As Tony Schwartz (in the NY Times) argues in a recent column: a sense of purpose--contributing to something meaningful and larger than yourself--is a core element of life satisfaction, wellbeing, and the good life. He quotes Nietzsche's observation: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”
We often hear purpose and passion as extolled virtues these days: find your passion, live life with a purpose. This is the sort of self-help that resonates with the demographic represented by readers of the Times.
Indeed, yesterday's paper ran an article about Martha Beck ("the merchant of happiness") who has built a small empire around life coaching: she says “Everything I’ve ever taught in terms of self-help boils down to this — I
cannot believe people keep paying me to say this — if something feels
really good for you, you might want to do it. And if it feels really
horrible, you might want to consider not doing it."
But, as readers of this blog will know, having a larger purpose in life is not the exclusive purview of the affluent and middle classes. The poor as well as the rich give purpose to their lives; it is in many ways what makes us human. And such larger purposes must not be as lofty or laudable as the passions featured in the paper: political extremism, racist ideologies, and other such projects may increase individual wellbeing among their adherents while harming collective goods.