To say that humans need a sense of meaning, purpose, and direction in their life in order to feel motivated and engaged sounds fairly cliché. However, like most clichés, because we’re so tired of hearing it we often take for granted and underestimate the true value a clear sense of purpose can provide regarding our performance, wellbeing, and quality of life.
Having direction and understanding the meaning behind what we do is neurologically rewarding and instills us with greater drive. Evolutionary psychology shows us that this is largely an adaptive function we developed over time; it ensured, for instance, that as early humans we didn’t give up when searching for necessary survival resources.
Purpose and direction, therefore, are crucial to the instinct to survive, which in and of itself is an all-encompassing purpose – Viktor Frankl, in his reflections on the psychology of prisoners in concentration camps, likewise suggested that retaining a sense of purpose can increase longevity. Those of us who have a clear sense of purpose are chemically rewarded in a way that encourages us to continue striving, generating a positive upward spiral that improves our mood, self-efficacy, and wellbeing. What’s more, these chemicals have biologically protective properties and benefit our physical health.
This is because direction is linked to eudaemonic happiness, which is focused on growth, meaning, and purpose, as opposed to hedonic happiness, which is more focused on instantaneous gratification. Eudaemonic happiness has been shown by Professor Steve Cole to have a positive epigenetic effect, switching certain genes on or off in a way that supports anti-inflammatory processes. On the other hand, a reduction in levels of eudaemonic happiness and an elevation in those of hedonic happiness can increase the production of inflammatory cells and precipitate chronic illnesses.
Building on these links, a group of researchers led by Dr. Robert Butler looked specifically at the correlation between a sense of purpose and longevity. The 11-year study followed healthy people between the ages of 65 and 92, and showed that those who had clear goals and a purpose lived longer and lived better than those who did not. Researchers have subsequently identified nine ‘Blue Zones’. A clear sense of “why I wake up in the morning” and high levels of eudaemonic happiness are integral parts of the culture of each Blue Zone. Links are even being drawn between a strong sense of purpose and reductions in the chance of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis and stroke.
But finding a sense of purpose is often harder than it seems. One possible reason for this is that purpose is emotional in nature, not rational. In neurological terms, to gain full access to our rational brain a sense of purpose has to first meet the requirements set by our limbic system. Only once it is limbically authorized can it then be given the codes that allow it to gain valence in the conscious executive brain. Therefore we must look beyond the banality of our routines and make a conscious effort to establish emotional connections between what we do and why we do it. This way we can fully tap into the available reward, leading to increased motivation and focused effort.
This is important, because expending effort without underlying meaning relates to what psychologists call a Sisyphean effect, that is, a futile cycle of ultimately pointless and unrewarding effort, which is demotivational and harmful to mental and physical health. Yet even if a task is repetitive or seemingly pointless you can still imbue it with meaning and thereby render it less or not at all psychologically harmful. It is even possible that we can learn to enjoy futility if we look at it in the right way. In essence, what matters is the view you take of a situation. We intuitively categorize tasks as meaningful or not, but the important thing is to gain control of this process and understand that even the most meaningless task can be revitalized with you own idiosyncratic meaning. Visualization is a fantastic tool in this regard. Our brains are astute virtual reality devices, so using them to think about the present and the future in optimistic, hopeful terms – activating positive neural circuits that have their own neurochemistry and behavioural output – can inspire motivation and support psychological wellbeing.
This can be tough in a mechanized and technologically-mediated world where the work we do often feels detached from the tangible end result or the organization’s purpose, which it only contributes to in a complex or seemingly insignificant manner, it can be hard to link what we do to an overarching purpose. However, all work has or can be related to some figuration of meaning, purpose, and direction. We have a tendency, when in a negative moodstate or mindset, to refute such an optimistic claim. But reminding ourselves of a simple question can refute skepticism: would that job or role or task or activity exist if it wasn’t making a meaningful contribution to something? Take, for example, the janitor at NASA who upon being asked what he did by John Kennedy answered, ‘Mr. President, I’m helping put at man on the moon’. The NASA janitor was able, likely because of high cognitive flexibility and learnt optimism, to see the tangible link between his work and a larger, national, global, and historical purpose.
Our level of direction and purpose can come from outside ourselves. But it is also extremely personal and relies on a degree of self-generation. Direction should not be considered a fixed thing. The purpose and meaning one constructs around their endeavors can and always does change over the course of one’s life. Direction is dependent on the view we take of the situations we find ourselves in. It relies on our perception of our control and self-efficacy. It is important to understand that we always have a degree of freedom or autonomy, since we are the primary influencers of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. As Frankl says, ‘between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.’