According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, mankind attempts to meet his needs in a particular hierarchy. First, he will meet his physiological needs—those functions necessary for immediate survival. Once those have been attended to, he will meet his need for security, ensuring that his survival needs will be provided for in the future. After that, he will meet his need for community—that is, love and friendship. Then he will attend to his self-perception, including achievement of personal goals and respect from others.
But once even these needs are met, the final crowning desire is for self-actualization, or reaching his highest potential. According to the author of the biblical Proverbs (27:20), no one ever fully realizes it in this life, and this is as it must be: consider the men who walked on the moon or won Olympic golds and then fell into despair after the fact, having nothing higher to achieve. The point is the process. So, if you’ve climbed Maslow’s ladder and currently linger somewhere between self-perception and self-actualization, what comes next?
Of all places, I encountered a few nuggets of wisdom addressing this question in Timothy Ferriss’s “The Four Hour Work Week”. Assuming you have the luxury of time to devote to this question, this is what he has to say on the subject, in no particular order:
First do nothing. This is absolutely necessary, because modern life is loud. If we want to hear anything other than external noise, we have to choose it consciously. The purpose of this is to tune in, and learn to make the distinction between your inner voice and the opinions and ideas of the world around you. Be warned, though: this is scary. Silence has a way of bringing up deep questions and fears. If silence is completely out of your comfort zone, just start with a few minutes per day of breathing quietly and tuning in, expanding the length of time gradually as you become more comfortable with the process.
Recognize that we are designed to problem-solve. Even when our lives are going well for the most part, left to our own devices, we all have a tendency to focus on what still needs fixing. Don’t beat yourself up about it, but don’t become a victim to it either. In his book, “Learned Optimism,” Martin Seligman describes a cohort of clinically depressed patients whose only treatment was a daily gratitude journal, which served to shift their focus from the problems still to be solved to the blessings that had been solved already. The result? Ninety-four percent of them reported subjective improvement in their depressive symptoms within a month.
Choose an ambitious goal. But the answer is bigger than just gratitude: if we learn to appreciate where we are, all we’ve done is override the natural bent of our minds to (as Ferriss writes) “turn inward on itself and create problems for us to solve, even if the problems are undefined or unimportant.” The solution he proposes is to choose some seemingly impossible goal that resonates with us. Once we’ve identified the goal, we start moving towards it. Now our focus is “out there.” We are energized and focused. We have purpose.
Recognize that you may have more than one single purpose. I’ve always wondered what happens to the hero of an adventure story after the story ends… if the quest consumed his whole life, his prospects after the fact seem pretty bleak. It is very common for people whose jobs or parenthood largely define them to suffer from depression after retirement, or when the kids leave home. But remember… if you’re still here, you still have more to do. How many things are on your ‘bucket list’? How many causes are you passionate about? How many talents have you yet to fully develop? If you cannot answer these questions, start with step one… get quiet. Do nothing, and wait for the answers to come.
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.” —Viktor Frankl