Spiritual' Health in the Pandemic

Best-selling author Daniel Goleman argues that our sense of purpose has never felt more paramount.

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. 

What comes to mind when you think of “health”?

In these days of COVID-19, being virus-free and having vitality no doubt is at or near the top of your list. And to be sure, there are the inevitable thoughts like, Will I get the virus, and if so, will I survive? How many months of lockdown until I go insane?

And executives are facing agonizing decisions such as who to keep on, who to furlough, and who to let go; how to re-organize work with everyone in isolation; which bills to pay now and which to delay. Not to mention how to keep a business afloat during this calamitous time, and what new strategies to implement once commerce resumes some semblance of normal.

Over the past two months of quarantine and social distancing, our physical and mental health have been continually tested. Parenting, working from home, losing a job, losing our livelihood, caring for sick family members, being forced out of parks and gyms, and being estranged from our community: the new normal is taking its toll on our health and well-being.

Yet even as hospitals fill up, therapists have waiting lists, and hand sanitizer has become a hot commodity, there’s another dimension of health this crisis wants us to consider. There are more aspects to health than just our physical or emotional state, though during the current pandemic it's harder to think beyond them.

That other dimension: You might call it spiritual health, or a sense of meaning and purpose. This doesn’t refer to organized religion, meditation, or altars, though these may be a part of a spiritual practice. It speaks to the question, “What really matters?”

This existential query has more prominence today for us all: faced with the absence of something (or in this case, many things), we become acutely aware of how important what matters to us really is. Our sense of purpose might not just be something we find ourselves mulling these days—an afterthought to our physical and mental wellbeing. There’s reason to believe we would benefit from zeroing in on it.

A study from the University of Wisconsin in Madison finds that sense of purpose is key to personal health and resilience. Psychologists and neuroscientists discovered:

  • Higher levels of purpose in life, personal growth, and positive relations are linked to lower cardiovascular risk as well as better neuroendocrine regulation (the mechanism by which the brain regulates reproduction, metabolism, eating and drinking, energy utilization, and blood pressure)
  • People with a greater sense of purpose exhibit reduced rates of depression, better cognition, a lessened risk of cognitive impairment, and a slower rate of cognitive decline.
  • People who reported high levels of purpose in life were more likely to remain free of Alzheimer Disease longer than people who reported low levels.

It’s been argued that without a sense of meaning, other dimensions of health cease to matter. Or, as the grim thinking goes, why strive to stay alive if there’s nothing worth living for?

But maybe the question isn’t whether a life without purpose is worth living, but instead, what role does purpose play in navigating a reality where death is everywhere? People, companies, bank accounts, plans for the future: loss is woven through our lives these days.

Though I’ve talked about the relationship between purpose and wellbeing before, given our current predicament the link is worth reiterating.  Our sense of purpose has never felt more paramount. What gets us out of bed every day? As difficulties continue, this will be a more and more important question to answer.

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