At one extreme, Steve Jobs said he lived each day “as if it were the last day of my life.” On the other hand, millions have their basic requirements more than fulfilled and yet still pursue daily activities as a means to some distant, future end. This is not just a modern phenomenon. In 1854 Thoreau wrote, “When we consider what is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left.”
Examining and implementing purpose in life is not a question for philosophical meditations. Our underlying drivers and motives affect not just ourselves but our families and our societies and the world at large.
What gives rise to our life purposes? In 1943 the psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote a paper called “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Maslow suggested a classification of human needs, from basic necessities to more advanced achievements. Two broad types of needs are:
- Deficiency needs: These include food, sleep, shelter – without which we cannot survive
- Growth needs: These include creative accomplishments and work benefiting wider society – these give greater meaning to our lives
A management consultant drew these needs in the form of a pyramid, as shown below.
A modern view of Maslow’s pyramid is based on advances in evolutionary biology and neuroscience. We now know that the human brain is just a larger primate brain. The primates include our cousins, the chimpanzees and gorillas). During evolution, the human brain has added layers to pre-existing features. These layers include parts that are more concerned with pure survival, other parts that deal with emotional behaviours and the most recent part – the neocortex – deals with complex thoughts.
Through our neocortex, we can think of purposes that go beyond basic needs. We can imagine benefiting a wider set of people and looking after the entire earth. This modern part of our brain gives us both the creative arts and the sciences and allows us to reach what Maslow called “self-actualization.”
Self Actualisation, Maslow said, arises when humans live their lives with an awareness of and deep absorption in issues of truth, beauty, and justice. They expand our circles of concern to all peoples, transcending narrow personal and tribal needs.
We would do well to remember the words of neuroscientist Abhijit Naskar, “If you want to leave something for your children, leave a better world, not heaps of money.” In this way, we give true purpose to our lives.
© Kaikhushru Taraporevala