A Year in Search of Purpose

Last year employees were looking for meaning, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman. This year they will be acting on it.

Daniel Goleman is a senior consultant at Goleman Consulting Group, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and host of the podcast First Person Plural: Emotional Intelligence and Beyond. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

Looking back over the past three years of disruption and unrest—no word could be more appropriate than “CHANGE.”

Can I change my career?

Can I change my location?

Can I change the world?

These are the questions Google’s annual “year in search” video brings into view. Every year, Google produces this little two-minute video highlighting the most commonly typed queries over the previous twelve months. This year’s video opens with the question, “Can I change my life,” followed by more nuanced queries around identity, passion, positivity, and how to create a reality that more accurately reflects one’s values.

If we were going to title the past year based on what people were typing into their Google search bars, we might call it “A Year in Search of Purpose.”

Other findings support this. According to a recent survey from Worklife, which included almost 600 Americans, nearly three quarters of remote employees picked up a side hustle—or a secondary job—when their work went virtual due to the pandemic. Seventy-six percent said they had been thinking about their side project before the pandemic even began, and close to 80% said their side project was one of the primary benefits of being at home and out of the office, a chance to focus on passion projects (sometimes lucrative) that bring joy and meaning.

For organizations, this could run the gamut from scary to inspiring. Together with the “Great Resignation” and “quiet quitting” this data presents yet another trend furthering the crisis of focus and engagement in the workplace.

But as John F. Kennedy once pointed out, when written in Chinese, the word "crisis" is composed of two characters – one representing danger and one loosely representing “change point.” On the one hand, organizations can see the growing search for purpose as a threat to their survival. On the other hand, they can see it as an opportunity to double down on the happiness of their workforce – to think more critically than ever about how to engage people in roles, positions, and growth opportunities they care about.

Christopher Palmer, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, recently wrote a piece for CNBC sharing his top six strategies for maintaining mental, physical and cognitive health. Number six: Never lose sight of your purpose in life. Dr. Palmer cites the extensive research showing the role of purpose in mitigating chronic stress and preventing cognitive decline.

Given how much stress the pandemic brought on—in addition to the climate crisis, heightened violence, and reckonings with inequity—it’s no wonder so many people are looking to inspiration and meaning as the antidote.

“We’re witnessing pursuit of happiness on a scale never seen before,” says Worklife founder Brianne Kimmel.

People aren’t just looking for recipes online anymore, they are looking for ways to bring about meaningful change.

When it comes to living more purposeful lives, the path isn’t always linear. Meaning flows from a variety of places, practices, and interconnections. To one person, purpose might look like solving a global challenge. To another, it might mean carving out more time to be with loved ones.

In 2023, we might want to ask ourselves:

What do I want to change: in myself, my relationships, my workplace, my community, and the world?

What could I shift in order to feel like my time and attention truly matter?

As Dr. Palmer writes, “We should all aim to have at least one role in society that allows us to contribute and feel valued.”

Co-written by Elizabeth Solomon

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.