Daniel Goleman, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and co-developer of the Goleman EI online learning platform, is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, is available now.
In a recent survey from the Wall Street Journal more than a quarter of respondents agreed with the statement, “I’m not considered essential or don’t think I am, but I’m still working. My work doesn’t feel particularly important or meaningful.”
Amy Wrzesniewski, a Yale School of Management professor who studies how people create meaning in their work lives, describes the current reality as, for some, a time of painful reckonings. She suggests that in the absence of face to face meetings and office camaraderie we are left with only “the work itself.”
“These shocks are opportunities for people to think, ‘Does my work matter? And do I matter,’ which is really the question underlying all of this.”
At the same time, Forbes has reported that over 40% of people working from home say their mental health has declined since the COVID-19 outbreak. Given the relationship between purpose and wellbeing, this is a moment for companies to ask: Is this unease the result of quarantine, school closures, civil unrest and economic setbacks? Or is it rooted in a fundamental lack of meaning?
This dichotomy between whether a sense of wellbeing is rooted in fleeting circumstances or in a deeper sense of meaning, underpins the most popular course ever taught in Yale University's 319- year history, Psychology and the Good Life. The course was launched in 2018 by Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos, who created the curriculum in response to the rising levels of depression, anxiety, and stress among the school’s high-achieving students.
Drawing on neuroscience and cognitive psychology, the course offered new habits for cultivating joy and happiness. The premise was a challenge to what drove many of the students into Yale: that achievement, status, academic accomplishments, and material possessions aren’t a solid path to mental and emotional wellbeing. Instead, she had students focus, for instance, on practicing gratitude and cultivating moments of connection.
The first semester it was offered, nearly 1,200 students enrolled in the course, roughly one quarter of all students on campus. Dr. Santos attributed its success to the fact that many Yale students, in order to meet the criteria needed to make it into the Ivy League, had put that which made them happy, including friendships, on the backburner during their high school years.
Anyone who is hyper-focused on achievement or who works in a culture driven by competition might resonate. In fact, anyone can probably resonate. This is why Santos eventually turned the curriculum into a free online course called The Science of Wellbeing.
This prevailing myth—that what we produce, own, or acquire creates the conditions for mental and emotional wellbeing—is the same narrative Nobel Peace Prize Laureates the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu challenge in The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.
Both these near-legendary spiritual leaders lived through more than fifty years of exile, violence, and oppression. Yet, they seem to be two of the most joyful people on the planet. In their view, happiness is a superficial and fleeting state. Joy, they say, is a natural state of being, bolstered through connection, service and, most crucial, the degree to which we feel the events and actions of our lives hold meaning.
Their advice: in the face of fear, stress, anger, grief, illness, and death, focus on perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity. To be sure, that is perhaps easier said than done. But the shift in our mental focus they urge holds true for us all.
In a time where job perks like, travel, promotions, and happy hour culture are temporarily off the table, companies have a new opportunity to help employees explore the true purpose of their work.
To reap the mental and emotional benefits of purpose in this time, the focus might need to be not just what we do, but the spirit with which we do it.
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