21 Find Your Purpose
My name is Imogen Blackburn and I am a passionate Communication and Psychology double major here at Wake. I believe that the academic disciplines of Psychology and Communication complement each other well, hence why I wanted to tie my fields of study together in this chapter. While I am rhetorically discussing the term purpose, I would argue that the term also ties back to who we are as human beings and how we function. Psychology is the study of the human mind and behavior in certain contexts, hence the application to purpose creation and discovering one’s personal meaning in life. Alongside my academic interests, I also am passionate about health and wellbeing. I have nurtured this curiosity starting at a young age and wanted to take the opportunity in writing this chapter to explore an avenue of mental wellbeing that is so new and relevant. Finally, I wanted to write this chapter to hopefully reassure and provide some hope to those who may be struggling with finding a sense of purpose at the moment. We are all living through an unprecedented time and I hope that this chapter can serve as some support for those who may need it.
I am dedicating this chapter primarily for my fellow peers and classmates, as well as my sister. This past year has been an incredibly challenging time for us all and I know we have each been affected by the pandemic in unique ways. I want to touch on the challenges that the pandemic has brought in this chapter and discuss the particular topic of purpose. A sense of purpose is something that has been wildly impacted this year for many of us and I hope that my writing will shed some light, hope and reassurance onto this shift being experienced. I also want to dedicate this chapter to my Professors here at Wake Forest, especially Professor Von Burg. Each Professor at Wake has worked tirelessly to ensure a safe and successful return to education since the pandemic hit and that dedication has not gone unnoticed. I am so grateful for my Professors and hope that this writing can serve as a reflection both of what I have learned and how I have grown during my time at Wake, especially over this past year.
Keywords: Wellbeing, Meaning, Fluidity, Adaptation, Evolving
What is your purpose in life? A sense of purpose is something each and every one of us holds – whether we know it or not. But what does this mean? This chapter will explore the rhetorical concept of purpose with the argument that it is an ever-shifting experience, unique for every individual. I will further argue that having a sense of purpose in life is beneficial for overall wellbeing, and that the outbreak of Covid-19 has had a negative impact on the formation of this purpose and therefore, our health and happiness. Covid is an example of an event that has disturbed people’s daily lives and ways of creating meaning and setting goals, reinforcing the argument that a sense of purpose evolves with the flow of life. Gaining an understanding of the term purpose and how it can take on these different meanings over the course of life will, hopefully, provide a sense of comfort and relief to individuals, particularly those who may be experiencing this change amidst the unprecedented time we are living through.
The first element of the argument in this chapter is that purpose is ever evolving, and life circumstances and mindsets can alter this purpose. To begin with however, purpose should be defined and the impact it has on wellbeing. There are various ways that researchers and scholars have explained the term. As referenced by Bates et al., “McKnight and Kashdan (2009) defined purpose in life as a central, self-organising life aim that organises and stimulates goals, manages behaviours and provides a sense of meaning (p.242)” (Bates et al., 2008). Further, Bates et al., cite another paper that states, “The sense of purpose is not linked to the achievement of a designated goal but operates as a mindset motivating the person to be oriented toward goals (Elliott, 2006)” (Bates et al., 2018). Broadly speaking, a sense of purpose is what structures and orients an individual’s life and motivates them towards goals. A key element of one’s purpose is how variable it can be. As Kiera Newman writes for Berkeley’s Greater Good, “purpose isn’t something we find at all. It’s something we can cultivate through deliberate action and reflection, and it will naturally wax and wane throughout our lives… purpose is not a destination, but a journey and a practice” (Newman, 2020). There is an emphasis here that purpose is related to a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed one. People have to develop a sense of purpose through challenging themselves and striving to accomplish goals. To build on this idea, extensive research shows that striving to create purpose in life is beneficial for happiness and overall wellbeing. As Cotton Bronk, et al., state in the Journal of Positive Psychology, “…having a purpose in life contributes to optimal human development in a variety of ways… theoretical research identifies purpose as a developmental asset (Benson, 2006) and an important component of human flourishing (Seligman, 2002). Empirical research finds that it is associated with greater levels of happiness (French & Joseph, 1999) and resiliency (Benard, 1991)” (Cotton Bronk, et al., 2009). This research may not come as a surprise to many of us. Being driven by goals in life and feeling motivated to accomplish tasks, would naturally lead people to feel more fulfilled and content. With a general understanding now of what purpose is and how it is beneficial for overall wellbeing, I will next explore how Covid-19 may have impacted a sense of purpose and the implications this has on mental health.
