What’s your “why”? – Finding personal meaning and purpose

Having a sense of purpose and meaning in life is fundamental to our psychological wellbeing. As human beings, we are hard-wired to look for causal relationships, understand connections and make sense of our environment and of our lives – we want to understand how we fit into the “big picture”. We are looking for ways to be connected to something larger then ourselves, so that our actions and decisions are imbued with direction and meaning.

One of the most influential researchers exploring the role that subjective meaning plays for our lives and psychological health was Victor Frankl. After surviving the holocaust, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist spoke and wrote extensively about his experiences in the concentration camps. One of his famous observations noted  that camp inmates who were able to maintain a sense of purpose in the face of indescribable conditions were far more likely to survive than those who did not. Frankl concluded that our resilience depends on the ability to create personal meaning: a broader context that keeps us going and provides hope and inspiration when we are faced with a significant challenge or adversity. Frankl’s famous quote “life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose”, holds a profound lesson for us as we are dealing with the many challenges in 2020.

One more piece of general advice: it is helpful to think of purpose not so much as a destination, but a journey and ongoing practice. Keep in mind that the things that provide you with a sense of meaning can also change over time as you are moving through different life and career stages.

So, what can you do to identify or re-connect with personal purpose and meaning? The following suggestions may be a good starting point to find your “why” in life and at work:

  • Connect with your values. What matters most to you in life, what are you not willing to give up, which ideals are you ready to fight for?  Think about your personal guidelines and underlying rules that inform your decisions and judgements, the standards you are setting for yourself as well as the demonstrated behaviours you are looking for in other people. Once you have identified your three to five key values (e.g. honesty, social justice, friendship, family, equality, integrity, creativity, health, freedom, seeking wisdom…), take an inventory of your daily activities, tasks and habits – both in your personal and your professional life – and consider how connected they are to your values. If there is a general or frequent disconnection, think about ways to increase alignment between your actions and your core values. The following self-reflection question can help with this exercise:
    • Why is this value important to me?
    • How does it reflect who I most want to be as a person? 
    • How can I show up today acting from this value?  
    • What is one small daily action I can take that aligns with this value?
  • Be intentional and present in small moments. Exploring concepts like purpose and meaning in your work, or life in general, can feel overwhelming, unachievable or discouraging. To make it more accessible, break the idea of “meaning” down into small components. For example, individual meaning can be found in small interactions, conversations and activities, including self-care. Maybe demonstrating to your team in that you believe in them, providing practical or emotional support to friends and family, or working together with colleagues towards shared goals is what feels meaningful to you. Or it’s about broadening your horizons, gaining new skills and using them to contribute to positive change, or understanding complex legal realities and explaining them to your clients so they can make informed choices. It doesn’t always have to be something “big”, just something that feels intrinsically valuable and /or enjoyable to you.
  • Create space for purposeful connections. Meaningful, positive relationships at work and in our personal life contribute significantly to our overall wellbeing. Consider becoming a mentor to younger colleagues, taking up volunteering for a cause that you believe in, joining a book club or running group, or exploring other opportunities that would allow you to build deeper connections with others. It may not come as a surprise to hear that if you ask people what their most important sources of meaning in life are, they will usually tell you about their close relationships!
  • Lean into a growth mindset. Undeniably, we are going through difficult times. The stress caused by the current pandemic, economic uncertainty, disrupted work processes, social distancing and reduced individual freedom can create a scarcity mindset. The belief that there isn’t enough for everyone can lead to the type of unhelpful hoarding behaviour we have witnessed in supermarkets in recent months. A scarcity mindset also leads to reactive, fear-based decision-making, narrow thinking and reduced capacity for creativity and innovation. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is built around the belief that challenges can make us stronger, wiser and more capable than we were before. In other words, a growth mindset can help you to identify and adopt more positive, constructive and personally meaningful actions when faced with obstacles and difficulty.
  • Get off the beaten track (of your life). Try something new. Push yourself and leave your comfort zone every now and again. Take the time to notice and remove yourself from behaviours (and people) that are draining your sense of personal purpose, and reinvest in new activities and groups which enhance your daily life with positive experiences and personal meaning. The idea is to try different things and find out if it takes you to a positive place. We usually believe that our goals determine our actions. But sometimes, the reverse is also true: the feedback we receive from small actions can enable us to identify new meaningful goals.

If you would like to learn more, don’t hesitate to reach out to the QLS Solicitor Support service on ethics@qls.com.au or p. 3842 5843 to speak to someone in a judgement-free and supportive environment. ccent 2

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