Power, pleasure and purpose. Each of us is driven by a combination of these three powerfully human drives. It’s the relative strength of each drive that makes us different. The search for each is understandable. Each has its own rewards … and difficulties. Seeking after pleasure seems a sure bet. Pleasure makes us feel good. And people who are having a good time are attractive to be around. Hedonism has its own rewards – look at Hugh Hefner. Wealthy, well-known. Is he happy? Satisfied? Only he knows.
The successful drive for power, which includes of course the drive for money, makes a person more physically comfortable, more confident about the future, more attractive to others who seek the security that power offers and makes the comforts of the world more accessible. I think it was Henry Kissinger who said that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Why else would attractive and otherwise intelligent women end up consorting with or marrying powerful men who have all the attractiveness of toads? (No offense to toads, of course). It’s the attraction of celebrity, security or the pleasure to be gained from access to the money.
Perhaps 15 percent of people have power as their primary driver and another 15 percent expend much of their effort seeking pleasure before power or purpose. But the majority of people find, over the course of their lives, that seeking purpose is more powerful than either the pursuit of power or the pursuit of pleasure. Perhaps that is because the pursuit of either power or pleasure has an inherent flaw. The flaw is that one can never have enough of power or pleasure.
If one could ever have enough power, why is it that very rich people seek to gain even more wealth? Why is it that powerful politicians or rulers of countries are never satisfied with their power? They always seek more, at the expense of their electorates, their fellow politicians or their neighbours. It doesn’t seem to make much difference whether the political system is democratic or demagogic. People after a “successful” – meaning financially rewarding or reaching the top of the political or corporate ladder – career may find that the ladder has all along been placed on the wrong wall.
If one can have enough pleasure, why is it that people seek even more, often at the destruction of their own health? Drug addicts, alcoholics, hedonists seek more of whatever it is they find in their quest for ever more pleasure. People seek ever more extreme amounts of whatever it is that they are addicted to. There is no ultimate pleasure, there is no ultimate power … not for us humans. Pleasure addicts find, if they are very lucky, that there is no ultimate satisfaction to be found in pleasure.
To quote de Florian, as popularized by Nana Mouskouri, “Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment, Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie” (The pleasure of love lasts only a moment, the chagrin lasts a lifetime). And more bluntly, to quote Lord Chesterfield (or perhaps Samuel Johnson) on the matter of sexual pleasure, “The pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous, and the expense damnable.” And I am not knocking the drive for sex. It’s a fundamental and powerful human drive, it’s just not long-lasting pleasure, although it seems like it at the time.
Seeking purpose is a more difficult venture. Many of us come to it later in life after we have tried other sources of satisfaction, because in the end they leave us unsatisfied. Each of us has to find our own meaning or purpose in life. It is not something that can be defined by others. For many, it can be faith in their God, which can be a great gift, if you have it. For others, it can be service to their fellows, or to other species. It can be research or study, bird-watching or anything that gives you satisfaction that endures.
It’s instructive to note how many people who are or have been philanthropists are those who were very successful in gaining wealth but found that simply having a huge amount of wealth is eventually crippling. What do you do after you have amassed so much wealth that you can purchase anything? Where is the continuing challenge? It seems to me that they have come to the realization that the accumulation of wealth does not offer satisfaction that endures. Also note how many people who end up helping others in very meaningful ways first had to battle their way through the excesses of pleasure.
Let me offer an example of how important meaning is in one’s life. Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who was an inmate and a survivor of four Nazi extermination camps for three years during World War Two. In his excellent book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, he speaks at length about the people who survived and the ones who didn’t. Those who had a reason to live, no matter what it was, had a better chance of survival than those who did not. He notes that often people who did not have a specific reason to live would eventually just give up, and typically they would die within a day or two. He also made note that the only – only – freedom that cannot be taken away from us is the freedom to choose the attitude that we maintain about the situation that confronts us. Even in an extermination camp, one could retain this single freedom.
So my theory is that having a purpose in your life that provides you with enduring satisfaction is really important to your own long-term well-being. I found that many people with whom I shared the journey three years ago on the Camino de Santiago were looking for that purpose in their lives. They had often experienced in their lives their share of power or pleasure and were seeking something more meaningful, a real legacy that would be important to them and to their heirs.
Finding your own meaning is something that each one of us can do. It is up to you alone to determine what your meaning might be and to you alone to determine whether it is worthwhile. Remember, it is about personal satisfaction that endures. To help find it, think about some times in your life when you did something that gave you great satisfaction at the time and still have a good “feel” for you. Then look for a pattern that may help you isolate what it was that creates for you the satisfaction that endures. That is the key. Enjoy the quest!