Want to be Happy? Then decide your ‘Purpose’

“Clap along if you feel that happiness is the truth”

Recently I met a person who, on paper, had pretty much everything going for him. Happy Family? Kids thriving? Career success? Solid finances? Not bad, eh? (as they say in Canada). Years ago someone said to me: “If everyone put their problems on the table, you’d soon take back your own.” So, with everything going swimmingly well, why was this guy talking to an Executive Coach? When he told me that he’d lost his passion for life, I was reminded of the title of Bob Geldofs’ autobiography: “Is that it?” Just for fun, let’s make a couple of assumptions about your life. All the day-to-day stuff is taken care of. For example, your mortgage is repaid (or well on the way). Despite your worst fears, none of your kids became full-time drug dealers in South America. And you like your partner, most of the time. But even with all this good stuff in place, is there another level of happiness to aspire to? Could re-discovering your core purpose/passion add more value? Before we address this question head on, lets take a trip down memory lane into the early history of psychology/thinking about happiness.

Mental Health Problems: 100 years ago, Sigmund Freud, the so-called ‘father of psychoanalysis’, believed that mental health problems were driven by unconscious forces linked to our basic instincts (sex and aggression). Freud’s core thesis was that the repression of unpleasant or painful memories from childhood produce neurotic symptoms. These (unconscious) repressed experiences negatively influence our mental functioning. When they are brought back into conscious awareness and re-experienced (in hypnosis or psychoanalysis), they can essentially be ‘cleaned up’ i.e. we become free of this underpinning anxiety. While Freud’s views have been significantly modified in the intervening years, his genius was highlighting the importance of unconscious processes. Even those who debate his central thesis, acknowledge his contribution to understanding mental functioning and his realism when he said that the goal of psychoanalysis was to “turn neurotic misery into ordinary human unhappiness” (Freud, 1905). So, should ordinary human unhappiness become our aim point? Perhaps we can aspire to something a bit better than that.

Life Purpose: Roll that psychology clock forward by 50 years – until just after the 2nd World War. Following his experiences in Auschwitz, Victor Frankl suggested that a ‘higher purpose’ can literally be life saving, helping people to live through the most dire circumstances. Much earlier, the German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had made a very similar point: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Along with many others, for years I searched for this magic purpose elixir in my own life. There were some cul-de-sacs along the way….

The Zero Direction Conference: In the mid 1990’s, I attended the Leicester Conference run by the Tavistock Institute. Over a two-week period the goal was to consider Organisational Leadership. Other than beginning and end times, there were absolutely zero instructions or formal content. Our group (circa 120 participants) had ‘facilitators’ who sat in and listened as the group spoke about every topic imaginable (the killing of Jews; Paedophilia; why women don’t feel safe etc.). About 99.8% of the time when we were together, the course leader said absolutely nothing. He came into the room, sometimes made acerbic comments (“The next thing someone will ask for is the minutes of this meeting”) then walked out precisely on time at the end of each session. He was quickly followed out the door by a group of sub-leaders – none of whom had made any interventions into the group discussion. The group leaders didn’t eat with the students but dined in a separate room. Several times during the 2-week programme they suggested that the ‘students’ fantasised that the course leaders were having sex (presumably on the premise that they were our substitute parents for the duration of the programme; the comments were never explained and no-one challenged this). If you saw this group of academics in the flesh – let me assure you that they didn’t inspire too many sexual fantasies. Overall, it was bizarre, as if we were part of some hidden camera social science experiment. I was half expecting Ant and Dec to jump out of one of the Harry Potter styled rooms to explain everything. Did I learn anything from this? Yes, for sure. I learned never to put people through this form of undirected learning where the most persistent and troubling thought was that we were missing something mystical (I’ve since come to the view that it was a case of The Emperors New Clothes). While I personally didn’t find any purpose there – it was part of a journey. Ruling out certain things or areas is part of your exploration phase.

Self Discovery: In the same way that students need direction, sometimes people who come for Executive Coaching also seek direction, even asking the coach to co-select a purpose for them. The danger, of course, is that in offering direction, you are working on your own rather than their needs: “In environments where the onus is on ‘getting the job done’, it’s perhaps understandable that cutting to the chase with bold instruction is the management style of choice for many” (Keddy et al 2011: 13). You can’t hand someone a life purpose – they have to discover it for themselves. It could be something completely new e.g. joining the Board of Temple Street Children’s hospital and bringing your managerial expertise to bear in that forum. It might be something ‘old’ i.e. re-discovering that you are already 92% happy (recognising that it doesn’t get any better) – the old line is that happiness is wanting what you have rather than having what you want. Sometimes, people seek to embrace a higher order calling and embark on a journey (reading, travelling, working with a not-for-profit organisation, reflection exercises and so on) to discover or reconnect with their passion in life. Sometimes it’s simpler stuff – like reducing your golf handicap by 2 shots or winning the Prize Rose rosette at the garden fete.

Good Problem: Across the world so many people are consumed with putting basic stuff into place. Avoiding being shot in a war zone. Securing enough food to survive. Having somewhere to live. Getting a baseline education for your children. And so on. For those of us lucky enough to have taken care of the ‘bare necessities’, we may begin to suffer from what can be described as ‘middle-class angst’. It’s a different set of worries that, on one level, may seem trite (“I’m getting fat/going bald”; “My wardrobe is so ‘last season’”). But, it’s not trite. While your worries may not make the front page of the Irish Times, they are often front and centre of your own thought process. Not everyone will set out to resolve world hunger, but each of us can set out to resolve dilemmas in our own life. Having a clear purpose – a clear and compelling aim point – is the route to happiness for many people (assuming that you don’t have to worry about where the next meal will come from). It’s a privilege to help clients wrestle with this dilemma – but also a challenge to know what to do about it. Asking the question: “What am I passionate about?” is often the first step.

Have a good one.


PS: Lighter Moments: “They say a Freudian slip is when you say one thing, but you really mean your mother.”

The Driver: A renowned philosopher was held in high regard by his driver. The driver listened in awe at every speech while his boss would answer questions about morality and ethics. Then one day the driver approached the philosopher and asked if he was willing to switch roles for the evening’s lecture. The philosopher agreed and, for a while, the driver handled himself remarkably well as he’d heard the arguments so often.

When it came time for questions from the guests, a woman in the back asked, “Is the epistemological view of the universe still valid in an existentialist world?”

“That is an extremely simple question,” he responded. “So simple, in fact, that even my driver could answer that, which is exactly what he will do….”

Valentines Day: For the past 20 years I received a Valentines Card from a secret admirer. I was sad when I didn’t get one this year. First my Gran dies, now this!

Check our website http://www.tandemconsulting.ie or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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