Reference: Finding Purpose and Meaning in Life

Finding Purpose and Meaning in Life

Notes are from January 2021


  • amygdala: the reactive part of our brain
  • vmPFC: the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the “wise self” in our brain (of sorts)
  • Hedonic happiness: more superficial – getting a car, buying things from yourself.
  • Eudaimonic happiness is more transcending, buying things for others, etc.
  • Purpose: A central, self-organizing life aim. A predominant theme of a person’s self. Motivates intention to dedicate resources in a particular direction and towards particular goals.

Victor Frankl observed the importance of purpose in surviving Nazi concentration camps. He referred a lot to Friedrich Nietzsche in his writings.

Reflection #1: When I’m at my best, I’m

  • Engaged & calm? Funny? Empathetic? Present/mindful and engaged, not worrying about my mental chatter.
  • This most recently manifests itself when I’m in small groups with people that I trust.

Reflection #2: what do I value?

  • Friends and family [list redacted]
  • Learning – in particular great books and high-quality courses that help me process the world better.

Reflection #3: a series of questions

  • What matters most?
    • My family and friends, the quality of the relationships and connections that I can create in this world.
    • My ability to help others.
    • Equality and fairness. Justice.
  • Who relies on you?
    • [redacted] relies on me to be a good partner.
    • [redacted] to some extent as a grandson who helps her out as needed supports her.
    • A few friends at times rely on me for advice and help, [redacted] relies on me for emotional support (just as I also rely on them)
  • Who inspires you?
    • Mom and her cheerful, yet determined, approach to life. Her ability to just roll with things and keep going.
    • Papá and aunties (Zully, Kathy) in their entrepreneurial pursuits.
    • People with a large vision that will improve humanity
  • What causes do you care about?
    • Equal access to opportunity — not necessarily outcomes but access to opportunity.
    • Expansion of great K-12 education
      • Totally fine not to go to college if you have a very robust K-12 education
      • College for specialization, it’s an expensive undertaking.
      • Alternatives to college for life experiences — internships, early training programs, work abroad, etc.
  • What are you grateful for?
    • I’m very privileged to have the means to sustain a good life, a good partner, and a large loving family.
    • My job keeps me engaged and pays well.
  • What gets you out of bed in the morning?
    • Recently, not sure. Need to figure this out.
  • How do you want to be remembered?
    • As someone who lived a full life –
      • accomplished a reasonable amount at work and
      • used the rewards from a good career to enjoy life with his loved ones and
      • helped establish a fairer society, opening the doors of opportunity for millions.


Purpose in life is all about who am I, what is my self all about, and what do I value the most? The two of these things together help you figure out the purpose in life.

Mortality is a great way to reflect on this —

Reflection #4: The headstone test

How do you want people to remember you, what should they say about you, once you pass away?

  • Omar was present, physically and mentally there for his friends and family. He cared about continuously learning new things, adapting knowledge into practice, and using that to improve his life and help others who may want his help.
  • Omar was kind and caring but firm in his convictions. He was a thinker and made sure that his actions were thought through and deliberate.

“Be” goals

I want to be:

  • Loving and playful, he is fun and spends significant time with close friends and family. A kind and thoughtful friend, who is caring but also pragmatic. Gifts his presence and shares his advice when helpful.
  • Cautious and deliberate, believer of evolution over revolution, supports pragmatic yet effective paths to improve access to opportunity and well-being for everyone.

Hedonic vs. Eudaimonic happiness

  • Hedonic is more superficial – getting a car, buying things from yourself.
  • Eudaimonic is more transcending, buying things on others, etc.
    • A study shows significantly less depressive symptoms in people with more eudaimonic motivations based on fMRI scans.
    • Less amygdala reaction when threatened.
    • Thinking of transcending values gets more blood flow to the vmPFC, which is our “wisest” self. Triggered by loving-kindness meditation, which improves your purpose in life.

Historic perspective

  • Around 500 years ago, in an agrarian society people had to work hard, then if things went well they had a little dance and party. If not, they struggled. There was little science and we just believed that our purpose was predetermined by God and we were the center of the universe.
  • Around 150 years ago, science started to take over and showed that what we thought we knew wasn’t all that true. Nietzsche proclaimed that “God is dead, we have killed him” by which he meant that by learning more via science we now knew that the Earth was not the center of the world and could deduce that there is probably no God.
  • Full quote from Nietzsche: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

“Thou shalt” Reflection

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche describes a dragon with “Thou shalt” glistening on its scales that represent 1,000 years of values — values that society, government, our parents, say we have no choice but to accept.

Please take a moment to reflect and share your response to the following prompts:

What “thou shalt” values do you notice in your life? Which ones do you accept and live by?

  • Be kind to other people
  • Give others the benefit of the doubt
  • Work on improving yourself and contribute something of value to society
  • Take time to laugh and have fun
  • Read. Read books more than anything else.

Which ones, if any, do you (or did you) choose to slay like the lion?

  • Religion as the path to being “good”
  • Extremes of pursuing fun, wealth, piety, etc. Just no extremes, find balance.

Which of your values are ones that have been born anew, like the baby?

  • Prioritizing financial freedom over material possessions.
  • Rethinking charitable actions – reducing support for elite institutions and favor others that are more truly helpful to the disadvantaged.

Purpose and freedom

  • Nietzsche: freedom!
  • Sartre: “we are condemned to be free”; we have to build our own sense of purpose when we are free and no one is telling us what to do.
  • Camus: why do we care to go on living and not all kill ourselves? Purpose. The myth of Sysiphus delves into this. In essence, we need a purpose in life to keep going.

Albert Camus

  • Joined the French resistance against the Nazis, a non-trivial thing given the threat of Nazis torturing you if they caught you. An atheist who believed in France – that was the cause he cared about enough to live and die for it.

