Psychology Sociology

Lacking Purpose? Make Yourself Useful

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”  ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Do you ever feel like you are standing alone in a fog? Do you want to be passionate about something but can’t figure out what to do?

These days, we’re always being told to find our passion. I think this is not very good advice. It’s like telling someone who is unhappy to simply “find happiness”. If you’re trying to find your passion in a fog of purposelessness, you’re likely going to stumble around in a directionless haze, tormented by frustration.

Lacking purpose is an issue for many groups including the elderly, retirees, veterans, former high-level athletes, recent graduates, or those going through a mid-life crisis.

Erik Erikson described this phenomenon as the conflict of identity vs. role confusion, experienced in adolescence. I would go further than Erikson and argue this is not just an adolescent issue, but a universal issue that can be experienced at any age. Our sense of self is influenced by our social roles, so any kind of major life transition can provoke an identity crisis, affecting our sense of purpose.

So what is the antidote to purposelessness? Make yourself useful!

In theory, it sounds easy. It’s not too hard to find someone needing help. The problem is that you can’t be useful to anyone else if you’re not being useful to yourself first. So here is step one:

Be useful to yourself. Take care of your basic needs. organize the clutter in your physical environment and the chaos in your day-to-day life. Prioritize your sleep, nutrition, and exercise. If all of this sounds overwhelming, start small. As Jordan Peterson says, “Clean your damn room!” But as he also says, “Cleaning up your room involves cleaning up far more than your room.” Doing something useful for yourself is the first step in reorienting yourself amidst the mental fog of purposelessness. As the fog begins to thin out, you can start to see beyond yourself. This leads to step two:

Be useful to your family or close friends. Once you’re adequately useful to yourself and can help from a place of genuine giving, you can be useful to others close to you. I mention “genuine giving” because many people try to be useful to others without addressing their own needs first. This often results in codependent relationships where you do things for others to fill a lack of self-esteem in yourself. It is an experience of toxic shame where we constantly feel the need to prove ourselves and receive external validation. Once you’ve worked through these personal issues and can engage in close interpersonal relationships based on genuine heartfelt giving, the next step is this:

Be useful to the broader society. Once you’ve addressed your personal needs and can be of service to those closest to you, you can be useful to the broader society. This may happen in various ways. You can be useful in your work, volunteer roles, leisure activities, or even as an activist contributing to some form of social change. The key is that your way of contributing fits your unique personal strengths. A misalignment between your strengths, values, and interests can hinder your level of usefulness and the resulting level of purpose you feel toward the role. Finding alignment between your abilities and your role requires first knowing your strengths and cultivating them.

Since I recently turned thirty, I can say this is the greatest lesson I’ve learned during my twenties. Throughout the past decade of post-secondary education, I’ve had to constantly adjust the focus of my sociological studies to keep the purpose alive.

In the beginning, it was hard to imagine how sociology could be useful beyond the walls of academia, but that didn’t matter at the time. As in step one (be useful to yourself), sociology helped me make sense of the world, improved my critical thinking skills, and built my knowledge of history, politics, and human behavior. I learned how to write, how to present, and how to conduct myself in a professional environment.

Studying sociology was useful for me, but once I started my doctoral program, I questioned whether this was enough. It was hard to see how theorizing about “modernist discourses in a post-structural context” was useful to the broader world. Social theory often turns into an intellectual game of 3D chess played among career academics creating ever-new cleverly articulated problems that may or may not have any relation to the world outside the ivory tower. Luckily, I learned a lot while becoming skillful in the art of intellectual language games, but I had only been useful to myself.

After the first year of my doctoral program, my purpose became foggy. I asked myself, “What is the purpose of a university?” I knew the answer had to be something beyond self-enrichment, but I had become so entangled in theoretical jargon, I couldn’t even come up with a real problem to study. Here is an embarrassing excerpt from my original dissertation proposal draft:

“I will address the cultural meaning of technology in the context of recent developments in prosthetic technologies…. Building on the calls for a sociology of impairment that goes beyond the impairment/ disability dualism, while remaining critical of technological progress by engaging in a sociology of the prosthetic in order to consider the cultural meaning of technological enhancement for bodies marked as impaired.”

I was deep in the fog and couldn’t connect my own skills and interests to a broader social need. If you’ve been following my blog, you may know by now that I have come a long way since then. By the end of my second year I began reading war memoirs and discovered that many veterans are having serious issues adjusting to civilian life. They were struggling to find purpose in a world were they no longer feel useful. This was the moment I knew what I needed to study. I could make myself useful by shedding light on this important issue.

Shortly after discovering a renewed sense of purpose, I started this blog. It has served as a way to work through ideas in dialogue with non-sociologists, helping me keep my focus relevant and in touch with real issues.

Since graduating three years ago, I’ve learned how to be useful in therapeutic contexts, working directly with individuals who suffer with an addiction. As I continue learning and practicing, hopefully my usefulness grows, fueling a sense of purpose.

I never expected to end up in the addictions field. Simply trying to find a passion was not enough. I had found a passion in sociology but needed to rethink my usefulness to maintain the passion.

If you have lost your passion for something or are struggling to regain a sense of purpose after a major life transition, consider how you can make yourself useful to yourself, your family, and the broader society.

As Emerson states, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful…”. When you put happiness first, you find disappointment. When you put usefulness first, happiness follows.

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  1. This was so timely for me to read, thank you for writing it.

    Jordan Peterson also advises it is better to aim badly than to wander through life aimlessly and without a purpose:

    I absolutely adored studying sociology while in school and ended up in the field of youth work with a focus on mental health. However, I often find myself frustrated and cynical because of the precarity of the field, and the toxicity of office politics. While I despised armchair activism, direct work isn’t all that glamorous either.

    How can I be useful in my work when I feel bogged down by office politics and lack of autonomy? Re-focus. Be useful to myself, and my loved ones. Find volunteer work to be useful to my community, etc. Thank you again for the inspiration!

  2. Yes ! I also find that if you find a purpose in your everyday life, you will create a super passion for doing things and handling problem’s that may come our way. Passion not only feeds our insole but adds to a richer life for all .

  3. A very good and thought provoking read. I concur with the advice that we should make ourselves useful. In doing so, we bring joy to others and that gives our lives more meaning and satisfaction.

  4. This is so true!! I get excited every year when I return back to work from Summer Break (I’m a School Counselor), and I think I’ve realized that though the break is necessary for self-care, I crave the order and purpose.

  5. As an addict that slips in and out of addiction, I find that being purposely busy the main factor in remaining sober. My mind is overwhelmed with confusion, fear and lack of enthusiasm when I am in addiction. A thought provoking article. I never looked at usefulness as a part of my recovery until now.

    1. Thanks, Mark! Glad you’ve been able to connect to this article. We always hear the words “passion” and “purpose” but don’t often know what it means or how to develop it. I think looking at these concepts through the lens of “usefulness” is an effective way to put them into practice, in addition to connecting yourself with the broader social realm.

  6. I found this to be a great perspective on passion. You’re right about purpose. I think purpose and passion together are an even greater combo. You can also have passion with no purpose, which can be all over the place. You can also have purpose with out it being a passion focus too. Nice share. Thank you and appreciate it.

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