Today, I want to talk about purpose, and what it means for us artists.
I have recently read an article about how young people who engaged themselves in climate change activism saw a reduction in mental health symptoms. According to the article, climate change activism has helped to “counteract powerlessness and the sense of being done to” among children and teenagers. Activism seems to reduce anxiety and isolation, and give more positivity to those who are taking part in it.
“The anger and disenchantment [young people] feel politically takes them out of just a narrow view of themselves and what their body is doing. It is a direction of travel.”Jenny Brown, headteacher of the City of London School for Girls
In other words, it gives them purpose.
Purpose and Mental Health
There’s a lot to say about the role of purpose in mental health, but today I’d like to talk about my personal situation, and the time I felt purposeless.
It was just after I had quit my career in science, after 2 years of psychological abuse from my boss. I was back in Belgium, living in a flat with other people, working a temporary job that I didn’t care about. I was not writing, because I didn’t see the point of it. At the time, I had no goal. Nothing meant anything. As you can imagine, my mental health was pretty bad and I was diagnosed with depression.
Then, through therapy, help from other people and self-introspection, I felt better, little by little. But I didn’t feel “happier” or “more motivated”. No. I slowly understood the meaning of what had happened to me, what I was doing there, and what I was supposed to do in life. See, my mood really depended on this understanding to get better. Without a purpose, I could not heal. And once I found it, my depression receded.
Now, I am not saying that purpose is the magical cure for depression, but there is a very close link between lacking purpose and mental health issues such as depression. There are several studies that explore this link, and the findings indicate that if your life feels meaningless, you are much more at risk of developing a mental illness.
Knowing that, I think it is essential to explore what you do and why you do it.
Why You Do What You Do
I’ve talked about it in my first book: there’s a TED talk that I’ve watched many times from Tony Robbins:
It’s one of the most popular TED talks, and for a good reason. It addresses a very important question: WHY? It makes you ask yourself: what is your drive? What do you fulfil when you do your art, your job, every activity you do every day of your life.
I believe the “why” question is a key component to finding your purpose. It will help you isolate the things that you do consistently, and why you are doing them.
Finding a Purpose
Now that you understand why you do all the things you do, it’s time to see it in the framework of purpose. I have written about this work in more details in my new book, Happy Not Tortured. In a nutshell, the goal is to answer the question: what is the meaning of YOUR life?
To make it clearer to you, I’m going to list questions that will help you centre on the answer:
- What do I do all the time without feeling tired?
- What would I do if I had millions in the bank and didn’t need to work?
- What do I do very well?
- What did I do last time I helped someone?
- What do I feel concerned about?
- What bothers me?
- What are my strengths?
- What makes me feel good about myself?
- What comes easily to me?
- What do people say about me that makes me feel accomplished?
You purpose might not be a simple, neat, answer. Life rarely is that clean. Everyone thinks that you need to find a grandiose purpose, something generous, something heroic even, to be admired and shared to everyone. In reality, your purpose doesn’t have to be grandiose or heroic. And it can nebulous at first, too complicated or personal to share.
Goals Can Change Along the Way
This is also something that most people don’t necessarily understand: your purpose can change. Perhaps you gave yourself a certain goal when you were a teenager, but you don’t see it as important anymore. That doesn’t mean that your life has no purpose anymore, it just means that you need to do the work again and find what has changed in your needs, in your values and your circumstances.
For example, I recently re-examined my purpose and the meaning I gave to my own life thanks to the work I do for The Part-Time Artist. With this business, I want to be able to help artists create more and be happier, and I want to entertain at the same time. And I also want to influence young people about issues that I care about, while also communicating my values to the people around me.
But years and years ago, these were not things I really cared about. I was not really concerned about other artists until I became very active on social media and witnessed the suffering and anguish of so many people. The purpose that I have now would have been completely foreign to me years ago.
If you are thinking about your purpose, make sure you don’t re-hash dreams and purposes that were valid years ago but don’t have much meaning anymore. It’s OK to change direction in life.
Keeping Track of Your Purpose
Now that you have an idea of where you are going, we need to talk about another important part of how it can help your mental health: you need to keep track of it.
It is so easy to lose track of what meant so much to you. It’s so easy to think that your purpose, that previously felt so important, suddenly is less important because other more pressing stuff happen in your life. I’ve done it, many times over.
The trick is to remind yourself, over and over, why you do what you do. It is to use visual or audio reminders of your purpose, of what it means to you.
Every time you feel directionless, or deflated, or demotivated, you can refer to these reminders. I have written my purposes, and I re-read them when I need it. I also keep track of proofs that I’m moving forward with my purpose: I keep emails, messages and reviews of people who are helped by my book, my podcast or my blog. These are concrete results that I have received while I’m working towards my goals. This is important to have when you feel like you are not moving forward.
What’s Your Purpose?
I hope that this article has helped you. I think in general, we get so busy and taken by urgent things that we can lose purpose easily, and it can impact our mental health. So if you feel lost, I hope that this work can help you find a way to move forward.
Don’t hesitate to share here your thoughts on the subject!
Céline is an author and podcaster passionate about helping fellow artists reach their potential and live a happy, balanced life.