Updated: Aug 6, 2021
“Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has meaning.” – Viktor Frank
One of the single most important traits I have noticed in high performing people is their clarity of mind, focus and overwhelming sense of purpose. Clarity and focus can be achieved many ways but are strongly supported and improved when someone has a clear WHY or purpose. But, even established professionals, entrepreneurs, leaders and high-performers can, at times, lose a clear sense of purpose. So it's important to always be reflecting, refining and defining what your purpose is and repurpose when it is necessary.
Having spent a number of years struggling to get traction on projects, build things that are meaningful and have consistently productive days, I know first hand what it's like to wake up and not have a clear purpose. There is lots of indecision involved, fatigue, misdirection, heartache, bad decisions, and a tendency to get distracted and pulled in all kinds of directions. I'm going to create other articles, material and some course work which will outline the HOW of purpose; both finding yours and embodying it in the world. In this article, I'm going to outline the WHY and WHAT of the relationship between purpose and performance to help you see if you're really living in alignment and operating in an optimal state. In short, having a sense of purpose makes us neurologically and physiologically better – at work, in school, in leadership, and in life.
The Process and Outcome is The Driver, NOT the Reward.
There is an interesting part of our brain called the ventral striatum, which is thought to help us make the connection between our actions and behaviors and the rewards of those actions. In short, it helps us understand how our choices lead to outcomes. It's important to note that the ventral striatum is part of the basal ganglia, which is a group of structures that control our motivation. Lastly, it helps with voluntary movement; putting thoughts into actions! I must admit, I make use of this feature of the human brain ALOT in my professional coaching.
When we have a strong purpose in life, we see consistent and sustained activation of the ventral striatum. Ventral striatum activation has been demonstrated to have a positive impact on engagement and motivation, even without rewards or direct feedback. What this implies is that extrinsic rewards play a significantly less part in motivation here. Those with higher levels of purpose have higher levels of intrinsic motivation which means the process (the way they live their lives, the choices they make, the actions they take that are in line with this purpose) are enough to keep people going. The outcome you are pursuing is the motivation
Lastly, It turns out that high levels of activity in this part of the brain also yield lower levels of the "stress hormone" known as cortisol. Cortisol has negative effects on inflammation and metabolism and high levels can lead us to over-reacting from normal everyday stressors. Purposeful people, then, produce less stress hormone and are better able to deal with everyday challenges and stressors. You can have your cake and it it too.
You're Lead by Your Feelings - Good or Bad
The above title is an axiom in modern neuroscience. Long story short, our limbic system is the storehouse of our emotions and we make decisions predominantly from this part of the brain. It is also home to parts of our motivation and long-term memory. There is another structure called the default mode network (DMN) which regulates our sense of self (memories about ourselves, reflections on our emotions), empathy, and envisioning the future. Research has shown that people with higher levels of meaning in life had “increased connectivity within nodes of the [default mode network],” implying that purposeful people have stronger mental connections between the many functions the default mode network plays a role in. In short, it gives us a stronger sense of who we are and where we are going. What’s more, people with more meaning in their lives had better cross-network connectivity, indicating that it was easier for their brains’ limbic and default mode networks to work together. So, as we make a lot of decisions from our limbic system, they will be more in line with our sense of self - which is in line with our purpose.
This is great because, as you may have experienced, one of the most exhausting things to go through is trying to make a decision that you are really not sure of. This can often be labelled as analysis paralysis'- an inability to make a decision due to over-thinking a problem. I sometimes call it decision fatigue. Either way, it's not a comfortable feeling; especially when the decision is perceived to be a big one with multiple options. To this end, having a clear purpose makes decision making easy. Those with a solid understanding of their purpose don't dwell in hypothetical thinking very much. They know, instinctively, if the decision is going to help them achieve their desired outcome or not. It becomes a solid "YES" or "NO".
It Impacts Our Overall Brain Function
A study on adults aged 32-50 looked at the effect of "Purpose In Life" on general cognitive functions including episodic memory (our ability to recall specific events or experiences that happened to us) and our executive functioning (activities like planning, decision making, and attention). As you can imagine, BOTH of those functions of the brain make a considerable contribution to our overall ability to perform. Declines in these areas are also early signs of Alzheimer's disease; something that runs in my family and I am actively trying to prevent.
