Derek Wolfe: Pursuit of purpose

By Derek Wolfe, Columnist
Published July 1, 2015

I went to the movies with a couple of friends on Saturday to see Pixar’s “Inside Out.” Having seen the trailer and thinking, “Wow! Whoever thought of this must have been on drugs,” I knew this was a movie I had to see (even if it meant being the only group of college students mixed in with parents and their pre-10-year-old kids fighting for the coveted middle seats that aren’t too high up).

After winning the battle against my tendency to fall asleep during movies, when the film ended, I knew I had seen something special. Sure, it was technically a “kids” movie because that’s what Pixar makes, but really it was anything but. It was a movie that I, a 21-year-old rising college senior, needed to see.

Without ruining it for anyone, the message of the movie is this: It’s okay to be sad.

Yes, it’s certainly more pleasant to be happy, but there are times where we need help to cope with what’s going on in our lives. And instead of pretending to be something we’re not and repressing our emotions, it’s simply better for our mental health to be honest and express our sadness (or anger, fear and disgust, though at least according to the movie, these emotions are less productive in helping ourselves).

For the most part, the people closest to me — my friends and family — believe in this. We’re open with each other and tell it how it is. When we’re happy, upset, sad or frustrated, we make it known. Admittedly, this can sometimes go to the point of offending each other or just being annoying, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. “Inside Out” validated this lifestyle for me.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve come to terms with the idea that being “happy” isn’t my ultimate goal. Because if it is, then I’m most certainly going to fail. Emotions come and go, so even in the best possible circumstances, feelings of joy are only temporary. Therefore, the goal is letting the negative emotions, like sadness and fear, happen, but not allow them to latch on for too long and become overwhelming to the point of depression. Obviously, that’s easier said than done.

By no means is this philosophy my idea. I first came across it when my aunt recommended that I read “The Happiness Trap” by Dr. Russ Harris. Put simply, Dr. Harris presents the idea that most thoughts are random and uncontrollable. Therefore, it’s not worth trying to control what you think, but rather how much weight you put on each thought. In order to determine which thoughts are more important than others, you decide if they apply to your beliefs and values, the things we care about the most. If they do, you act on it. If not, instead of trying to actively eliminate the thought and getting upset that it exists, you let it wither away. Doing this successfully takes immense practice — it’s a daily challenge for me — but I am convinced it will help me live the life I want to live.

In my Public Health 300 course this past winter, Prof. Vic Strecher taught something similar. He preached the idea of living with purpose, that when you live for something above yourself, whatever that may be, you will live not only a fulfilling life, but a healthier life. To name a few benefits, studies have shown that having a purpose can help us sleep better and reduce obesity, as well the risk of a heart attack. So although I am still searching for my purpose (it’s not supposed to be easy), this concept has stuck with me.

The issue with these ideas is that they’re relatively new. There is a massive emphasis in this country on the “pursuit of happiness,” and rightfully so. After all, we’ve been talking about it for nearly 239 years.

But perhaps we should take on a different approach, where we stop tricking people into believing that a happy life is a successful life. Perhaps a life where we learn to balance our emotions and embrace the good and the bad is really what makes a successful life, that is, if we’re determined to define success. Maybe it’s time to start preaching, “life, liberty and the pursuit of purpose.”

“Inside Out” continued a needed conversation on the importance of mental health and how our society handles it. But it’s up to us to keep talking and educating ourselves — to change the outdated status quo.

And by the way, how cool would it be if there were actually little creatures in our heads?

Derek Wolfe can be reached at dewolfe@umich.edu.