When I observe our dogs, I often envy their seeming ease in the world. Sure, Pippin gets anxious when we leave the house (and the couch cover gets a wee bit more torn up as a result); Poppy cringes when treats are tossed her way (perhaps because she was abused before we rescued her); and Hershel has a pillow fetish (enough said), but most of the time their emotions range from contentment and serenity to exuberance and joy.
Our dogs do not waste their precious lives fretting about their purpose in life. We humans often do.
For most of our existence, Homo sapiens’ purpose was clear: cooperate with the members of our community to survive and thrive. That’s the purpose of many species, but unlike dogs, when we take away our daily tasks of foraging for food and finding shelter, and layer onto our psychology a modern world where …
- We might be doing a job that lacks meaning for us.
- Doom-scrolling through news about suffering and destruction across the globe.
- Experiencing self-doubt (or worse) by constantly exposing ourselves to the carefully curated posts of friends on social media that make us feel like our lives don’t measure up.
- Living lives marked by loneliness and lack of connection.
… The act of seeking purpose and meaning begins to become essential.
Fortunately, there’s a relatively simple way for many of us to find purpose and meaning, and it begins with three questions:
- What issues in my community, nation, or world most concern me, or—put another way—what problem(s) do I most want to solve?
- What am I good at?
- What do I love to do?
Maybe you’re concerned about people in your community who don’t have enough nutritious food to eat. Maybe you agonize about the billions of animals who are treated cruelly in modern agriculture systems. Maybe you’re most upset about the impacts of climate change or about women and girls in Afghanistan whose jobs and access to education have ended under Taliban rule. Maybe your biggest concerns are personal and revolve around challenges in your own life and family.
These problems and issues may keep you up at night, wear you down, and leave you feeling powerless. But you are not powerless. You can become a solutionary. In doing so, you’ll be a force for positive change while infusing your life with meaning and purpose.
The solutionary process is a step-by-step approach that helps you learn about the causes of problems that concern you; connect with stakeholders; find leverage points for change; devise solutions that address the causes and do the most good and least harm for people, animals, and the environment; and then implement your ideas. But before you follow the process, reflecting upon what you’re good at and what you love to do is helpful. That’s because you could come up with brilliant ideas for solving problems, but if you have no ability or motivation to put your ideas into practice, purpose and meaning may devolve into frustration. Of course, you could share your great ideas—especially if one of your skills and joys is communication and networking—but regularly making the world a better place as a solutionary, in a way that employs your talents and that you enjoy, is one of the best ways to create a deeply fulfilling life that results in a positive feedback loop of meaning and purpose.
For example, you may be someone who loves politics. After going through the solutionary process, you may have a great idea for legislation that could lead to the end of cruel factory farming in your state or nation. If you also enjoy lively conversation and debate and have a personality that thrives on talking to strangers and building bridges, you might turn your interest in politics into action that creates positive change through the political system. Maybe you’d even run for office to create systemic change.
Perhaps reading the paragraph above makes you want to run for the hills rather than run for office, because the very thought of politics, and the conflicts it can engender, overwhelms you. Yet, you may also be a person like the solutionary above who is concerned about factory farming. While you might steer clear of politics, it’s possible that you have a love and talent for filmmaking. Imagine bringing your artistic talents to bear by creating a documentary: you’d help end factory farming by doing something you love and finding greater meaning and purpose at the same time.
Answering the three questions above and following the solutionary process requires introspection, commitment, and practice, yet in my experience, following this path is a near-perfect recipe for living a meaningful life without regrets. While I may envy Pippin, Poppy, and Hershel, there’s little I can do to change the nature of my psyche. I need to live a life of meaning and purpose. I’m grateful there’s a way to combine what I care about with my skills and talents in order to do so. If you become a solutionary, I suspect that you will find meaning and purpose, too.