How Your Sense of Purpose Is Going to Get You Through This

Posted 07.14.2020

Like me, you may have noticed that time goes by both quickly and slowly during the pandemic. For instance, as I write this post it’s Monday morning and it feels like it was only a day or two ago that I was writing last week’s post – also on a Monday morning – on the connection between strong relationships and managing your stress. On the other hand, while the weeks seem to go by fast, any given day can feel slow as I operate in a constrained physical domain while connecting with others through technology in the (what is it now?) 18th week of working from home. It can all leave you feeling a little disconnected.

And a sense of disconnection can be hard on your spirit if not addressed. That’s why I want to conclude this four-part series on routines that can help you manage your stress and allostatic load during the pandemic by focusing a bit on the spiritual domain.

Let me start with what I do and don’t mean by the word spiritual. What I don’t mean is routines that are associated with a particular religion, denomination or tradition. I don’t have any opposition to any of those and am happy if you have such practices in your life that work for you. What I do mean by spiritual is a broader application of the word that draws on the first definition offered by the Oxford English Dictionary, “relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.”

In over ten years of working with leaders on identifying the routines that help them live and lead at their best, I’ve concluded that a tradition-neutral spiritual routine that works for almost everyone is to reflect on questions of purpose such as:

Why am I here? On this earth, in this life, for this limited amount of time that I have here – why am I here? What’s my purpose?

What does it mean to have a clear sense of purpose? One set of answers comes from the Ryff Scale of Psychological Well Being in which “Purpose in Life” is one of the six factors measured in a self-assessment. According to the Ryff Scale, people who score high on purpose have “goals in life and a sense of directedness; feel there is meaning to present and past life; hold beliefs that give life purpose; have aims and objectives for living.”

And it’s not just about “purpose in life,” it’s about purpose extending life. Multiple medical research studies have demonstrated that having a sense of purpose extends life expectancy, sustains physical function, reduces frailty and disability over the course of life, and lessens the likelihood of Alzheimer’s and strokes.

While all the reasons why a sense of purpose has so many positive outcomes aren’t yet fully understood, it seems reasonable to draw some takeaways about what’s going on. How you think about life leads to how you feel about life. If you think, “What I do matters and makes a difference,” then you’re likely to feel happy, fulfilled, useful, vital, alive, etc. Those kinds of emotions have a positive effect on your allostatic load which in turn has a positive effect on your overall health, well-being and capacity to get meaningful things done. It’s a virtuous cycle.

Recent headlines provide a wonderful anecdotal example of what I’m talking about. You may have seen the news last month that comedian, author and television and film director, Carl Reiner, passed away at the age of 98. Seventy years ago, Reiner became famous for his role on the early television comedy, Your Show of Shows, and then as the creator and producer of the classic sitcom, The Dick Van Dyke Show. From there he went on to starring in, writing, producing and directing movies like The Jerk with Steve Martin. In the last years of his life, he had dinner every night with his lifelong best friend Mel Brooks, wrote a book every year from age 90 onward and produced a documentary called, If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast. (Stream it on Amazon; you’ll be happy you did.)

In an interview with a few years ago, Reiner talked about the purpose that kept him going:

“If you have something to do, anything, whatever it is, [do it]!… What keeps me going at 95 is the things in my head that I have to get out of my head. I don’t want them whirling in there, so I write.”

The last thing Reiner wrote was a Tweet two days before he died,

That’s someone who had a sense of purpose for their life. Here are some ideas on how to reconnect with yours:

  • Take some time to reflect on who or what matters to you and why. This series of concentric circles that I shared in a post in March might help you get started with that reflection. There’s a pretty excellent chance that your purpose relates to one or more of the people in the circles.
relationship circles - The Eblin Group
Copyright 2020, The Eblin Group, Inc.
  • Imagine that it’s New Year’s Eve 2025 and you’re looking back on what you did in the second half of 2020. From that vantage point, what do you see that makes you feel proud about how you lived and led back then? Your answers will probably have a lot to do with your purpose.
  • Journal about your reflections on purpose or talk with a close family member or friend about what’s on your mind and heart. Once you’ve articulated that, look for one or two small steps you can take this week to act on your purpose.

Stay connected with yourself and others in the months to come by reconnecting with your purpose. That’s what going to get you through this.

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