Covid-19 is an example of an event that has changed the purpose in life for many, and even one that has left people feeling purposeless, further supporting the argument that a sense of purpose is an ever evolving and changing experience. To circle back to the idea of goal setting, goals that people may have been working toward, prior to the arrival of the pandemic, may have been interrupted or even halted. More permanent, life-long goals have been exchanged for temporary goals such as “becoming risk averse” and “finding a new source of income until my job resumes” for many. This in and of itself is a prime example of a shifting sense of purpose. Furthermore, establishing a sense of purpose can come from a variety of different avenues in life. Whether it be activities, sports, connecting with other people, spending time outdoors, exploring the world or excelling in a career, everyone has different ways that they create and establish a purpose in life. With the arrival of Covid-19 however, many of these pastimes have been halted. People cannot engage in activities they once loved, cannot see groups of people, may not be able to go to work (or even have lost jobs), and so on. The disruptive nature of the pandemic has wiped away many of the once normal and enjoyable endeavors for people, leaving them feeling lost and uncertain. These factors combined may result in people feeling they have lost their purpose which in turn, is one of the reasons this pandemic has been so detrimental for people’s mental health. As Javed et al., write for the US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes for Health, “A review published in The Lancet said that the separation from loved ones, loss of freedom, boredom, and uncertainty can cause a deterioration in an individual’s mental health status” (Javed et al., 2020). The pandemic has been a traumatic time for many and has induced sudden stress and uncertainty; a serious mental health issue for society at large to overcome.
While having a sense of purpose in life is beneficial for overall wellbeing and Covid-19 may have impacted this sense of purpose, it is possible to rebuild and regain a sense of clarity with conscious effort and practice. So, how can we take this information and execute this? Well, first and foremost, let it be comforting that people all over the world are experiencing this shift at the moment. Life is not “normal” for anyone and we are all having to readjust and alter our sense of purpose in various ways. More of an emphasis is being put on taking care of ourselves and stopping the spread of the virus for our community at large, which is a new purpose in itself (Dhar 2020). Further, those grappling with how to redefine and orient a purpose in life can use this information to regain a sense of clarity and move forward, in different ways. Elisabeth M. de Jong and authors present a compelling paper on “Life Crafting in Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic” in which they discuss this shift in purpose amidst the pandemic. Their take on this adjustment is that trying to maintain a strong internal sense of purpose can “help people to cope with the psychological effects of the pandemic” (M. de Jong, et al., 2020). They argue that while a sense of purpose may have been compromised, it can be rebuilt and that a “life-crafting intervention could help people in rebuilding their sense of purpose and significance in life” (M. de Jong, et al., 2020). This involves reflecting on their present and future life, setting new goals and making plans to attain these goals. Overall, it is possible to rebuild and regain a sense of clarity with conscious effort and practice. Moreover, it is crucial to support one another and help those around us who may be struggling with finding a sense of self in this current time.
I know that for me personally, setting goals and reaffirming my overarching motivations in life has been crucial for maintaining a sense of purpose and meaning during the pandemic. Specifically, my summer plans were disturbed last March with so many internships being cancelled and hard to come by. This left me feeling despondent and with the feeling that I would be “behind” compared to those who were able to still carry-out their scheduled summer jobs. While in the moment it felt impossible to do, telling myself that the year was such an exception really helped me to mentally cope with the setback. I also was able to see the larger perspective to the situation; we were in the middle of a global pandemic, I was lucky to be in a supportive and loving home with a healthy family, and life would eventually return to normal. From here, I was able to shift my focus to pick up some odd jobs for experience, work on personal projects and take care of myself and my community. This alteration gave me a different sense of meaning for the time I was living in and I became at ease with that. Looking back now, I can truly see that a purpose does change with the flow of life’s events and that learning to move with this flow is crucial for overall mental wellbeing.
The first counter argument that could be made against the claims presented in this chapter is that “a sense of purpose is stable throughout one’s life.” While yes, human beings generally have stable attributes and traits that determine overarching personality characteristics, a sense of purpose is not necessarily tied to personality. As has been discussed, a sense of purpose relates to goals and creating meaning in life. Because people experience so much over the years, goals and motivations are ever changing. As Bates et al., state in their paper on developing professional purpose, “The sense of purpose is not linked to the achievement of a designated goal but operates as a mindset motivating the person to be oriented toward goals (Elliott, 2006). Having a purpose in life allows the person to pursue multiple goals and to generate new goals once a goal is attained and thereby to promote personal growth” (Bates et al., 2019). This fluid nature further emphasizes the argument that a purpose is not stable throughout life, discrediting this particular counter argument.
