Purpose and happiness. A couple of simple words that seem to have taken on the burden of so many connotations… simultaneously meaning everything and nothing to many.
At Dynamic4, the core of our purpose is to help create the conditions for happier people and communities. I guess I better explain myself.
Everyone seems to be talking about purpose over the past few years – especially as it relates to finding your purpose and what it means for business. But what is it? It’s a simple word that just means intention, or the reason something is done.
In the purpose-driven community we generally think of it as being focused on creating positive social and environmental change.
Most of us are looking for happiness and meaning. Purpose is key to this. As Emily Esfahani Smith outlines in her great TED talk, she concluded from her positive psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy research there are four pillars to meaning: belonging, purpose, transcendence, and storytelling (especially the stories we tell ourselves).
We want to do work that is meaningful and matters. It’s fascinating seeing the trend of expectation toward meaningful work… research shows 90% of employees are willing to trade a percentage of their lifetime earnings for greater meaning at work. How much? The average was 23%! I disagree though with the premise we should earn less when doing purposeful work that creates multiple types of value (financial, social, and environmental). That’s a failure in our market system.
Can You Find Your Purpose?
There’s a lot of talk about finding your purpose – often with language that implies our one true purpose will be revealed to us and we’ll know what to do in life. I disagree. So does the research. As Kira M. Newman writes in her article How Purpose Changes Across Your Lifetime where she reviews some of the research over the past 30 years…
“In fact, purpose isn’t something we find at all. It’s something we can cultivate through deliberate action and reflection, and it will naturally wax and wane throughout our lives.”Kira M. Newman
John Leland, a New York Times reporter and the author of Happiness Is a Choice You Make spent a year with six New Yorkers over 85. A key insight was “they believed that purpose was something you created, not something you sought, and it would be something that you have to keep creating”… “Those who are able to understand their roles as constantly changing, constantly evolving – it’s a story that they’re still writing – are able to deal with the ups and downs that we all confront better than people who see themselves as fixed in one point”.
Happy is a word we probably use several times a day without really thinking about it. The dictionary definition is “the state of pleasurable contentment of mind”. Sounds nice. The etymology of the word actually has more to do with “luck” though, something I covered a bit in this post.
I think about happiness a bit differently. About 10 years ago I stumbled across the fact that Aristotle talked about happiness (being well and doing well) as an activity rather than an emotion or state… a reframe I found to be so simple but extremely powerful!
If you think of happiness as a state, it will always be fleeting and out of reach. If you can think about it as an activity, you can be where your feet are and immerse in the present.
Success Will Make Us Happy. Right?
I’m a big fan of Shawn Achor’s happiness research. A key finding from his research is the belief most of us hold that we’ll be happy when we achieve a particular goal and experience success. It’s inherent in many of the things we’re taught and we often over-index for goals. As he talks about in his energetic, insightful, and hilarious TED talk our brains actually work in the opposite order. “…if happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there. We’ve pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon, as a society. And that’s because we think we have to be successful, then we’ll be happier”. This was another powerful but profound reframe for me.
“If you can raise somebody’s level of positivity in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a happiness advantage, which is your brain at positive performs significantly better than at negative, neutral or stressed. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise. In fact, we’ve found that every single business outcome improves.”Shawn Achor
To quantify that… in a range of contexts it was found that we are 30%+ more effective and productive when we are positive. One of the things I love about Shawn Achor’s work is his focus on the practical things we can do to create positive mindset habits… to increase our happiness. Like purpose, happiness is something we need to create… and keep creating. It’s a practice.
What I’ve Learnt
Purpose and happiness are actions and practice… not a static state or destination. They are things for us to create and do for ourselves.
It’s worth the time to reflect on what motivates us, what we get energy from, our driving why – but don’t expect it to be absolute and unchanging. I found Ikigai a useful and simple way to articulate a lot of this – I’ll cover how I’ve used it for myself and in coaching conversations with others in a future post. You also can’t really say “why” without referencing Simon Sinek.
There’s no such thing as “work life”… it’s all one life and we spend a lot of it working – so it makes sense to find ways to spend this time on things we find meaningful and create a positive impact. Yes, I know that statement is loaded with privilege and most of the world’s population are in survival mode without the luxury of such navel gazing, but I’ll use the privilege I have in the best way I can.
Reflect, Iterate & Evolve
I founded Dynamic4 on a core principle of freedom and flexibility. The original entity name in 2001 was Dynamic Future Solutions… the initial purpose or intent was for the business to be able to encompass my endless curiosity and be the dynamic solution for my future as it evolved over time… also for the team and our clients.
Over the years our purpose has evolved – still holding true to the core principle of freedom but finding ways to embed more impact into our model and focus our energy to align with our theory of change.
Constant reflection and iteration is key to this. I’m always questioning if I’m spending my energy and time on what matters. This might sound exhausting – and sometimes it is. I also know it’s key to staying dynamic. Sometimes it feels overwhelming how much there is that needs to be done and I have doubts about the scale of our impact. At those times I remind myself of the Starfish Story:
One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy gently picking things up and throwing them into the water. He asked “What are you doing”?
The boy replied “I’m throwing starfish back into the water. If I don’t they’ll die in the sun”.
The man said, “Don’t you realise there are miles of beach and thousands of starfish? You cannot possibly make a difference”!
The boy gently picked up another starfish and tossed it into the water and said “It made a difference for that one”.Adapted from The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley (1907–1977)
Law of Attraction
Not in a pseudoscience way… but in a simple positive neuroscience way. Where our attention goes, energy flows. What we think about and how we choose to see things is a massive part of our experience. Being clear on our purpose is key to setting the intent and direction for Dynamic4, and doing the work outlined in our theory of change to make it happen. Thinking becomes action.
Being able to communicate our purpose and keep it front of mind in everything we do also helps attract people and opportunities that are aligned with the outcomes and impact we’re working toward.
Working With My Energy
I do my best to work with my energy levels. It’s not always possible and sometimes I just need to put on my game face, transform my energy and make stuff happen… but most of the time I try to listen to the ebbs and flow and work with it. Observing and leveraging temporal landmarks, my biological rhythms and chronotype. This field of research is fascinating and I’ll give it its own post.
I really like this advice from Mel Robbins in the context of finding your purpose:
“I think you should chase what energises you. Everyone talks about passion, purpose, legacy. The one word to pay attention to is energy.”Mel Robbins
The Energy Project used to send a weekly newsletter 10+ years ago where I learnt a lot of really practical techniques for working with your energy – especially in a business context. Worth checking out.
Mind & Body
I feel very lucky to have discovered the very practical power of the mind in my early teens – including mind body training. This continued through to becoming a Pilates instructor back in 2001, studying with Michael King at the Pilates Institute in London. I was lucky to work with awesome specialists in physiotherapy and research, Yoga and Ayurvedic medicine, Tai Chi, and mindful meditation – this led me to incorporate mindful meditation into the classes I taught and a 20 year mindful practice, something I still do daily. I’ve recently learnt transcendental/Vedic meditation to deepen my practice. I find being mindful and meditating is key to keeping my sense of perspective and working with my energy.
I’m still constantly learning and experimenting. My purpose and happiness is a work in progress – something I’ll always be creating and evolving.
Dynamic4: The 20th Year
It seems a good time to reflect on the journey so far and some key things I’ve learnt on the way. This is Part 2 in a blog series as we count down to our 20th birthday on 1 October 2021.