Purpose in Life During COVID-19

Author(s): Martha Abshire, PhD, RN and Mona Shattell, PhD, RN, FAAN

Dr. Martha Abshire is an assistant professor and Dr. Mona Shattell is an associate dean at Johns Hopkins University.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our everyday lives. As the death toll is increasing, we’re still evaluating the value of lockdown, the short and long term effects on businesses and the impact of so many Americans losing their jobs. We all must cope with a new way of living. Finding purpose in life and making meaning from these days of isolation has taken on even more importance than before. But, how do we do this in the midst of such anxiety and uncertainty?

We’re nurses and researchers. Our experiences in mental health and caring for patients with advanced illness who face end of life inform our view of living through these difficult times. When we understand that there’s a limit to this life, it makes us want to draw meaning from our experiences to motivate how we live our days.

Sometimes meaningful moments sneak up on us – a moment as a nurse in the intensive care unit when a family expresses gratitude for your care, or a moment as a teacher when a student really ‘gets’ what they are trying to learn.

And sometimes we recognize the intentionality of living with purpose when we see meaningful results of our actions.

Viktor Frankl was a holocaust survivor who attributed his survival to finding meaning in the midst of those incredibly difficult circumstances. Others have suggested that meaning in life has 3 components to consider:

1) making sense of life experiences
2) motivation or purpose from pursuing worthwhile goals, and
3) the feelings of fulfillment and happiness that come from achieving goals.

Researchers like psychologist Dr. Carol Ryff, have used Frankl’s work to define ‘purpose in life’ as the “extent to which individuals see their lives as having meaning, a sense of direction, and goals to live for.” Purpose in life is intrinsically connected to well-being and quality of life. Of course, life’s purpose is also a common central idea in religion, connecting purpose to holy pursuits or love of God. While based in the evangelical Christian church, the Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren was a #1 New York Times Best Seller and speaks to the importance of the topics of meaning and purpose.

Many studies have shown that individuals who feel a stronger sense of purpose in life have better physical and mental health. Individuals with higher purpose in life scores experience less prolonged grief in bereavement, better outcomes in treatment for alcohol use disorder and less depression. Purpose in life has also been associated with reduced risk of disability in older adults and lower heart attack risk among those with known heart disease.

So that’s great, but all this might be hard to do during an economic crisis. It might be hard to understand your life’s purpose from the perspective of all-day pajamas and parenting in the midst of pandemic, or as a person who has recently become unemployed or has been furloughed from their job. The beauty in the search for meaning and purpose, is that our understanding evolves throughout our lives, drawing meaning from experiences and casting purpose forward to inform how we make choices about your future. We encourage readers to listen to the UC Berkeley Science of Happiness podcast, which is filled with all kinds of practices we can do to bring purpose to the forefront of our daily lives, even during times of crisis.

Here are some ideas:

Consider doing a value sorting activity, where you examine a list of things people value (i.e. adventure, safety, intimacy) and think about your values. Then, think about how your daily activities reflect those values. Maybe you’ll find purpose in creating a greater connection between your stated values and day-to-day activities.

Consider taking some dedicated time for silence – 2-4 hours committed to going to a natural space, reflecting, walking and writing about what you are grateful for, what you need and what you hope your life will yield. You can even start with a few minutes at a time, several times per day.

We fully acknowledge that the headspace you need to think about meaning and purpose just might not be available right now. When you are preoccupied with feeding your family, paying the rent, or waiting for news about a family member with COVID, it can be hard to get past survival mode enough to remember to breathe, much less think philosophically about your life. Even if you do have the headspace, the science is not completely convincing – while there are associated health benefits for those who identify a life purpose, there is not enough evidence to support a causal relationship between purpose and health.

Still, even as we hope for a sustained flattening of the curve of COVID cases and deaths, we’ve experienced an event that will change the world forever. Our healthcare, economy and political structures may be irrevocably changed. Perhaps it’s worth taking a deep breath — we may yet find meaning from these days of more time with our families, less busy schedules and gratitude for every social connection we make. Some of us may also find a renewed sense of purpose through the changes our world has experienced.

For us, we know that nursing is deeply connected to our purpose. Our purpose is to support the physical and mental health of our communities by leading efforts to influence future nurses, and as nurse researchers to improve health outcomes for patients and caregivers. And part of this is to consider purpose and meaning, even or perhaps especially, during these uncertain COVID-19 times.

Martha Abshire, PhD, RN is an Assistant Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing.  Her research focuses on improving the lives of patients and families managing advanced heart failure through tailored interventions for caregivers.

Mona Shattell, PhD, RN, FAAN is Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Isabel Hampton Robb Distinguished Scholar in the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing in Baltimore. She also holds a joint appointment in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering. She is the Editor of the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, and the author of more than 130 journal articles and book chapters. She is an active social media user, content developer, and public thought leader. She has published op-eds in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Health Affairs Blog, Huffington Post, PBS, and others.

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