Finding purpose in the time of the coronavirus

Opinion: Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging chairman on elevating our sense of purpose during isolation
Paul Irving headshot
Paul Irving, Milken Institute Center on the Future of Work (Photo: Milken Institute)

This is a dark age for many of us. The coronavirus pandemic has put global populations at risk, stripped millions of people from jobs and savings and isolated us in ways many have never experienced. For those of us of who are older, the danger is elevated. But the lessons of history offer perspective.

Humanity survived and thrived in the wake of earlier pandemics. The pain inflicted by invisible enemies like the Black Death, smallpox, and the Spanish Flu was devastating, but the world recovered.

We have survived even worse — our own inhumanity. That’s why this is a time to turn again to the work of Viktor Frankl and his powerful book, Man’s Search for Meaning.

Frankl was the prominent Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who wrote of his personal experiences in the Auschwitz concentration camp. He observed that prisoners who found purpose in the face of unimaginable conditions were far more resilient and likely to survive than those who did not.

What Purpose Can Do for Us

Frankl’s words, “life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose” are a call to action today. Finding purpose, a fundamental requirement for human health and well-being, will not cure the coronavirus, but may well mitigate its effects and enable a more rapid recovery.

In this moment, as we face physical isolation, financial loss and threatened health, finding purpose may actually save lives.

Researchers agree that purpose in life increases overall well-being, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency and self-esteem and decreases the chances of depression. A strong sense of purpose is associated with slower development of age-related disabilities, reduced incidence of cardiovascular disease, improved cognitive health and longer lives. Finding purpose can promote energy, satisfaction and protective preventive health behaviors.

As Dr. Philip Pizzo of Stanford University, another Next Avenue Influencer in Aging, wrote in a recent piece for the Journal of the American Medical Association, “having a purpose, seeking social engagement, and fostering wellness through positive lifestyle choices are important in reducing morbidity and mortality and improving the life journey.”

While each of us sees purpose through our own lens, there is common ground. Some suggest that purpose is found at the intersection of our talents and skills and a need in the world. Others say it is the thing that drives us and keeps us going when things get tough.

Certainly, contributing to and caring for others is a shared instinct and aspiration. Social connection, engagement and sense of community are also key parts of the formula. Importantly, a loss of purpose can be a symptom of isolation.

That is a risk we all face today. So, if isolation is the enemy, how can we preserve and elevate our sense of purpose during a period of social distancing?

7 Ways to Find Purpose in the Pandemic

Here are seven ideas:

  1. Call and email. Connect with family, friends and colleagues, particularly with those who are alone. This is an opportunity to renew and mend relationships and offer comfort to those in need.
  2. Volunteer. Help others by reaching out to community organizations to offer assistance. The benefits of volunteer service are powerful, both for beneficiaries and for volunteers themselves who often realize enhanced physical, mental and emotional well-being related to their service.
  3. Prioritize learning. Determination to learn can foster a sense of purpose. Reading connects us to new people, places and ideas. Online courses and periodicals expose us to fresh perspectives. Virtual museum tours, music lessons and performances, poetry readings and cooking classes are all available.
  4. Write. Writing challenges us to organize and express our thoughts. Begin a journal. We’re living history today, and this is our opportunity to record it.
  5. Exercise. Set daily goals and do what’s possible. The health benefits are obvious, but fitness goals can also be a manifestation of purposeful living.
  6. Count our blessings. A sense of awe and gratitude are associated with purpose and an increased inclination to engage in altruistic behaviors that make a contribution to others.
  7. Plan for what’s next. This pandemic will ultimately be controlled, so now is a time to prepare for recovery —at home, in business and in community. Things may be different, but human beings have proven to be remarkably adaptable and we’ll adapt to this as well.

Of course, all of us will have good days and bad as the coronavirus pandemic plays out. But each of us can choose to adopt positive attitudes and control our own response to the circumstances.

Let’s take the lessons learned from reading Viktor Frankl and live this difficult time with purpose.

Paul Irving is the Chairman of the Milken Institute Center on the Future of Work and a of the WorkingNation Advisory Board.

This Op-Ed was originally published on the NextAvenue.org website and is republished with the organization’s permission.

Get our latest articles, videos, and podcasts
sharing solutions to today's workforce challenges.

Sign Up to Recieve Our Newsletter