Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Using the 4 D's to find more meaning and purpose in life

Using spiritual approaches to find more meaning, purpose, and vocation 

Many people desire more meaning, purpose, and calling in life. Spiritual and religious perspectives help to provide at least some answers to questions of meaning, purpose, and a sense of calling and vocation. Many people find that their spiritual and religious beliefs, traditions, and community help to frame these existential questions and issues in a way that provides direction as well as solace and peace of mind.

My colleague at Santa Clara University, Professor Diane Dreher, and I recently published a chapter in an edited book of mine entitled, "Spirit, Science and Health: How the Spiritual Mind Fuels Physical Wellness (2007, Praeger/Greenwood) that offers a "calling protocol." It uses the principles from the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius (founder of the Jesuits) to help people develop a better sense of vocation, calling, and purpose in their lives.

The calling protocol highlights the four D's: discovery, detachment, discernment, and direction

Discovery refers to the development of a better understanding of personal strengths or gifts. The positive psychology literature refers to these as "signature strengths." Getting a solid appreciation of one's gifts can then be used to determine how these gifts can best be enlisted to improve one's sense of meaning and purpose. For example, social skills, the ability to counsel others, musical talents, and organization skills are just a few examples of possible gifts or strengths that can be employed to improve quality of life and help find one's calling and vocation. It is important to have a realistic understanding of our gifts to maximize the odds that they can be used effectively.

Detachment refers to working to move away from problematic and sometimes debilitating behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes that prevent someone from understanding and nurturing their gifts. These behaviors and tendencies might include consumerism, greed, workaholism, alcoholism, dysfunctional relationships, low self esteem, fear, anxiety, and a variety of other damaging addictions and behavior patterns that distract us from our vocation and calling as well as prevent us from nurturing our gifts. These behaviors, attitudes, thoughts, and life circumstances are thus roadblocks to nurturing and using the gifts defined during the discovery phase.

Discernment refers to thinking through how we can best live our lives and use our gifts that might lead us to experiences of consolation rather than desolation. Consolation leads to peace, solace, and joy while desolation leads to depression, anxiety, and other damaging feelings, thoughts, and behavior. Thinking about and working through the process of discernment is needed to secure more meaning, purpose, and vocation in life. Discernment helps us to better appreciate how our gifts can be used productively and realistically in a way that gives us comfort and peace.

Direction refers to developing a vocational path to live a more meaningful and purposeful life. Direction is the action plan that emerges when the discernment process is complete. Spiritual direction within many religious traditions have used variations on these four steps to help their clients develop more calling, purpose and meaning in life. These strategies can also be used with people in general to develop a better life path.

Certainly the four D's defined above are not unique. Perhaps what is unique is the integration of a spiritual based mindset, in this example, within the Jesuit and Roman Catholic tradition, to help people find a way to better achieve a sense of calling, vocation, meaning, and purpose in their lives.

Doing the right thing for ourselves might include using the 4 D's to help us achieve more meaning, purpose, calling and vocation in life. Give it a try. What do you have to lose? 

Thomas Plante, PhD., ABPP is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Spirituality and Health Institute at Santa Clara University. See full bio