In the last post, we talked about how to plan a purposeful life, and how that shift in lifestyle can protect you against limerence. It sets you up to be more resilient to change, and less vulnerable to emotional shocks. It’s also just a much better way to live.
Planning is all very well – in fact, it’s essential – but when it comes time to actually make a change, many people meet resistance. This resistance can be internal (fears and doubts about yourself and your abilities) or external (unsupportive family or partners, or financial or social limitations).
Let’s identify some of the commonest barriers to purposeful living, and see if we can barge them over!
Unsupportive friends and family
It’s a sad fact that many of the people who care for us the most can paradoxically undermine our attempts to improve ourselves. In some ways this is predictable. If they are happy with the status quo, then your decision to change things will be unsettling.
The trite answer to this is: get better friends. That could be good advice if you are hanging out with people who constantly run you down, but usually it is more complicated than that. Often friends and family can be outwardly supportive, but subtly undermine you.
“Honey, it’s great that you’re dieting, but can’t you just relax once in a while and eat with the rest of us?”
“Oh come on, I don’t want to drink alone. Call this a cheat day!”
“I know you are working hard right now, but we miss you.”
The reason this is hard to respond to is that they kind of have a point. You’ve unilaterally decided to make a change that affects them. Most of their negative reaction is not really due to them wanting you to fail, so much as you disrupting their comfort zone. A major source of discomfort is also something they would probably feel ashamed of if they admitted it to themselves: you are forcing them to confront their own lack of purpose. After all, if you are there in their life working hard to be better, surely they could be too?
This resentment is usually unconscious on their part. The key to responding constructively is to accept that it isn’t a sign that they are deliberately working against you, it’s a sign of their own insecurities. The best way to manage this is to bring them on board with your life improvement project.
If they are dismissive or sceptical about your plans, listen sincerely to their concerns, and then ask: “OK. You could be right. What do you think I could do instead to make it work?” Or “I really want to do this, but I need your help. If you had been given this job to do, how would you start?”
As with managing limerence in a relationship, the mindset to aim for is you and them versus the problem. Not you versus them. If they feel part of your project, they are more likely to feel positive about it. They are less likely to feel you are leaving them behind if you are involving them in the strategising and implementation. If they feel you care about their input, they are more likely to become a champion than a critic.
Considering how our choices affect others is healthy, but it can also tip over into self-denial. Those of us who have a high degree of agreeableness and empathy can have a real problem with doing things for ourselves. We feel that our time and energy should be spent helping others. It somehow feels like selfish indulgence to do something that makes us happy. This can be a big mental block: “if my purposeful work doesn’t feel like a sacrifice, am I being self-centred?”
The origins of this impulse are likely to be multilayered. Some of us are built that way, but it will also be overlaid by the long cultural heritage of the monotheistic religions that advocate for sacrifice, humility, submission, and service. Martyrdom can feel noble. If we are pursuing something that makes us feel proud and happy, does that mean we are putting ourselves before others?
The key to this barrier is to recognise that seeking happiness is only selfish when it comes at the expense of others. That is easy enough to avoid if you live in an open society with the opportunity to pursue a wide range of careers and interests. It is perfectly possible to find a working niche in which you can both help others and feel good about yourself. Happiness doesn’t require others to lose just because you win. Contributing to a better world doesn’t have to be selfless or self-negating. In fact many people feel a huge amount of satisfaction and fulfillment when helping others.
It’s perfectly possible for your purposeful life to be a win/win situation.
Too little money
There’s no avoiding the fact that it’s difficult to get things done if you are working flat out to make ends meet. Especially if you have a family and responsibilities, and so can’t just walk away to “find yourself”. It’s hard to launch a new endeavour without some financial security behind you. It’s hard to take risks if you are putting other people in jeopardy. You have to work within your constraints.
Now, there are a few possible solutions to this problem. The first scenario is that your new sense of purpose actually aligns well with your existing job. Perhaps you just need to reframe your attitude to work, or focus on ways to rise up the ranks rather than embark on something totally new. Or maybe your purposeful new goal doesn’t require money.
The other options if you do want to quit your current job and start something new are: cut expenses or earn more.
It’s banal, but it’s true. If your purposeful life requires more resources, you are going to have to plan to acquire more. The first step on your journey to the life you want to lead is to focus on your finances.
Too much money
This might seem absurd, but it’s related to the sense that purposeful life is selfish. If your new purposeful life ends up being more lucrative than your old life, it may conflict with the commonly held belief that too much money is immoral.
The way capitalist societies are structured means that pay does not reflect the social value of a job, it more reflects how much additional wealth your labour will generate for your employer. This is why investment bankers are paid so much more than nurses, despite the fact that the vast majority of the population have a clear idea about which activity they esteem most highly.
It’s not as simple as that, of course. Pay also follows particular skills, and can be a marker of status rather than a marker of value, but ultimately, if your skills and work generate wealth you will probably be paid substantially more than someone who provides a valuable but non-monetary service (like teaching, policing, caring or office management). This leads to a mental inversion of service and salary. Those who take get lavishly rewarded, and those who give are grudged a minimal wage. Many of us have a subconscious moral instinct that accumulating money is a sign of selfishness.
This can also lead to a subtle guilt when being paid for doing something you love. If you love coding, and have a great idea for an app that suddenly explodes in popularity, it can feel pretty weird. Ask the guy who created and released flappy bird. He was so discomforted by the success of his game that he deleted it and apologised for making something so addictive.
Pursuing a purpose that pays us to do something we want to do anyway can feel strangely immoral.
Fortunately, there’s a simple answer to this one. If you find yourself accumulating significant wealth doing something that other people value so much that they pay you handsomely for it, use your excess money to do even more good.
There are lots of very worthy causes that will happily help you spend your wealth wisely.
The sweet spot for finding purpose is to pursue something that balances all these factors. Don’t try and talk yourself into a job in sales if you have a suspicion about money, but don’t beat yourself up if your new venture ends up being financially successful. Don’t feel guilty about feeling good, if you are adding value to the world.
It is possible to do what feels right to you and to make something worthwhile that other people value too.
In fact, that is probably the best kind of life that anyone can lead.