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Skip to 0 minutes and 19 secondsPerhaps you could tell us a little bit about, from your point of view, a history of the sense of purpose? In some ways the question of 'what's the meaning of life?' is a sort of fundamental foundational question. So ancient philosophers, Aristotle or Plato, were obviously very interested in those kinds of questions. As were core religions also had a real interest in asking a question of the purpose of life. In many ways I think the big shift has not been necessarily that we've stopped asking the question, because I think people very much do ask those questions of purpose. I think the big shift has been less of a sense of a kind of fixed answer.

Skip to 0 minutes and 57 secondsSo I think if you kind of take a longue durée, if you kind of think about the last say 2,000 years or so, what you'll find I think is generally a sense that there's a kind of more agreed sense of answers to that question, of 'what's the meaning, what's the purpose of life?' shared by societies and that gradually those shared answers become fragmented in all sorts of kind of interesting ways. And there's probably lots of things that are happening there as to why you get a sense of what are a more agreed set of answers, becoming more fragmented and becoming in a sense, I guess the question's up for debate.

Skip to 1 minute and 35 secondsRather than already a kind of fixed sense of you know what the answer is, as we ask the question. And where does that leave us if there is a more fragmented sense of purpose? We're living in a world with a more fragmented sense of purpose, how can we find our own sense of purpose in this? I mean that's the potential opportunity isn't it? So if you kind of look on the positive side of this, I think what you get is you get a shift away from, you know say a religion setting. A sense of purpose if you think about say Medieval Europe as an example where you might have a kind of much more fixed sense of purpose.

Skip to 2 minutes and 9 secondsOr if you think of a world which is far less porous, where you've got much less exchange of individuals across global borders, then you can have, in some ways, a much more clear, shared, unified, single sense of purpose, which in many ways means that you don't have to do that much thinking. So you largely buy into an agreed set of norms. That's part of your duty as a citizen. And one positive way of looking at this is to say actually in some ways the breakdown of almost monolithic, single ideas, about what purpose means, what the meaning of life is, is it actually forces the work on to us as individuals.

Skip to 2 minutes and 48 secondsWe're open to a much more plural, pluralistic world of opportunity and we can now start to define for ourselves what it means to be human, so that's a kind of positive spin on it. I guess the negative spin on it is actually whether you get a moment of, you know nihilism, of kind of, it's all meaningless, you know a kind of, that's one of the obvious things that can happen. You see that happening I think very much in the 20th century, is that without a shared sense of purpose, whether there's a sense of shifting towards thinking about life as purposeless, as meaningless and that's certainly a part of what you can see happening within the 20th century.

Skip to 3 minutes and 28 secondsAnd so one thing I think that, you know, I guess this for me is an central thing of a university education, is that the reason I think that we go to a place like this to study is that we're critical. So we're self-critical about ourselves, we're critical about society, we're critical about the voices that we hear and I think one of the critiques is always to ask 'where's power in this?' So as we think about questions of meaning, of purpose, I think I always want myself, you, all of our students to be asking a set of questions about, well who's deciding what's meaningful and what's purposeful? And how much do I get to decide?

Skip to 4 minutes and 4 secondsHow much do others say of a different gender, or a different ethnic group, or a different social class get to decide in a different part of the world, in a different part of the city? So to ask those kind of fundamental questions about where is the ideas of meaningfulness and purpose coming from and is there a kind of power tied into that? Because I think for me that it's if you start talking about purpose and meaning you also have to start thinking a little bit about power.

Skip to 4 minutes and 34 secondsI don't know about you but I sense that what we do through study is that we explore other ways of looking at things and to me that's really helpful in determining my own set of values. Again I think that something incredibly positive about encountering other cultures, who even something as simple as the idea of being happy, imagine in very different ways, which I think forces upon you a degree of self-reflection about, okay well what does that look like for me? If the meaning of my life is to be happy, what's that going to look like or to encounter cultures, times and places where actually the meaning of life is not ultimately about happiness, it's about something else.

Skip to 5 minutes and 10 secondsIt's maybe about acting on behalf of others rather than primarily yourself, it's maybe about the future rather than the present. You know, kind of re-conceptualising time and re-conceptualising the idea of what the human lifespan is.

Skip to 5 minutes and 28 secondsIn your 20s and 30s, you're really concerned about success, in your 40s and 50s you become much more concerned about significance. As a way of trying to capture that sense of generational shift about what purpose and meaning looks like and I don't know whether there's something about that sense of maybe a shift as well about thinking about time, of not just thinking about the kind of here and now. Also a kind of shift to increasingly thinking about legacy.

Skip to 5 minutes and 51 secondsI maybe should expect that it shifts a little bit in terms of life stage as I move through my life and then I might have a slightly different kind of purpose or meaning as I get towards middle life or towards end life as well.

Purpose: A Historical Perspective

‘Sustainability’ isn’t just about the environment. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of ‘sustainable’ is ‘able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.’ If we think about this definition with regards to our personal lives, this could mean making choices that will make us happy and able to maintain a level of satisfaction we might otherwise miss.

Tim Cole is Professor of Social History at the University of Bristol. He is Director of the Brigstow Institute, which brings researchers from different disciplines together with a range of partners across the city and beyond to experiment in new ways of living and being.

For a lot of people, having a ‘purpose in life’ is central to gaining long term happiness. In this video, Tim gives a European historical perspective on how purpose and meaning has changed in modern times, and the impact of this on us personally and on wider society.

One of the key points he discusses is how our sense of purpose in European societies is more varied and self-chosen now than in the past. After watching the video, consider this collection of quotes about purpose and meaning and use the comments section to discuss them.

  • Which of these resonate with you, and which definitely do not?
  • Why?

‘There is no experience from which you can’t learn something. When you stop learning you stop living in any vital and meaningful sense. And the purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.’

Eleanor Roosevelt, Politician, Diplomat and Activist

‘We live very close together. So, our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.’

The Dalai Lama, Spiritual leader

‘The Wizard of Oz is my favourite. It explains what life on this planet is about. Although Dorothy reaches Oz, she finds she had what she needed to go back to Kansas all along, but the Good Witch tells her that she had to learn it for herself. All of the answers to the meaning of life are there.’

RuPaul, Drag Queen and Performer

‘Productive work is the central purpose of a rational man’s life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values. Reason is the source, the precondition of his productive work—pride is the result.’

Ayn Rand, Writer and Political Thinker

‘Being human means throwing your whole life on the scales of destiny when need be, all the while rejoicing in every sunny day and every beautiful cloud.’

Rosa Luxemburg, Writer and Political Thinker

‘For me life is continuously being hungry. The meaning of life is not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer.’

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Actor and Politician

‘The purpose of life is not to be happy but to matter, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference that you lived at all.’

Leo Rosten, Humorist and Political Scientist

‘For the mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.’

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Writer and Philosopher

‘To live is to choose. But to choose well, you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there.’

Kofi Annan, Ghanaian diplomat and seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations

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This video is from the free online course:

Unleash Your Potential: Sustainable Futures

University of Bristol

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