Do you ever feel purposeless, like you’re not sure what’s the whole point of life ? I get it. I’ve been there. When life feels pointless, it’s hard to keep getting up every morning to go through the motions.
Some days we blame our pointless life on our stupid jobs, or our bills, or our flagging relationships. But when we change our circumstances and still end up feeling like something’s missing in life, that’s when it starts to get weird.
What if the problem is with ME, not with my circumstances?
Ah, yes — this is perhaps the most emotionally mature thought that can ever spark in your brain. It isn’t an easy thought, but it’s the equivalent of downing a shot of wheatgrass. Good for you, but not so pleasant.
Maybe the problem is with you. Maybe you’re making yourself miserable by buying into some of the most common misbeliefs that make us feel like life is pointless. I’ll talk about them in this article — but first, let me share a short personal story.
After all, if you’re downing some psychological wheatgrass, we might as well do it together. 😅
My Misbelief Story: Why Does My Life Feel Pointless?
In 2017 I went through major depressive disorder. For several months, I cried randomly, ate too much, and got very little done. Life seemed absolutely pointless. My emotions were so out of whack that I couldn’t imagine a reason why I shouldn’t opt out of life.
But I didn’t. I got help.
The very first book that I read in my recovery process was a book on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) called Telling Yourself the Truth: Find Your Way Out of Depression, Anxiety, Fear, Anger, and Other Common Problems by Applying the Principles of Misbelief Therapy.
I know, it’s a super long title. But it was my textbook for overcoming depression, and it still shines on my bookshelf as one of the most influential and impactful books I’ve ever read. Note the phrase, “misbelief therapy.”
The core idea in the book is that our thoughts produce feelings, even faulty thoughts called “misbeliefs.” When we buy into misbeliefs, these untrue thoughts make us feel miserable. Like running malware instead of software, once the program is running in the brain, it will do its emotional damage. That’s why CBT — the process of intentionally weeding out misbeliefs — is an extremely common intervention in depression.
Well, it worked wonders for me, to summarize a long process.
There’s a phrase the authors used in the book that stuck with me. One of the chapters was entitled, “Misbeliefs Guaranteed to Make You Miserable.” To use another tech metaphor, “garbage in, garbage out.” It’s actually predictable. Certain misbeliefs are guaranteed to make us miserable and depressed.
I started thinking about our drive for purpose, passion, and meaning in life.
Are there predictable misbeliefs that we unwittingly use to self-sabotage ourselves into feeling that life is pointless?
Over the last seven years of living abroad and studying human cultures (click here to find out more about me and what I do), I’ve observed a lot of roadblocks to meaning and purpose. Most of them are related to faulty thinking! So without further ado, here are 8 misbeliefs guaranteed to make you feel like life is pointless.
Misbelief 1: Living with Purpose Will Make Me Feel Happy.
Happiness and purpose are not the same thing. Researchers differentiate between the two by giving them different names: hedonic well-being (happiness) and eudaemonic well-being (a sense of purpose and meaning).
Although these two types of well-being are related, there does not seem to be evidence that one causes the other. Lots of people who have pursued meaningful goals and passions have been quite unhappy. Just think of Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, who built 55 schools in ten years for underprivileged Pakistani girls. The amount of difficulties he encountered from the Taliban and others unfriendly to his cause reminds us that following our purpose can often be uncomfortable, unpleasant, and frustrating.
Sorry to break the news to you, but finding your purpose might not make you happy.
Having a high level of eudaemonic well-being is proven to give enormous health benefits, longer life, and protection against Alzheimer’s Disease — but I’ve never come across any research that scientifically correlates levels of eudaemonic well-being with levels of hedonic well-being or happiness (if you know of any such research, feel free to leave a link in the comments below).
The truth is, having a strong sense of purpose in life is ultimately more satisfying than hedonic pleasures. Just take care not to confuse the two. The misbelief here is expecting to find happiness from pursuing your purpose, then giving up on meaningful goals when they fail to yield that return.
(Ready to start forging your purpose? Click here for the 2020 Complete Guide to Finding Meaning in Life!)
