“I’ve Misplaced My Sense of Purpose and Can’t Seem to Find It”

Dear Dr. Hurd:

What is it that happens to us mentally as we mature, that the mystique of events and accomplishments lose meaning and that emotional passionate edge we felt in our youth doesn’t ignite us any longer?

For example, when we’re younger:

A date seems so exciting;

A concert we mark on the calendar is checked off and the night is vibrant and on edge;

A trip somewhere new;

Even the Friday night out with friends and what adventure it would bring;

Milestone events as well;

What is it that we are losing? Why do we lose it?

Dr. Hurd’s reply:

First of all, such a psychological development is not inevitable and it doesn’t happen with everyone. If it has happened with you, that’s no cause for despair. If someone else has escaped this problem, then you can potentially release yourself from it, as well.

I used to advance the analogy of living life ‘in color’ as opposed to living life ‘in black- and-white.’ After a new development, or perhaps a new romance, it’s as if life suddenly goes from black-and-white to color. I will take the opportunity here to update that analogy to: Living life in high-definition (HDTV) as opposed to standard.

Sometimes the capacity to see the ‘mystique of events’ as you put it wanes, but it doesn’t have to go away. If you find yourself in love, with a new person or — in a different way — a new situation, a new experience or aspect of life, then you’ll suddenly experience this renewal of ‘high definition’ or color that you thought had gone away. A diminished capacity for something is not the same as losing the capacity altogether. You may think you’ve lost it, but that doesn’t mean you have.

The reasons for this happening can be highly individual, and will vary from person to person. One thing I do know generally to be true is that human beings need a sense of purpose.

I’m not talking about something unrealistic, supernatural or faux-ideological here, such as the silliness you hear about ‘pursuing something higher or greater than yourself.’ I detest that phrase, in particular. How is the self — one’s ideas, emotions, values, purposes — to be removed from anything, great or small?

By ‘purpose’ I simply mean a generalized viewpoint of why you’re doing what you’re doing at this point in your life. It can be related to your career or your personal relationships, but it does not have to be. Sometimes those areas don’t make the cut as a central purpose, or perhaps you outgrow them or things change. For example, a central purpose at one point might be raising your children, but they start to grow up and you must focus your concentration elsewhere. Or perhaps in your career, you’ve done everything there is to do and you have to find a new challenge somewhere else.

There’s no age or stage of life where this is either inevitable or you’re totally immune to it. I talk to people in their 20s full of vigor and ambition for living life; and there are plenty of people in their 20s who lack the willingness to see beyond the day after tomorrow. I talk to retirees who are lost and adrift; and I meet retirees pursuing more exciting goals than ever before. We err when we make these psychological lapses ‘age’ things. They’re simply life things.

Life changes and people change along the way. We hear the terms ‘mid-life crisis’ or ‘retirement’ but these are only two instances of change, and they don’t affect everyone in the same way. Life and circumstances are always changing and evolving, sometimes for better or for worse, and it’s necessary to think, be creative and experiment at times in order to find out what will generate renewed happiness in your life. For some, discovering a new central purpose becomes a purpose in itself. And that’s OK.

If a person starts to feel the way you describe, it could be a ‘warning light’ indicating that you’ve drifted away from a sense of central purpose. A central purpose gives meaning, fuel and even excitement to everything you do. It puts the color or the spice back into all of your efforts, including those of basic survival or routine entertainment.

Imagine, for example, having a job which supports your expenses as you pursue your central purpose — graduate school, writing a novel, developing your artistic talents, traveling to new places, what have you. The boring job with no central purpose (all its own) could lead to emotions of stagnation or even resentment.

The same boring job in the context of some wider, central purpose gives the job meaning, because that boring or meaningless job is subsidizing your passion and enabling you to take a stab at what you’d really love to do in life. This sort of phenomenon is actually more common with younger people, but you get the idea: A central purpose is what animates and livens even the most mundane of activities, giving them purpose and meaning where there otherwise would have been none.

If dates, milestone events, new concerts and so forth lack the lustre they once held for you, I’d start with the search for a new—or a refinement of your existing—central purpose. Even if at first glance your reaction is, ‘I have a purpose, what are you talking about?’ it’s possible that you drifted away from an animating purpose more than you realized. No worries, if so. So long as you possess mind and motivation, much remains possible for you.


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