wish rock bottom on anyone, I’ve learned how to reap its benefits as a frequent flyer. From this vantage, I also understand that the magnitude of the loss and desperation are proportional to the learning and growth that is available. Soul-crushing losses result in soul-enhancing insights and gifts that may not be available through inspiration alone.
These blessings are available to everyone though it helps to build up to it slowly. The more you practice learning and growing from your small and medium challenges, the better prepared you’ll be for when life deals you ginormous ones. You’ll have built up your cognitive and emotional resources, and you’ll know what to do when the time comes. And tragedy and desperation seem to provide a level of clarity about what you’re here to do.
Call it a crash course in a purpose-driven life.
In the wake of the devastation of the pandemic, we all have this opportunity even more available to us. Your perspective on your life challenges will determine whether you harvest the learning and growth, stepping yourself up to meet the challenge, or whether you’ll spiral downward and lose ground.
Don’t worry. That’s not a bad thing. You may eventually hit rock bottom where, if you’re open to it, offers a great deal of clarity. Applying that clarity to love and service can provide a lifetime of inspiration, meaning, and purpose, which never gets boring or old.