Misbelief 2: It’s Pointless to Do Stuff Nobody Ever Knows About.
“If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, did it make a sound?”
This riddle has been posed by scientists and philosophers for hundreds of years. Some say yes, the tree made a sound, because sound is a measurement of compression waves. There was a sound but no subject to perceive it. Others say no, because sound is not the same as compression waves — sound is the interpretation of waves that occurs in the human ear and brain.
How does this relate to feeling like life is pointless?
Some people feel that it’s pointless to do stuff that nobody ever knows about. Like the tree that falls in the forest with no observer, they feel that their personal projects and dreams have to be verified by other people before becoming truly “real.”
For example, an aspiring writer has written a few manuscripts. They were all rejected but were sent back with encouraging notes and suggestions for improvement. She’s not a bad writer — she’s an almost-there writer who needs a bit more improvement. But her spirits are flagging, and she gives up too soon. Why write if no one will ever see it? There’s just no point.
Here is her misbelief: only the end product counts. Only what shines in the eye of the public has meaning. A few thousand years ago, Aristotle figured this out. He suggested that a a purpose-filled life is not a product — it’s being engaged in the process.
So don’t let yourself trip up on those long, dreary days in the forest when nobody can hear or see your efforts. Instead, believe that everything you’re doing is part of the larger process.
Misbelief 3: It’s Pointless to Do Stuff Nobody Else Cares About.
There are a lot of reasons why you might be feeling like life is pointless. It could be a recently ended relationship, losing your job, or feeling overwhelmed about where life is heading. Whatever the case, you’ve dutifully made a list of all the things that interest you. You’ve thought up anything you could possibly imagine being passionate about.
Then, taking a long look at your list, you rip it to shreds. Nobody cares about this stuff! You tell yourself harshly.
But wait wait waaaaait for a minute. Hold the horses!
How do you know nobody cares about it? And why would you want to only do things that are popular and well-accepted?
Let’s get a bit of advice from someone who believes in following unconventional paths. JP Sears is one of the more unconventional people I’ve seen on YouTube. He has a satire channel that is often quite funny and sometimes a bit…weird! But I’ve always enjoyed satire (it takes a lot more effort than slapstick humor). Since I’m also a fan of TED talks, I couldn’t resist watching JP’s TEDx talk about — you guessed it! — weirdness.
He talks about how we tend to react to our own idiosyncrasies and “weirdness” as if it’s a dangerous liability. This is due to a deeply-rooted desire for connection and fear of invalidation. He says,
“We constipate the expression of our weirdness and therefore the expression of our true selves because we’re all approval addicts.”JP Sears
Anyone who can use the word “constipate” as a verb without giggling is living proof that it’s possible to be confident in your weirdness.
And guess what — people like that authenticity!
JP reminds us that our uncensored weirdness is what allows us to interface authentically with other people rather than delivering a carefully curated (i.e. fake) version of ourselves. So if you’re telling yourself that it’s pointless to do things that nobody cares about, you’re missing out on an expression of your most authentic self.
At the end of the day, you’ll be hard pressed to find something that nobody cares about. Personally, I think it’s weird to make videos about dropping mentos into Coke bottles, and I think it’s weird to be excited about cryptography, but that hasn’t stopped people from becoming rich and famous by pursuing these interests.
Misbelief 4: It’s Terrible to Have Uncertainty About My Purpose in Life.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only adult who still has temper tantrums.
Mine are usually private, of course — not in the aisle of the supermarket — but I’d be hard-pressed to call it anything other than a temper-tantrum. Sometimes, circumstances are just so terrible that I have to bang on a pillow or two, have a good cry, and let out all the pent-up stress of living in a terribly unjust world.
Then, I read that wonderfully helpful aforementioned book and was told that I’m not allowed to use the word “terrible” except in very DIRE situations.
Apparently, since thoughts and words become feelings, in misbelief therapy the Golden Rule is to never call anything “terrible” unless it really is.
