The rise of 'purpose anxiety'

While a sense of purpose creates a sense of well-being, searching for that purpose may be having the opposite effect, notes best-selling author Daniel Goleman.

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.

Are you clear about your sense of meaning and your life’s purpose?

Having a positive answer augurs well for your well-being, research finds. And feeling at sea when it comes to that question has the opposite impact, according to a recent report in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

The study from the school of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, reveals that a strong sense of purpose and meaning in life is a key ingredient in our sense of well-being. So there are two basic questions: Does a sense of purpose permeate your life? Or are you searching for a deeper sense of meaning?

The answers to those questions matter. While the presence of meaning correlates with an increase in health and well-being, the search for meaning (i.e., the struggle to find it) seems to be associated with a decline in mental health and cognitive functioning. The research also shows that having a void when it comes to meaning in life, and so searching for a purpose, accompanies the loss of cognitive and physical abilities as people age.

Such “purpose anxiety” has been a topic of research and reflection for some time now. The term encapsulates the doubt and distress many people feel when they’re struggling to discover a sense of meaning, including understanding how and where they can make a meaningful difference.

This makes sense from what we know about how anxiety narrows our thinking and range of activity—how it inhibits us in setting goals and mustering the positive outlook and energy to achieve them. All that would make the search for meaning more difficult.

This lack of a sense of meaning no doubt plays a major role in midlife crises. Halfway through their lives, fortysomethings are looking back and wondering what all those decades really meant and if they were well lived, creating for some (perhaps many) a storm of prolonged stress, feelings of detachment, and intense questioning of the significance of one’s role and identity—in other words, that search for meaning. It may also be hitting millennials particularly hard, as they experience a ratcheting up of economic pressures to work hard at the same time that social media depicts an exaggerated image of what it means to live their best life.

But there’s a question to ask about purpose anxiety: How much of it is rooted in a misunderstanding of what purpose is supposed to be or look like?

Emily Esfahani Smith, of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, has traveled around the world studying what she calls the four pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. In her words, “Purpose sounds big—ending world hunger or eliminating nuclear weapons big. But it doesn’t have to be. You can also find purpose in being a good parent to your children, creating a more cheerful environment at your office, or making a giraffe’s life more pleasant.”

For organizations heeding calls to feature meaning and purpose, not just profitability, there may be a valuable lesson here. Yes, the world needs businesses to play a part in solving pressing issues like hunger and global warming. But on the micro level, it may help to think of purpose in a more mundane way, rather than from a grandiose philosophical perspective.

How would the people at your company answer the two basic questions: Does purpose permeate your day-to-day work? Or are you searching for a deeper sense of meaning?

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