I have a friend who is quite famous, and has written extensive on his belief that self-interest is the key to life. I love the guy—we talk, we share meals, we stay in each other’s homes—but I can’t imagine disagreeing with anyone more.
Once you’ve answered, or even just begun to answer, our first question on the meaning of life, the next logical thing to ask yourself is where you, individually, fit into it. In other words, “What is my purpose?” I’d like to start by saying that your purpose is not the same as your career. Of course, you hope to do something worthwhile with your worklife, and it may certainly be an important part of your purpose, but it is not the heart of the issue, nor the first thing you should attempt to answer.
So what’s the heart of the matter? Well, here’s how I might think of it. Your career, and all your other daily actions, are your approach, they’re the method you’ve chosen to make daily strides toward your purpose. The purpose itself is your intent. It’s the reason for your approach, the idea of greatest daily importance to you. So returning to the subject of my friend, why is self-interest a bad purpose to live for?
There is an economic theory—and I am not an economist, so bear with me—that self-interest is the driving force behind a healthy free-market. Basically the idea is that when we are all earnestly pursuing our own best interests, the economy as a whole benefits. I can see a similar logic at work in my friend in talking about life, but I see two major problems.
The first is one that was best expressed by the movie, A Beautiful Mind. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the true story of a genius mathematician named John Nash who is renowned for disproving that economic theory. Again, I’m not an economist, but the basic idea he put forward is that everyone was really best served if you did what was best for yourself and everyone else. Now, the reason it normally doesn’t work out this way is that everyone has to agree to do this together. For example, traffic might flow better for everyone as a whole if everyone agreed on certain regular routes, and some people went a little out of their way to avoid overcrowding some of the more popular roads. But as soon as some people start doing only what’s best for them, it all falls apart.
But people are not the same as economies. The second problem I see with my friend’s view of self-interest is that unlike John Nash’s theory, which applies to external things like money or traffic, our purpose is an internal thing. The most wonderful thing about it is that if you’re living according to internal goals, you will tend to be happy whether others do what you’d like or not.
We are actually beginning to see this in action. Dr. Bruce Lipton, Ph.D., conducted a study on campus at Stanford University that examined students who were focused on external goals concerned with seeking pleasure and avoiding pain (self-interest) versus those focused on internal goals such as love, joy, and peace. The results were that external goals consistently placed those students in a state of chronic, physiological stress. If you know anything about the effects of chronic physiological stress, you’ll know that they are the reverse of everything you would want for yourself: illness, failure, fear, and infirmity.
I can tell you from personal experience that people who live for their circumstances are rarely happy even when their circumstances are going well. As soon as the get the thing they think they want, it’s on to the next promotion, the next smash hit, or the next spouse. The people who are most able to find meaning and purpose in their daily lives are those who are able to set self-interest aside, to forget about themselves a little bit, and focus on what is truly meaningful to them. If you want to find purpose in your life, that’s where you start.
Have a blessed, wonderful day!