Drs. Backus and Chapain wrote,
“Discomfort never killed anyone, but our misbeliefs tell us that discomfort is terrible, awful, wretched, horrible, when in fact, although not a lot of fun, it can be endurable.”William Backus and Marie Chapain, Telling Yourself the Truth
They ask readers to estimate more truly by creating a numerical scale of true terribleness, substituting more appropriate adjectives where necessary. I’ve listed an example below:
One of the things that bothers me most in life is when I feel uncertain about my purpose.
It’s terrible to have uncertainty about my purpose in life, right?
Well, maybe not. Maybe I make myself feel terrible about it by giving myself permission to label the situation as “terrible.” Feeling a bit aimless and adrift is uncomfortable indeed, but it’s not as bad as losing my husband or having my eye gouged out.
Try it. Reframe your aimless situation as “uncomfortable” rather than “terrible.” Say out loud, “this situation is really uncomfortable, but I can endure it.” Doesn’t it feel like you’re in so much more control?
By taking care how we label our world, we avoid serious misbeliefs that will make us feel like life is pointless.
Misbelief 5: There’s One Single Purpose for My Life, and Everything Hinges on Me Finding It.
Finding your purpose in life is kind of like getting married.
Remember how the old Disney princess movies gave off this vibe like there’s just one Mr. Right in the entire kingdom? And don’t you dare sell out to anything short of getting your prince! Even though most of us left Disney behind a long time ago (apologies to any grown-up Disney fans) we look for Mr. Right with the assumption that there’s only ONE out there. You swipe through thousands of Mr. Wrongs before you discover the one you think might be Mr. Right.
So you fall in love and spend $30,000 to get married. You’re thrilled because you think you found the ONE.
A few months after the honeymoon, though, you suddenly discover that Mr. Right has bad morning breath and he sometimes lets out an air biscuit at the breakfast table. He forgets to take out the trash and leaves socks on the floor. Moreover, he’s just plain annoying when he’s in a bad mood!
Maybe you were wrong. Maybe he wasn’t Mr. Right after all, and the REAL Mr. Right is still out there, waiting for his soulmate princess. (You can see where I’m going with this metaphor for life purpose, right?)
A few years later, you get a divorce and start looking for THE Mr. Right that you’re sure is out there. The one who will be perfect and make life feel complete.
It sounds dumb, but this is how many of us view our search for purpose. As if there is ONE huge destiny-ordained task for us to do for our entire lives, and nothing else counts. We get annoyed with the time we waste helping grandpa with his yard work or the time we waste getting good grades in school. We fail to value the little acts of kindness and little duties that build a strong character, because we are constantly in search of that ONE heroic destiny that we imagine is our *life purpose.*
I’m convinced that there’s actually a wide range of people you can have a successful marriage with if you’re willing to work hard at the relationship. Some would probably be more fulfilling than others, but I don’t believe in the “ONE” theory. I’ve been married for almost 7 years now, through life’s ups and downs, and this mindset has prevented me from ever feeling like I might have gotten the wrong one.* I’m positive I got one from the top 0.5% of most compatible guys in the world, so the one I got is the one I’m keeping.
He’s the right one because I chose him. Period. (Plus I’m still in love, so that’s helpful.) ❤️
Likewise, your life purpose is not some etherial destiny “out there” waiting for heroic discovery. You do NOT need to change your mind a dozen times, waiting for the aha moment. You are living purposefully now, today, living out your purpose in humble little ways every moment. Don’t fall for the misbelief that there’s only one purpose in your life — it’s guaranteed to make you feel like your current (probably monotonous) life is pointless.
After a certain amount of soul searching, life experience, and introspection, there’s a point where we have to realize that what we’re doing now is already more than meaningful.
*Note: please do not take my metaphor for more than it’s worth. If you’re married to an abusive person, I don’t mean for you to feel like you have to work harder at it. Likewise, if you’re feeling unfulfilled about being a dope pusher or a human trafficker, please note that there ARE legitimate moments to feel like this isn’t what you’re meant to do.
Misbelief 6: Everything in Life Has a Purpose
Spoiler alert: this misbelief is followed by the corollary, “nothing in life has a purpose.”
