When we search for a purpose in life, we usually turn inward. We visit the depths of our psyche and ask, “what is it that I was put on earth to do?”, then try to think our way to the “right” answer.
When we get stuck in our heads like this, we tend to overcomplicate things. We forget that part of us is like an organic computer running on inputs, algorithms, and outputs — and computers are programmable!
No doubt, we are more complicated than this in some ways. But a significant part of us still runs on “caveman software”.
This idea underpins many important literary works about human behavior, including that of economist Daniel Kahneman, social psychologist Timothy D. Wilson, and even finance guru Ray Dalio — whether you call it “fast thinking”, the “adaptive unconscious” or simply the “lower-level you”.
Finding purpose doesn’t have to be so complicated. If all else fails, you can go back to the basics:
Instead of using your brain to figure out your purpose in the abstract, you can simply give your biological programs the inputs they need to reliably produce a sense of purpose.
According to legendary psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the answer to the question, “What makes a life worth living?”, is to spend a lot of time in the flow state. Flow is a state of total immersion in an activity, where both time and the self melt away. You know exactly what you need to do, yet you’re hardly aware of doing it. It flows through you.
It’s important to note, however, that the key to unlocking a purposeful life is not flow itself. It’s the biological reason behind our ability to experience it.
Throughout evolution, everything we wanted; calories, shelter, status — was always on the other side of hard work. The behaviors that gave us a leg up in this work shaped our reward systems and emotions. Our experience of flow evolved to help us engage in these behaviors more effectively.
In this way, flow is connected to the activities that make us feel meaning and purpose, but it’s not the cause of those emotions.
Popular life advice author Mark Manson has stated that: “We suffer for the simple reason that suffering is biologically useful. It is nature’s preferred agent for inspiring change.”
In the same way, a sense of purpose is also biologically useful — it tells us we are doing the right things. When we feel purpose and meaning, it is merely an assortment of neurochemicals in our brain signaling we are doing well as an organism. With the right actions, we can “hack” our biological programming to consistently produce this assortment of neurochemicals.
This is a simple formula you can use to hack the core functions of your biology to consistently produce a sense of purpose in your life.
If you focus on the following three things, you won’t need to find a purpose — it will find you.
There are few things more meaningful to the human experience than being in flow. It’s associated with several benefits, including improved performance, more creativity, increased learning & skill development, and greater enjoyment & fulfillment.
Steven Kotler and the Flow Research Collective have identified several triggers to induce flow. Some of those triggers are challenge/skill ratio, curiosity, complete concentration, full embodiment, having clear goals, risk level, and unpredictability.
It’s easy to connect these triggers to the work-related activities that shaped our biological programming: hunting, exploring, building a fire, escaping a predator, etc.
As illustrated, two of the main factors for inducing flow are challenge level and skill level. You need to do something hard (but not too hard), with a progressive difficulty level, so you can develop your skills and still be continually challenged over time.
Something that is hard in the macro, like building a company, is usually comprised of several hard things in the micro. This is good because you want to spend a lot of time in flow, and a sufficient challenge level over a long period of time will help you do that.
I used to think there was basically just one thing I was meant to do in life, and I needed to find what that one thing was. But there are many things that can afford the appropriate challenge/skill ratio. You simply need to pick something you are curious about — which is another important flow-trigger.
Technology gives us the option to avoid much of the hard work we are adapted for, and instead skip directly to comfort and security. We think this shortcut will make us happy. But it’s an illusion.
When we avoid work, we don’t feel negative emotions per se. After all, our biological goals are to conserve resources and attain comfort and security.
Instead, we feel nothing.
Our rewards systems are still waiting for the work to be done and the goal to be achieved. The result is often a lack of purpose.
Deliberately and consistently doing hard things will program you to spend more time in flow, which will set you up to feel purpose and meaning.
Consider this: why do we get any enjoyment at all from using to-do lists? If there was only value in the doing itself, this would not be the case. But other than helping us plan our day, checking off a task in the to-do list literally gives us a hit of dopamine.
This may seem trivial, but it’s not. We are goal-seeking creatures. We need something to move towards. It’s a core part of our biological programming. Evolutionarily, it was making that kill, attracting that mate, etc. (and for all intents and purposes, these have only changed marginally).
We are built to operate in cycles of smaller goals aimed towards the perpetual goal of security, comfort, and otherwise attaining good conditions for procreation.
So, in addition to doing something hard, you need a destination for the hard work you engage in.
Consistently achieving small goals aimed towards a bigger goal will allow you to meet another biological condition for creating purpose.
In Mans Search For Meaning, Victor Frankl describes a horrible practice of the concentration camps where, upon arrival, prisoners were forced to carry heavy bags of salt across the campgrounds and back, for no reason at all. This is an example of a hard thing that doesn’t matter — and it was designed as a method of psychological torture.
If you think about it, this makes sense. If our reward systems and emotions were shaped by the behaviors that got us closer to the perpetual goal, then wasting resources on something that doesn’t take us closer to that goal will result in the opposite of purpose.
So what makes hard work matter from a biological perspective?
Optimally, you want to find something that does both.
My sense of purpose transformed almost overnight when I started working on my health-tech startup. Doing this work will help many people improve chronic health conditions, which is beneficial to society and the world in general. It also creates strong social bonds with the people I work with (part of my inner circle), and if successful it will make us money, which will put food on the table, insure against accidents, etc. — it’s hard work that matters!
In the grand scheme of things, being human is really confusing. We’re the only species capable of reflecting on why we’re here. Because none of us have a clue, we are constantly grasping for straws that can explain the purpose of our existence.
But a simple and overlooked way to create a sense of purpose is to just give our biological programming the inputs it evolved to thrive on.
We are programmed to engage in hard work with the perpetual goal of attaining comfort and security, for ourselves and for the tribe. But these qualities can deceive us in today’s world. Because we no longer have to work hard to meet many of our needs, we are tempted to skip directly to comfort and security. We forget that doing meaningful hard work is one of the things that make us human.
Perhaps Teddy Roosevelt said it best:
“Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
To find your purpose, do hard things that matter.