How having a sense of purpose can build hope and improve mental health

Posted: 16/04/2021

When we are working with people in therapeutic spaces, we often focus on the practicalities – making sure people are safe and have the resources they need to look after themselves and their families. We are likely to give most of our attention to things like reducing stressors, supporting mental health and connecting people to the supports and services they need.

While these things are all necessary, spending some time talking to people about what they value and what is important to them is also incredibly valuable, for a number of reasons:

  • Knowing your ‘why’ can be highly motivating and can help give people the energy to create change.
  • By focussing on what people value, we are letting them know that we are interested in them as a whole person. It also contextualises whatever challenge they are currently facing within the broader context of their life as a whole, which can help give perspective and make things seem more manageable.
  • Often supporting people to identify what they value also helps them notice their strengths and resources. For example, if they value their friendships, friends may be a great source of support and comfort. Additionally, the qualities that makes the client a great friend—empathy, loyalty, respect, having a sense of humour—may also be qualities they can draw on to get through their current challenges.
  • Consciously acknowledging your purpose and prioritising the things you value is fundamental to creating a sense of hope.

There is a growing body of research showing that people with a strong sense of purpose and meaning are more resilient, hopeful and do better on a range of health and mental health measures.

What does ‘having a sense of purpose’ actually mean?

Zoryna O’Donnel from Psychreg summarises the most current research in this space and concludes that four key factors were found to promote meaning and purpose in life:

  1. Physical and mental well-being (taking care of our body and mind, using stress-reduction techniques and building mental resilience)
  2. Belonging and recognition (being part of something much larger than themselves, feeling valued and validated)
  3. Personally treasured activities (things we do that make us feel good – hobbies, spending time with our family and friends)
  4. Spiritual closeness and connectedness (a feeling that all living things in the world are interrelated). It should be noted, that religion can be part of spirituality, but spirituality goes beyond religion.

So having a sense of meaning and purpose doesn’t mean you have to disappear into a monastery or give your whole life to a cause you are passionate about (although for some people, this might be exactly what a having a sense of purpose looks like!) It can be as simple as noticing who is important to you (key relationships), what you love to do or things that give you a sense of peace, and how you give to others.

So how can we start to talk to the people we work with about what they value?

When working with people going through a challenging period, it can be easy to get caught up in the problem or issue. After all, that is what is ‘front and centre’. But you might be surprised how powerful and transformative it can be to introduce a few curious questions about what is important to people.

Here are a few questions you could ask to get you started:

  • Who are the important people in your world? What do you value about them? What would they say they value about you?
  • What activities in your life bring you a sense of peace or joy? How could you bring more of those things into your life?
  • How do you support other people in your life? How do you feel when you do this?
  • What are you passionate about? Why is this important to you?
  • What do you believe? What gives you hope?
  • How could the meaningful things or people in your life to help you get through this challenge?
  • How could you do more of the things that are meaningful to you?

Be aware that some people may never have been asked questions like these before so make sure you give them time and space to reflect.

Have you asked the people you work with these types of questions? We would love to hear your stories and experiences!


Useful resources:

Signpost – Exploring Everyday Spirituality

The Nature of Strengths


Talking ecoLogical


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