How Finding Purpose Can Help You to Overcome Challenging Times

“Can we grow from stress? The answer is clear: absolutely.”

Victoria 1 / Shutterstock
Victoria 1 / Shutterstock

1. “I discovered that I’m stronger than I thought I was.”
2. “I changed my priorities about what is important in life.”
3. “I established a new path for my life.”

These three statements are part of a larger scale measuring Posttraumatic Growth. The media loves to talk about Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but can we grow from stress? The answer is clear: absolutely. Research studies have demonstrated posttraumatic growth after earthquakes, tsunamis, war, cancer, and loss of loved ones. We can also grow from our experience with COVID-19.

Let’s look at Statement 1. Friedrich Nietzsche famously said: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Are you dead? If you’re reading this, perhaps you can stop and reflect on the what you might learn from the COVID-19 experience. What have you done that you feel has been successful in diminishing the effects of COVID-19? How will this experience make you more aware and better prepared for future pandemics (which will almost doubtlessly occur)? In psychology, this ability is called self-efficacy, and the strongest way to build self-efficacy is through previous accomplishments. How will you become stronger as a result of this experience?

Now let’s turn to Statements 2 and 3. Taking a fresh look at what matters most in your life, and establishing a new path, is all about purpose. And what if it was a self-transcending purpose? What if life is less about the NCAA basketball tournament, and more about finding new ways of interacting with your family? What if life is less about stripping the shelves bare of hand sanitizer, and more about helping other people and healthcare and community organizations cope with the extraordinary challenges they face?

Research has demonstrated that people with self-transcending purpose produce more antibodies, mount stronger antiviral responses, and are shielded from toxic biological effects of social isolation (all of which would come in handy right now). Strength of purpose, produced through regular compassion toward others — even those we don’t like —  has been shown to reduce inflammation, which fuels heart attacks and cancer, and increase telomerase, which grows the chromosomal “caps” that keep our DNA (and us) healthy. 

One thing we know about COVID-19 is that people are differentially susceptible to its effects. We don’t know whether having a self-transcending purpose can buffer the effects of COVID-19, but it probably doesn’t hurt to try.  You may live longer, and you will certainly live better.

Today, many of us feel helpless, just waiting to get sick (or fired, or both).  We didn’t choose this, but it hit us anyway.  But that doesn’t mean we have no choice about how to go forward.  Victor Frankl didn’t choose to be sent to a concentration camp, either, but he did learn from his awful experiences there a shining recipe for human resilience and growth amidst the most dire circumstances.  (If you don’t know who Victor Frankl was, today would be a great time to discover Man’s Search for Meaning.)

Stop and think about a time in your life when you experienced the greatest amount of personal growth? Was it when you were on the beach drinking martinis? Or was it from a period of great challenge? Consider using the challenge of COVID-19 to build strength and self-transcending purpose. Let’s grow from this experience.

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