Purpose is a word we hear little of but it has an important role to play in keeping us mentally healthy, motivated and engaged. It’s linked to our values and drives us forward to persevere when the going gets tough. And, also helps us to find ways of being flexible and adapting to the challenges that can push us out of our comfort zone.
When we meet challenges and respond to adversity, we’re able to learn from our experiences and develop new skills that help us face future challenges. In this way we become more resilient. This is the sort of resilience that is not static, not an ‘either I am or I’m not’ character trait. But, instead a dynamic, fluid, and evolving state that emerges stronger as we take on new challenges and thereby enabling us to thrive in adversity.
How do we know that purpose is important for resilience?
Examples from history give us a clue. From Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated attempt to cross the Antarctic on foot, to Anita Roddick’s rise to success with the Body Shop, we can see that having a strong connection with our values and acting in accordance with them gives us purpose and drives us forward to meet our goals. Sometimes this involves persevering through adversity, and sometimes it means adapting flexibly as life throws new challenges at us. Although Shackleton’s original goal to cross 1800 miles of the Antarctic on foot was thwarted he never lost sight of his higher purpose which was to ensure the safety of his team. Acting with this in mind, he was able to find ways to achieve his purpose and overcome impossible odds to bring them all back home safely.
Facing very different challenges in setting up an ethical cosmetics company, Anita Roddick held onto her values despite pressures from shareholders, to create and maintain an organisation that was both ethical and environmentally friendly, pioneering a new model of corporate responsibility.
At a more common everyday level, we know from research on depression, as well as anecdotal evidence, that when people connect with their sense of purpose they do things that lead to feelings of mastery, move them towards being the person they want to be and contribute to improvements in mood.
In fact, happiness is commonly defined as a combination of pleasure and purpose. The precise ratio of pleasure to purpose needed to achieve happiness varies from person to person, with some placing greater focus on pleasurable activities and others more interested in purposeful activities. Either way, purpose has an essential role to play in generating happiness.
So at many different levels purpose serves an important role in our lives, not only supporting us to become more resilient but also enhancing positive emotions, reducing depression and building well-being.
Find your personal purpose and build resilience
If we know what is important to us in how we want to live our lives and can identify the values we approach life with, we experience a sense of purpose. Keeping our values in mind, having a sense of purpose, helps us to venture out of our comfort zone to find new ways to deal with situations that challenge us.
Values are about how we want to behave or act on a regular basis. To find out more about your own values ask yourself:
• What do I really want in life? What matters to me in the bigger picture? What do I want to stand for? What gives me a sense of meaning and purpose?
These questions can be difficult to answer, so you could try approaching it from another angle:
• Imagine that a local TV station is making a documentary of your life. They are interviewing some of your friends and family. They are people who know you well, respect and value you. The TV crew wants to know what they think of you, about what you stand for, what your strengths are, what you mean to them and what role you play in their life. In an ideal world, where you have lived your life as the person you want to be, what would they be saying about you?
Now you have a list of some of your core values, you might need to narrow down. So try asking yourself:
• Which of these values are most important to me? See if you can identify a list of around 6 top values.
Live to your values to build resilience
Keeping these values in mind will help you to set goals and act in ways that are consistent with who you want to be. Ask yourself:
• What can I do today that gives me a sense of purpose or that helps me to move towards living to these values?
• If a friend was observing me doing these things, what behaviours would they notice that would tell them I am living to my values.
The more you move towards living to your values, the greater your sense of purpose. This will enhance not only your mood and well-being but also your resilience, self-esteem and self-confidence.