The idea that everything in life has a purpose is often encountered in overly spiritualized contexts. When bad things happen, it is karma. When your child dies an agonizing death, it was God’s will. A random act of kindness must have been related to your horoscope. And so on…
But there are a lot of details in your grand life narrative that are relatively meaningless.
The color car you buy.
The size shoe you wear.
Whether you sleep on your back or on your side.
People can literally make themselves insane by trying to find reasons for the things that happen to them. Why are little girls raped? Why are little boys beaten by alcoholic dads? Why do innocent babies die?
I am a person of faith. I think I have partial and limited answers to these questions. But I don’t have complete answers that can adequately explain the mysteries of depravity and tragedy. And I’m not so spiritual as to believe that everything that happens has a purpose that we are meant to figure out.
I once read a true story of a woman whose husband died. Well-meaning friends told her that God had a purpose. She spent agonizing amounts of time wracking her mind and trying to figure out the purpose for her loss. Had she done something wrong to deserve it? Was there something lacking in her life that demanded purging and growth? At the end of the day, she only found relief in giving up the misbelief that everything happens for a reason. Some things don’t happen for a reason. Some things just happen, and we are caught in the crossfire of an imperfect planet, in the ongoing conflict between good and evil.
This woman found it freeing to admit that while many things in life have meaning, not everything does. It’s ok to admit that some things happen without any reason. If you staunchly campaign for the position that everything in life happens for a reason, at some point you’re guaranteed to start feeling pretty awful.
Misbelief 7: Nothing in Life Has a Purpose
Misbelief 8 stated that everything has a purpose. The opposite is also an unhelpful misbelief: nothing has a purpose.
The narrative usually goes something like this:
- There’s no meaning in life.
- You can create “meaning” for yourself, but it would just be a mask over an absurdly meaningless life.
- The truly strong, brave people don’t need this mask — they can look life straight in the eyes and admit it’s meaningless.
- The weak people need the mask — they create a subjective sense of meaning or else drown in despair.
Of all misbeliefs guaranteed to make you feel like your life is pointless, this is probably the most severe. Albert Camus, who coined the term “absurdism,” wrestled with the issue of whether suicide is a legitimate response to an overwhelmingly absurd and purposeless life.
Such nihilism ignores the multitude of signs all around us pointing to the purposeful nature of life. All things in the natural world — all things except for the selfish, egotistical heart of man — exist to give. All animals, insects, air molecules, leaves, corals, and ocean currents give of themselves in mutual interdependence. They each take, but they take only to give. Without the honeybee, the polar bear, and the sea turtle, vast ecosystems falter and decline irreparably.
Somehow, we have lost a sense of connectedness with the bigger context. Viewing ourselves as separate from family structures, urban ecosystems, and environmental connections will certainly allow us to buy into the misbelief that nothing in life has meaning.
Misbelief 8: I’m Ok with Being a Loner.
Research shows that the key indicator for a happy, meaningful life is social connections. (Sorry to disappoint the introverts!) In one study, undergrads were surveyed for levels of well-being. They then filtered out the top 10% and the bottom 10% and compared lifestyle and history for each subject.
They discovered that the top 10% were not more or less religious. They did not exercise more. They did not have more positive life events.
But they had richer social connections.
Having a series of negative social encounters — or even heartbreaks — can lead one to declare that he or she is ok with being a loner. But science doesn’t support this claim. Calling yourself a loner is an antisocial band-aid for pain, and can hold you back from experiencing a real purposeful sense of well-being.
If you often feel like life is pointless, and at the same time you consider yourself a lone wolf, this might be the first misbelief you’ll want to kick to the curb.
I’ve never met you, but I’m convinced that your life is not pointless.
You are way too valuable to this planet to allow yourself to fall for any of these misbeliefs that will make you devalue yourself to that point. Your life is important. Weeding out these damaging misbeliefs will help you to truly believe what I believe: that your life matters.
Drop me a line in the comments to let me know which misbelief you struggle with the most (hint: mine would be #4 and #5). ☝😅
Best wishes on the journey!