March 3, 2021
If you turn on a tv, open a web browser, pick up a magazine, or look at any medium that presents you with an advertisement, you’ll encounter all manner of messages and ideas. One of the unifying themes in all advertising is the idea that you should be comfortable and happy all the time. It makes sense that this would be the case because no one is going to buy a product that promises them hardship or to make their lives harder. It’s good advertising and sorta makes sense in other settings. Being comfortable seems good and desirable on the surface. Advertising has done such a good job of selling this message to us, that we can often lose sight of the truth that life lived purely for comfort can be quite empty of real joy and happiness. George Bernard Shaw once wrote: “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one: the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap, and being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” The truth of this statement has only recently been discovered by researchers. The traditional view of human motivation, going all the way back to the work of BF Skinner and classical conditioning. The idea has always been that if you offer or provide a reward, people will respond by working harder. The promise of more money will motivate people to work harder. Comfort, wealth, and luxury are often seen as the chief objective of all normal people. More recently, researchers have begun to catch up with the truth presented in Shaw’s quote from more than a century ago: reward will only motivate people so much and it will rarely inspire them to greatness. People are far more motivated when they are inspired by great goals, missions, or purposes. They work harder and better to do more meaningful things than they ever would for a paycheck. This is why things like work ethic are such an important part of character. Some jobs aren’t inspiring, but the ideal is that I should work hard because that makes me what I desire to be. It is a larger purpose that brings meaning to seemingly menial work. The cultural shift we have witnessed over the past few decades from an emphasis on greater purpose to one of comfort and self-indulgence has resulted in a strange phenomenon. Even though people are more comfortable and wealthy than they have been in human history, they are less happy overall. This is because we are wired for purpose. People are wired to desire to do big things with their lives and they can never find true contentment without it. Some of this purpose is found in our relationship with God, our families, personal ethics, political beliefs, charity work, or other areas. However, the joy that can be found in serving a greater purpose is often blunted because it’s easy to never think about whether we are actually doing what matters or not. I may identify my faith and family as my purpose, but it’s easy to neglect both and scroll mindlessly on my phone or watch tv for hours on end. The reality is that achieving joy in purpose requires constant effort and focus. The world around us offers too many comforts and distractions. For us to live with purpose, we must start by figuring out what matters and aim ourselves at it constantly.