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Sense of Purpose and Mental Health Are Linked Together

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There is a book which I read again and again – Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, one of the world’s leading psychiatrists and one of the most modern thinkers in the world. This book was first published in 1946. It describes how the author’s experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz during World War II helped him to discover that the desire to find meaning in life is essential to the human experience, even more than the desire for pleasure or power.

‘Those who have a “why” to live, can bear with almost any “how”., wrote Viktor Frankl in his book. Equally, the absence of ‘why’ can make unbearable almost any ‘how’.

There are many reasons why people are seeking my services as a coach and therapist – some want to set and achieve specific goals (for example, accelerate their careers or improve certain skills) while others need help with things such as a lack of confidence, phobias, or dealing better with stress and the pressures of modern life. As a rule, both groups know exactly what they want to achieve, have a degree of awareness about the issues they face and take active steps to address them.

Over the years, I have come to realise that there was also another distinct group of my clients who were so affected by their experiences and emotions, that they found themselves struggling to function and resorted to coping strategies which often included a variety of unhelpful behaviours such as substance misuse and self-harm. In this group were people of all ages, genders, ethnic groups, all income levels and walks of life. There were two things that all those clients of mine had in common. Firstly, they all had symptoms of depression and anxiety; and, secondly, they were lacking a purpose in their lives when they come to me.

This combination is not a coincidence. There is a growing body of research showing that people with a strong sense of purpose in life tend to do better on a number of different measures of mental health, well-being, and even cognitive functioning. Several studies also show that people with a higher purpose in life tend to engage in healthier behaviours (for example, they are exercising more and are participating in preventive health services) which results in better health outcomes. 

A study done in 2013 found that individuals with more sense of purpose in life were better at managing stress and had better self-rated health status (SRH), and that stress management partly mediated the effect of a purpose in life on SRH. The researchers concluded that “enhancement of teachers” purpose in life and improvement of training skills of stress management should be incorporated in the strategy of improving teachers’ health.’ In fact, this recommendation can be applicable to people of other occupations and all age groups because exercise can fight stress symptoms.

As illustrated by examples that follow, results of numerous studies across various age groups, from adolescents to very old, consistently point at significant benefits of having a strong sense of purpose in life. A survey of 3,489 adults between the ages of 32 and 84, established that a purpose in life was associated with higher scores for memory, executive functioning, and overall cognition. An earlier study of 189 very old people between the ages of 85 and 103, revealed a significant inverse relationship between a purpose in life and depression. A cross-sectional study that examined the relationship among purpose, hope, and life satisfaction among 153 adolescents, 237 emerging adults, and 416 adults shows that having identified a purpose in life was associated with greater life satisfaction and overall well-being at these three stages of life. The importance of having a purpose in life in early youth was also highlighted by a study of 669 young people, which found that a purpose in life predicted well-being during emerging adulthood and was positively associated with self-image and negatively associated with delinquency, even when controlling for personality traits.

So, the evidence is there, yet many people are struggling with finding their purpose in life – the things that are most important to them which can guide their life decisions, influence their behaviour, shape goals and sense of direction, and create meaning.

The late Professor Stephen Hawking said, ‘Work gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it.’ But I don’t think he meant just the simple fact of being employed – after all, there are many people around who see their job as a means of paying bills while their true passion and commitment are elsewhere, for example in their responsibilities to their loved ones or their community.

Furthermore, it is not uncommon for us to revise and change our purpose in life following significant life events such as redundancies or retirement; children leaving home; entering into, or ending relationships; and so on. This is one of the reasons why Reinvention Coaching is so popular nowadays. The internet is full of information about finding a purpose in life – a simple online search brought over 13 million results ranging from TED Talks to numerous articles and blogs. In a way, much of the information could be condensed into a simple equation suggested by Shannon Kaiser, a fellow coach and an author: Passion + Daily Action = Purposeful Life.

Indeed, according to recent research, four key factors were found to promote meaning and purpose in life:

  1. Physical and mental well-being (taking care of our body and mind, using stress-reduction techniques and building mental resilience)
  2. Belonging and recognition (being part of something much larger than themselves, feeling valued and validated)
  3. Personally treasured activities (things we do that make us feel good – hobbies, spending time with our family and friends)
  4. Spiritual closeness and connectedness (a feeling that all living things in the world are interrelated). It should be noted, that religion can be part of spirituality, but spirituality goes beyond religion.

An excellent coach can help you explore all these factors, rediscover your passions and develop an effective plan of action so that you can get the life you want.

As Viktor Frankl said, ‘Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfilment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.’

Find your own passion, take action to address the four key factors listed above, and notice how having a purpose in your life transforms your mental health and sense of well-being.

Zoryna O’Donnell, MBA, MSc, FInstLM is an international speaker, an author, an ICF coach and a mentor of the Warwick Business School (WBS) Mentoring Programme.

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