Why Finding Purpose 'Feels' Right

Emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman explains how a sense of purpose not only helps in the workplace but also is something our brains are hardwired to seek.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” 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. 

The daring entrepreneur Richard Branson has called inspiration the single most important leadership skill. He argues that success is achieved when a leader can strengthen the energy, passion, commitment, and connection between employees and the organizational mission. In short- to connect employees to a sense of meaning and purpose in their work and in their lives.

A Korn Ferry study of 3,871 senior executives and their direct reports found that a leadership style I call “visionary”—where the leader articulates a shared mission from the heart to the heart—creates the most positive climate, the optimal psychological space for people to do their best.

When it comes to purpose, many leaders debate over which is more important, inspiration or motivation. Comparisons aside, both are levers for igniting purpose. Why? Because both inspiration and motivation relate to the brain’s “seeking system”- a way we are wired to want to know, understand, and experience positive emotions.

Jaak Panksepp, the neuroscientist and psychobiologist who coined the term "affective neuroscience,” has had a significant career researching the neural mechanisms of emotion. He describes the brain’s seeking system as a series of neural pathways that encourage us to explore, learn, and find meaning. "Although the details of human hopes are surely beyond the imagination of other creatures, the evidence now clearly indicates that certain intrinsic aspirations of all mammalian minds, those of mice as well as men, are driven by the same ancient neurochemistries," writes Panksepp in Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions.

From an evolutionary standpoint, the brain’s seeking system is what motivated us to find food, shelter and protection long before modern industry made these things so readily available. Curiosity was a matter of survival. Though we have evolved, this system remains pivotal to our cognitive and emotional development.

The seeking system involves both the lower and upper parts of the brain. When we follow our seeking system the brain releases dopamine, the “pleasure” chemical linked to motivation and reward. We follow our instincts to explore and we activate higher level thinking and positivity. Joy is a result of learning, exploring and directing our efforts towards a goal. Basic survival aside, the seeking system is an important part of our mental and emotional wellbeing.

As Branson says, “Engage your emotions at work. Your instincts and emotions are there to help you.” Or, as Panksepp says, "If you take the SEEKING system away, your mental life is so compromised, you cannot live happily."

Nowhere is the seeking system more evident than in children. Put a child in a room of novel objects or in a park with new trees to climb, and you see the seeking system kick into gear. Driven by curiosity and facing new things to explore, children exhibit the determination, purpose, and excitement we so prize in the workplace. An amalgamation of curiosity, meaning, and positivity, the seeking system is where purpose comes to life.

We humans are wired to be simultaneously driven towards something and pulled to it. Whether we call it inspiration or motivation, working with our innate desire to explore, understand and make meaning, is a clear way to think about igniting joy and the sense of purpose that comes with it.

 Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence Coaching Certification.