The concept of purpose is often illustrated as a question: “What gets you out of bed in the morning?” Purpose is generally understood as having values-driven goals that are personally meaningful and connected to a higher objective outside ourselves. It gives our lives meaning, structure, and direction. It boosts life and career satisfaction while spurring action.
Whether we’re raising children, volunteering, or doing paid work, a strong sense of purpose intrinsically keeps us engaged and drives us forward. And it’s strikingly intertwined with wellness. Low purpose is linked with poor health; higher, stronger purpose levels are predictive of more robust health and well-being.
Research findings point to a health-protecting effect of purpose:1, 2
Reduced risk of stroke, cardiovascular events, and cognitive impairment
Enhanced blood sugar regulation
Better pain tolerance
Lower all-cause mortality.3
Health behaviors are also positively influenced; people with strong purpose exhibit:
More physical activity
Better medication adherence
Tendency to use preventive health services
Increased mental and emotional health.4
An intriguing recent study examined the impact of purpose on health decision making. Researchers found those with a higher vs. lower sense of purpose may be more open to health advice and experience less effort in making healthy decisions.5 The effect was strongest with messages about how to engage in a health action, as opposed to why. Providing recipes, for example, is likely more effective than explaining why eating green leafy vegetables is important.
How to Promote Purpose
Helping employees understand how they contribute to the organization’s larger goals and aim is a long-known management strategy for fostering individual work-related purpose, engagement, and performance.
But now we know purpose-building also can improve health behavior change success. A few ideas:
Promote volunteering. Sharing time and talents for the good of the community expands purpose as well as meaning and social well-being. Look for ways to get employees involved in volunteering near your workplace.
Encourage mentoring. Both parties experience a stronger sense of purpose from a relationship focused on career growth.
Foster career development. Workers need more than a single conversation about career interests and goals once a year; managers who make this an ongoing conversation help employees grow, thrive, and work with purpose.
Offer employees the chance to teach coworkers and interns. Preparing, delivering, and evaluating training sessions heightens purpose in those who embrace the opportunity.
Include gratitude practices in well-being activities. Recognizing what they’re thankful for makes people more likely to think about ways to give back to the world beyond themselves.6
Advocate for using personal strengths. Identifying strong qualities and using them more often in daily work will enhance meaning. The free VIA character strengths survey is a helpful self-assessment.
Support job crafting. When workers have the ability to shape their work experience, they derive more meaning from it.7 Manager training to encourage this is a good way to start.
Facilitate community-building. When employees feel connected, they feel part of something bigger; they have a stronger sense of belonging, which contributes to purpose. Help create opportunities for workers across the organization to get to know each other, from walking groups to lunchtime activities to after-work socializing.
Are purpose-building strategies included in your employer’s management training and organizational development? Well-being programs and services? If not, team up with HR and other leaders to incorporate this vital well-being factor.
Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor E. Frankl, Beacon Press (2006)
Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want, Beverly Kaye and Julie Winkle Giulioni, Berrett-Koehler Publishers (2019)
Life on Purpose — How Living for What Matters Most Changes Everything, Victor J. Strecher, HarperOne (2016)
University of Minnesota: Life Purpose, takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/life-purpose
1. University of Minnesota, Taking Charge of Your Health & Well-Being, Why Is Life Purpose Important? takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/why-life-purpose-important
2, 5. Kang Y, Strecher V, Kim E, Falk E. Purpose in Life and Conflict-Related Neural Responses During Health Decision Making, Health Psychology 2019, Vol. 38, No. 6, 545-552
3. Alimujiang A, Wiensch A, Boss J, et al. Association Between Life Purpose and Mortality Among US Adults Older Than 50 Years, JAMA Network Open 2019; 2(5): e194270 doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.4270
4. McKnight P, Kashdan T. Purpose in Life as a System That Creates and Sustains Health and Well-Being: An Integrative, Testable Theory
6, 7. Claremont Graduate University, Adolescent Moral Development Lab, The Psychology of Purpose. templeton.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Psychology-of-Purpose-FINAL.pdf