The study of systems is the science of how things relate to each other. When one part of a system moves, adjustments are made to insure the relationship between the parts stay the same. To accomplish this feat, the system must contain some way of perceiving the change, comparing the change to some desired goal-state, and having the capacity of making a correction so the relationship between components remain the same. One of the functions of memory is to store these goal-states and to store historical attempts of achieving the goal-states. Being able to decide which goals to choose, and which paths to follow makes the system purposeful.
From this model we might deduce several goal-state objectives for our lives:
- To live it. We are here. That is not debatable. We all have to eat, have clothes on our backs, and a place to live. These needs drive us to the next set of goals.
- To work for a living. Once the first human stuck the seed in the ground with their own hands, the course of our existence changed forever. Agriculture was born, and society changed. No longer did we wonder as hunters, but took up roots, planted crops, and defended our planting lands. Today, our society is so complicated that every one must show up to their work and do their part. No matter what you do, everyone is a producer of something and a consumer of everything.
- To reproduce. Creativity is a trait of the human. We reproduce at either end of our spinal cords. We add ideas to the culture and/or other people.
- To nurture what we reproduced. Nurture is more than just care-taking of the infant, but involves parenting of the young, mentoring of the adolescent, and guiding those adults who come after us to lead sustainable lives. Our culture is the stream of values that we hold in common. To participate in society as a whole means to develop, challenge, change, and protect these processes. Values change, the process may also change, but it is this “collective consciousness” that we are able to live our lives with certainty. The existing culture is always the basis of the future.
- To become a fully functioning, fully developed human being.
What separates humans from other animals? Our instincts and social worlds are different and also the same. What set us apart is our capacity to think about what we are thinking about. Humans create symbols reflecting what they are thinking about and these symbols can be transmitted to other humans over long distance and between generations. If you will, humans change their lives by the use of knowledge. This knowledge can be used to lower existential anxiety so we do not have to live in fear all of the time. Carl Jung believed that humans follow someone, or something. He proposed that humans did not invent God, but rather choose to follow Him/Her.
Thus, humans can move up to a higher place of existence beyond instincts, beyond pleasing the social group, by choosing to seek out higher-ordered standards to live by. And when we do this, what is experienced maybe spiritual. Humans can come into contact with an altered consciousness beyond people, places, and things. The choice is simple; live by FEAR or live by GROWTH. Each one of us chooses either/or, but not both.
We are presented with an endless number of choices every day of their lives. How does a person know which goals to choose and which path will take them to the goals? Personal effectiveness measures the ability of the individual to pick the RIGHT THING to do and their ability to accomplish it. It contains the elements of alterative listing, prioritizing, choosing, determination and commitment to follow the right path towards those goal-states, sufficient level of energy (vitality) to overcome the presented hurdles, and completing the task of goal attainment. Some people are better at these tasks than others.
At the instinct level, these goal-choices generally are associated with sustenance and reproduction. These set-points and preprogrammed paths were forged over a long period by Darwinian principles, for example, mating rituals. The next level up in the human brain and also level of human development is social. These socially determined set-points and goal paths are provided by the environment. Parents and culture use guilt for bad actions and avoiding shame as a means of controlling behaviors. The highest level set-points used to run one’s life is based upon principles. These principles seem to be common to all humans; principles that transcend culture, time, fads, and style. Here we become more concerned about the quality of life rather than the quantity. We think differently about our place in the world, and what the world really offers to help us achieve our higher-ordered principle goals. Thus, we perceive the goal-state of Personal Sustainability as an over riding principle for our lives.
My operating definition: Meaning is about making a choice to which groups I want to belong, and purpose is what I do for the group. Groups exist for their own mission and my membership supports the mission. Meaning is the chain and purpose is the links holding the chain together. All the links might look exactly the same, but when the chain is challenged the roles played by each of the links are different. Depending on their location along the chain’s length, and how the chain is challenged, the chain experiences different tensile and shear forces on each one of the links. Meaning within the group provides supportive confidence to go out into the world, explore new ideas, people, and places, and to take on new knowledge. The sense of personal power comes from this ability to push against the environment and make a space for our selves. We feel happy when we have our own space. We have a sense of worth as we exercise our purpose as part of the group, and we feel esteemed by the group for our efforts.
The choice of which group to join does not provide meaning. Meaning comes from the fulfillment of purpose that gives a person a sense that they are making a valuable contribution within the matrix of connection to a common purpose with others. The ultimate experience is spiritual which happens when the individual achieves awareness that they are connected to something larger than them selves. Their activities and actions become an expression of higher-ordered principles. Their personal goal becomes one of perfection and transcendence of the common means of pleasure and pain avoidance to these new standards. They find purpose for their lives within the context of the meaning of the group.
In very practice terms, we experience this process when we wonder about how to earn a living. How are we going to do that? We have to make a choice and answer a fundamental question about ourselves. Will we earn a living by finding a job, being an employee or having a career? I suspect that it is through the work performed for pay, we find the easiest way of experiencing group participation, performance feedback, esteem, meaning, and purpose. Work for some people provides meaning while for someone else, it is participation within the family or community. I suspect the differing experience that one feels between work and family, Republican or Democrat, God or no God, is the striving to find individual meaning. The sense of meaning provides from each person, the sense of wholeness, valued and competence. When these individuals enter the room, it lights up with their inner light beaming out towards others sitting in the same room. We are attracted to them.
Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Meanings of life. New York: Guilford.
Frankl, V. E. (1959). Man’s search for meaning. New York: Pocket