Courtney Snyder, MD
Purpose, Healing and Happiness
Whatever language, symbolism or religious framework we use or try not to use, many of us believe there's a reason each of us are here ...at this time, in this place and with these people. Though I think a lot about the details of health, I fall short on the bigger picture of healing if I forget that our wellbeing depends on much more, not the least of which is having a deep sense of purpose in our lives.
Purpose can energize us. It is a reason to do the hard work; to get out of bed. It lowers stress and it’s associated physiologic responses. Futility is stressful. So is incongruence - the mismatch between our natural abilities and passions and what we’re actually doing. With purpose comes a clarity about what and with whom we want to spend our time.
Where to Find It
Perhaps one of our jobs in this lifetime is to figure out our purpose. What are we uniquely suppose to bring to the universal table? Some of us have known our purpose from childhood. Some of us, only after slowly peeling away the layers. For some, this work will take a lifetime. Others may never seek it out or hope someone else will. Yet, there’s no family member, friend, colleague, therapist or even guru that knows where our unique purpose lies. While there are many useful psychotherapeutic models, many won’t directly speak to purpose in our lives. Exploring wounds, identifying and expressing feelings effectively and identifying certain thought patterns and learning alternatives are all very important. But, if “What are you doing here…in this world, right now?” isn’t being asked, then opportunities for deeper healing and happiness are being missed.
Celebrating the Ego
It takes effort to resist the predominant cultural mindset which values achievement, wealth, appearances and getting ahead. This ego driven existence starts early. We put our youngest of souls into the rat race, never considering how to help them unwrap their greatest gifts - gifts that were intended not just for them (and their families), but for the larger whole.
But for the ego (a/k/a fear), there'd be no trick to leading a life full of purpose. The ego asks, “What will they think?” and “What will they say?” ...Whoever they are..., the ego assures, they will judge. We respond accordingly, follow the “should's,” avoid the failures and follow the ego down an empty path. We hope the approving pats on the back will sustain us. They never do.
Unless we find ourselves in a crisis - a loss, a death, illness or the possibility of our own death, we often don’t listen to a deeper part of ourselves. If crisis doesn’t come, middle age will - parents will age or die, children will become less dependent, and the self-important work will start to feel unimportant. Ladders to climb are replaced with mortality and the inevitable question, “Is this all there is?”
The Soul Laughs
Our soul loves all this upheaval. Only then can it's questions be heard. “What are you bringing to the world?” “Why do you matter?” The soul wants to take us to a more satisfying form of happiness - one that accepts that suffering and hard work are part of the gig. The soul doesn’t avoid the human condition. It wants us to get over ourselves and not worry about perfection. It laughs at approval. The pats on the back mean very little except when they convey genuine human connection. The soul believes we’re here to get some things done, to love the other souls we connect with along the way and to have gratitude for all that life has to offer.
So what if the soul has it right? What if it’s not about us? What if it’s not about what we can get, but what we can give? What bold and fearless risks would we take if fear/ego wasn't holding us back? What if instead of waking each morning with taxing thoughts of stress and worry, we thought instead about how we can bring whatever we have to others. This might include saying hello to a stranger, caring, teaching or loving another person, creating something that will change millions of lives for the better or maybe it involves focusing on our own healing, so we can get well and help other’s who are suffering. Unfortunately, it takes scientific research to tell us what we already know - that the act of giving and doing good deeds has positive impacts on health and happiness.
An Intentional Shift
While a crisis can shift us to a life of purpose, so can the daily practice of asking questions like: “Why am I here?” “Why do I have this goal?” “Is this choice ego driven or soul driven?” Keep in mind self care is usually for the greater good.
A practice I do is to write down 2 lines each morning about how I hope/intend to bring whatever it is I think I have to offer. Similarly, at the end of the day, I jot down a couple of thoughts on how I think that went. Not unlike a daily gratitude exercise, this practice can create neuroplastic changes (changes in the way our neurons are connected) and in doing so, move us to a different way of thinking about our days and life.
Inspiration for me has come in many forms, but mostly from those people who humbly and with a quiet confidence live out impactful lives. Those are the people, I think, the world desperately needs. I think the world is waiting for us to be those people.
I'm a conventionally trained child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist. My current approach to health is both holistic (pertaining to the whole person) and functional (addressing the root causes of illness). I write this blog to share what I've learned.