What kind of cook are you?

  • Even Hitler had a purpose, although not good for humanity he had a cause he cared about and was willing to die for it.
  • Soren Kierkegaard, a strong believer in Christianity and one of the existentialists. “The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.”
  • Ventromedial (vmPFC – self) and dorsolateral (dlPFC – material costs) prefrontal interactions
    • Jihadists’ brains were scanned and they had more blood flow and activity in their vmPFC than in the dlPFC when seeing the statement “Armed jihad should be waged against the enemies of Muslims.”
    • Putting the self and purpose ABOVE the material costs of that purpose.
  • Pick what kind of cook you are:
    • Don’t know or care to learn – stay out of the kitchen or philosophizing!
    • Need a recipe – e.g., a religion or guiding tenets.
      • Can follow the Golden Rules: do onto others as you would have them do unto you.
      • Reverse golden rule: do not do to yourself what you wouldn’t do to others.
    • Chef – took the time to learn the ins and outs. May be hard to do!

The Curious Camel

  • Explore the world, get exposed to others, take gap years, spend time with people who are dying — all of these will teach you quite a lot. The dying will often teach you the importance of love, giving — eudaimonic values!
  • Shadow other people and ask them about their lives and work and really find out what it’s like.
  • James Arinaitwe – Teach for Uganda – “Families that break down are the ones who have no purpose or vision for the family. Purpose goes hand in hand with hope. Hope for their children. Hope for a better life. In the West, people may not relate to this, but this is how we think. Purpose sustains poor people.”

Story: Obuntu (humanity)

  • James Kassaga Arinaitwe – grandma walked with James to the capital of Uganda, Kampala, to talk to the prime minister and ask him to give him an education, James had orphaned due to both parents dying of AIDS.
    • After a month of trying every day to talk to the prime minister, he talked to the prime minister’s wife; she put him in private school and gave him an education.
    • He wanted to give back, thus founded Teach for Uganda.

Turning Purpose into Be goals and Actions

  • Purpose:Develop strong, meaningful relationships with friends, family, and colleagues.
    • Be: Mindful and present
      • Meditate
    • Be: Active and Energetic
      • Workout
      • Sleep 8 hrs/day
      • Eat nutritious and balanced meals
    • Be: Interesting
      • Read books
    • Be: Caring
      • Remember key dates – send gifts or messages.
  • Purpose:Do something useful for society as a whole
    • Be: Competent and of value to others
      • Work diligently
      • Learn new things
    • Be: Inspiring & confident
      • Executive presence
    • Be: Active and Energetic
      • See above

Why purpose works, the science

  • Pathway #1 – Psychological: A sense of purpose can make stressors around you not stress you out as much. It’s a stressor buffer!
    • A study in Chicago found that those that reaffirmed their purpose before getting on a train with lots of diversity, which usually causes stress to increase, were much less distressed, alone, or afraid. (1.2 vs. control of 4.7)
    • Students applying for a job had to explain in front of those responsible for evaluating them for the job. Those with a higher purpose in life got as stressed but recovered much quicker, based on cortisol levels measured.
    • A study showed participants images of things like a dog attacking them, which increases blood flow to the amygdala and lowers it to the vmPFC, a few seconds later the vmPFC gets very active and the amygdala starts to shrink. This “bounce” from amygdala activation to vmPFC activation doesn’t happen to everyone. Kids that were emotionally abused often don’t have this bounce, but if you have a strong sense of purpose in life then there’s no significant difference between the “bounce” in those adults that experienced emotional abuse vs. those that didn’t.
  • Pathway #2 – Behavioral: people with a sense of purpose help them live longer. Part of the reason is because of the behavioral changes due to purpose in life.
    • Study with couch potatoes: when asking people what they care about in an fMRI then told them “you need to work out more” and gave them an accelerometer and a smartphone, in the smartphone they were prompted to think about their purpose (self-affirmation) and then gave them workout tips.
      • Findings: when in the fMRI machine the vmPFC was much more active, as expected, in those that were affirming or thinking of their purpose. They were also less sedentary over the next 30 days as measured by activity from the accelerometer. The stronger the vmPFC activation in the fMRI machine the more the sedentary levels reduced.
    • Cookie study: self-transcending (hedonic) vs. self-enhancing (eudaimonic)
      • UMich students in a study were told that groups would review their info and pick them but then were told that no group picked them. They were then split into 3 groups in which they were either control, primed in self-transcending values, primed in self-enhancing values. Then they were told “since you weren’t picked for that study, there’s another study we can have you participate in about cookies – you need to rate them and you can eat as many as you want” in 8 minutes.
        • The control group ate 8.2 cookies.
        • Self-enhancing 5 cookies
        • Self-trascending 3 cookies.
    • Future orientation: a sense of purpose tends to yield more money and net worth for individuals over the longer term. It seems that a sense of purpose helps individuals focus on doing the right things for doing well in the long term.
      • vmPFC: helps determine what is most valuable to us; for example, should I focus on buying a new car or on helping my family. Very different things but somehow your vmPFC helps you determine what to focus on, determine the value of them.
      • The vmPFC takes input from the rest of your brain and then helps determine the value across various things. When there’s a conflict between things you want – e.g., have a drink or go workout – the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) sends a strong signal if you have a weak purpose that increases this conflict. But, if you have a strong sense of purpose, the dACC doesn’t get as stimulated, and you bypass the conflict to do what’s better aligned with your purpose.
  • Pathway #2 – Biological: people with more eudaimonic values have a less pro-inflammatory effect and more antibodies in their bodies. Telomeres are kept happy with telomerase.
    • Prosocial behaviors may be very important to move the gene pool forward over time, so there may be biological ways to keep around longer those with those behaviors.