The research showed that people who score higher on "Purpose In Life" had higher scores in both executive functioning and episodic memory, in addition to overall measures of cognitive functioning. This is terrific news as not only does having purpose help the elderly (long understood) it also helps working professionals. This is something to be grateful for!
This research is particularly interesting in my professional work as a coach. There was a study done which was composed of overweight or obese people, who engaged in little physical activity. In short, the participants who had a greater sense of purpose in life were more likely to accept and endorse suggestions about why and how they could become more physically active. It was shown that these same individuals had decreased activity in the areas of the brain that handle conflict processing during decisions about health. With lower internal conflict, they were able to take their health more seriously. What is this implying? In my opinion, purposeful individuals have different brains (this is obvious). But, they are more open-minded to advice which will help them become better. So, behavior that supports your holistic well-being (mindfulness, diet, exercise) is going to be easier to engage in. This is a coaches dream. The takeaway for me, help people find their purpose first, then all the other work is MUCH easier.
We Lead Our Lives From the Inside-out.
There was a study done that looked at the relationship between having a strong sense of purpose and our overall amygdala activity. For those who don't know, the amygdala is the part of the brain that detects and responds to threatening stimuli. As I have discussed in other articles, threats in today's world are largely subjective and perceived in vast quantities. Everything at the office or workplace has the potential to stimulate the amygdala today. Because of this, people can find themselves stressed and in a fight or flight state far too often. When we are feeling this way, our performance decreases greatly. The research indicated that a stronger score for "Purpose In Life" found negative stimuli less salient. In short, people with a stronger sense of purpose are more relaxed, mindful and resilient in the face of strong negative emotions. This, without question, allows people to enhance overall success.
Purpose Focuses our Attention Towards Others
A definition of purpose I enjoy is “the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.” I will rephrase that as:
"The reason WE do what we do, create what we create and define our existence" - It's powerful stuff.
Our purpose as individuals, leaders, or organizations is our usefulness and contribution to others and the world. One of the philosophical and psychological impacts of having purpose is that it removes attention away from ourselves. There is far less "Me, Me, Me" and far more "Us, Us, Us." This practice is a great way to handle hardship and stress as it dampens our selfish nature, reduces our ego and gives a better anchor and roadmap to guide us through suffering. This greatly improves personal, professional and organizational performance.
We Are Hardwired for Purpose
Altruism (not competition) has allowed us to survive as a species by compelling us to help one another. Further research shows that we get rewarded in our brains for altruistic behavior, which, as you might imagine, leads to MORE of this behavior. Two recent studies from UCLA’s Semel Institute of Neuroscience have identified a part of the brain, the posterior superior temporal cortex, that seems to be hard-wired for contribution.
The reward of helping comes in the form of a rush of oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin – what neuroscientists call the “happiness trifecta.” Oxytocin supports empathy and social bonding. Dopamine plays a major role in motivation and movement. Serotonin regulates mood. Another side effect of serving others is increased endorphin production. According to a study published in the Hawai’i Medical Journal, endorphins act like a “natural morphine,” reducing pain and improving performance. Considering the evidence, when we read about the benefits of purpose in organizations, we must not that organizations are simply individuals who organize. It’s not surprising, then, that when individuals in organizations are compelled by an other-centered purpose they feel happier, are more motivated, form better teams, and perform better. And, as the research has shown (time and time again) the desire for purpose is not a trend, it's in our nature!
People who have a strong sense of purpose know what it feels like. There is clarity, energy, and meaning behind nearly everything they do. There is intrinsic confidence and surety that the life is working for them and not against them. There is an intrinsic drive that keeps them going, almost no matter what and can help produce extraordinary results. I am pleased to see that one of the things I do as an executive and life coach is help people find their purpose, and repurpose their lives in accordance with the deepest sense of who they are. This, in my experience has lead to tremendous transformations personally and professionally.
As always feel free to contact me if you'd like to discuss more or start your journey of transformation.