Next, one could argue, “Covid-19 hasn’t had a detrimental effect on a sense of purpose.” While yes, this counterargument may hold true for some people, research shows that the overwhelming majority of individuals have experienced some form of negative impact due to the pandemic, to whom this paper is mainly targeted at (M. de Jong, et al., 2020). Having already shown that a sense of purpose is beneficial for overall wellbeing, and that the pandemic has had a negative impact on mental health, the conclusion can be drawn that for a significant amount of people, the pandemic has had an impact on forming a sense of purpose. It should be noted that this impact is especially prevalent for adolescents and the elderly. In a paper written for Applied Developmental Science, the authors write, “Identity theorists, from Erikson (1968) to Loevinger (1976), have marked adolescence as the period in the life-span when people first begin to dedicate themselves to systems of belief that reflect compelling purposes” (Damon et al., 2003). They go on to state how some youth find this sense of purpose while others “drift” leading to further mental health complications. Given that adolescents are at the prime age of purpose formation, the effects of Covid-19 on purpose development will have been exacerbated. Further, this demographic is experiencing the greatest trauma and stress related disorders, according to an article posted by the JAMA Network. Vahia et al., state, “of the 731 participants aged 18 through 24 years, 49.1% reported anxiety disorder; 52.3%, depressive disorder; and 46%, TSRD” (Vahia et al., 2020). Purpose creation ties into mental coping and strength, and these statistics showcase the detrimental impact Covid-19 has had on both of these areas.
Similarly, the elderly is also a segment of the population where we have seen the adverse effects of the pandemic playout. While research does show that the mental impact experienced by the elderly is not as severe as a; was once thought from early research and, b; compared to the adolescent population, there are still implications that should be noted. Firstly, the elderly is a segment of society who are the least adept at coping with all of the technological changes that the pandemic has brought. Telehealth communications and social media dependency for communication are areas in which the elderly is at the greatest disadvantage (Vahia et al., 2020). Further, this portion of the population may also be the most impacted by the physical repercussions such as, “inability to engage in physical exercise or participate in activities or routines” (Vahia et al., 2020). It is reassuring, however, to read that while the elderly are experiencing extreme difficulty in some areas, they are actually one of the most resilient generations and possess the highest levels of wisdom, compassion and coping abilities which are all key components to handling the mental impact of the pandemic (Vahia et al., 2020). The pandemic has had an impact on forming a sense of purpose, especially for adolescents and the elderly, strengthening the claim that the counterargument, “Covid-19 hasn’t had a detrimental effect on a sense of purpose” is invalid.
In conclusion, the creation of a sense of purpose is a very personal process that is ever changing. The formation is a reflection of personal goals, motivations and desires, as well as life circumstances experienced by an individual. In this chapter, I used Covid-19 as an example of an event that has impacted purpose creation, even within my personal life. The detrimental impacts the pandemic has had on mental health overall should not be taken lightly or overlooked. With this knowledge however, I hope that a sense of comfort can be drawn. It is entirely normal to experience changes and feelings of uncertainty in regard to finding a purpose in life, but as time goes on, so will the ability to reestablish a sense of meaning. I urge those who may be grappling with this change to work hard to establish goals, reaffirm these goals and make plans to meet them. With this, a sense of purpose will come, no matter what it may look like.
Bates, G., Rixon, A., Carbone, A., & Pilgrim, C. (2019). Beyond employability skills: Developing professional purpose. Journal of Teaching and Learning for Graduate Employability, 10(1), 7-26. https://doi.org/10.21153/jtlge2019vol10no1art794
Cotton Bronk, K., Hill, P. L., Lapsley, D.K., Talib, T.L., & Finch, H., (2009) Purpose, hope, and life satisfaction in three age groups, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4:6, 500-510, DOI: 10.1080/17439760903271439
Damon, W., Menon, J., Cotton Bronk, K. (2003). The development of purpose during adolescence. Applied Developmental Science, 7, 119-128. doi:10.1207/S1532480XADS0703_2
de Jong, E. M., Ziegler, N., & Schippers, M. C. (2020). From Shattered Goals to Meaning in Life: Life Crafting in Times of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.577708
Dhar, A. (2020, May 12). How I’m Finding Purpose and Connection in a Pandemic. Greater Good. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_im_finding_purpose_and_connection_in_a_pandemic
Elliott, A. (2006). The hierarchical model of approach-avoidance motivation. Motivation and Emotion, 30(2), 111–116. doi: http://.doi.org/10.1007/s11031-006-9028-7
Javed, B., Sarwer, A., Soto, E. B., & Mashwani, Z. U. (2020). The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic’s impact on mental health. The International journal of health planning and management, 35(5), 993–996. https://doi.org/10.1002/hpm.3008
Vahia, I. V., Jeste, D. V., & Reynolds, C. F. (2020). Older Adults and the Mental Health Effects of COVID-19. JAMA, 324(22), 2253. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2020.21753
McKnight, P.E., & Kashdan, T.B. (2009). Purpose in life as a system that creates and sustains health and well-being: An integrative, testable theory. Review of General Psychology 13(3), 242–251. doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017152
Newman, K. M. (2020, July 14). How Purpose Changes Across Your Lifetime. Greater Good. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_purpose_changes_across_your_lifetime