Living on purpose: Finding personal and professional meaning in the pursuit of well-being

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Liz Hilton Segel, Global Leader, Client Service and Industry Practices, McKinsey & Company


  • McKinsey research shows COVID-19 caused nearly two-thirds of employees to reflect on their purpose in life – a vital, yet often overlooked, element of well-being.
  • Proactively maintaining well-being should involve regularly examining how you’re really doing, what fulfils you, and what may need to pivot.
  • McKinsey Health Institute research illuminates how supportive environments can help employees thrive, which for business leaders puts a premium on knowing what motivates teams

What is the meaning of life? No, really!

Many people are now asking themselves that very question. McKinsey’s research shows that COVID-19 caused nearly two-thirds of employees to reflect on their purpose in life. This soul-searching is a natural response to great adversity. In the face of challenges, people should feel grounded in who they are and why they do what they do.

It’s encouraging that more individuals are reflecting on this question because finding meaning is a vital – yet often overlooked – element of well-being.

When I first started exploring the concept of well-being, I mostly focused on renewal – making sure that I and those around me were taking breaks, whether through exercise, a healthy meal, sleep or time with loved ones. However, there is much more that goes into one’s well-being. According to Dr. Martin Seligman’s PERMA model of well-being, meaning is one of five core components that comprise an individual’s well-being, alongside positive emotion, engagement, relationships and accomplishments.

The pursuit of meaning is a fundamental part of being human. When someone pours their effort into work that draws on their strengths, gives them a sense of accomplishment, and contributes to an outcome that is significant to them, well-being improves. Tapping into a deeper purpose can unlock greater engagement, productivity and overall happiness.

Finding meaning and purpose can be elusive, but when people take the time to identify what matters to them, they’re energized, inspired and alive. This begs the question – how can you find your sense of meaning and purpose?

Building meaning in your life should be done with intentionality and reflection. Getting an annual physical is considered a routine aspect of taking care of yourself – to the extent that it would be unremarkable to ask someone if they’ve gotten a check-up. Proactively maintaining well-being should be no different. That means regularly examining how you’re really doing, what fulfils you and what may need to pivot.

When creating space for reflection, there are two intertwined arenas to consider – your professional and personal life.

Igniting your purpose at work

We spend a large portion of our waking hours at work, so it’s not surprising that about 70% of people say they define their purpose through work. That number is even higher among Millennials who are more likely to see their work as their life calling.

In the context of work, well-being is not just about the sheer number of hours worked, but about whether you spend those hours working on something that matters to you. Whether working closely with a team to achieve a breakthrough, developing research on a meaningful topic, or mentoring a colleague, it’s important to find fulfilling projects at work that align with personal interests and passions. For example, I’ve personally found meaning in shining a light on mental health and well-being within McKinsey – a topic that is also central to our newly-launched McKinsey Health Institute (MHI). For my colleagues, the work that fulfils them is different for everyone – from leading efforts to increase access to affordable food, to improving healthcare delivery, to driving innovation in the consumer technology space.

COVID, workers, well, health

What is the Forum doing about keeping workers well?

Keeping workers well. It is the united aim of a global community influencing how companies will keep employees safe. What is the role of COVID-19 testing? What is the value of contact tracing? How do organizations ensure health at work for all employees?

Members from a diverse range of industries – from healthcare to food, utilities, software and more – and from over 25 countries and 250 companies representing more than 1 million employees are involved in the COVID-19 Workplace Commons: Keeping Workers Well initiative. Launched in July 2020, the project is a partnership between the World Economic Forum and Arizona State University with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

The COVID-19 Workplace Commons: Keeping Workers Well initiative leverages the Forum’s platforms, networks and global convening ability to collect, refine and share strategies and approaches for returning to the workplace safely as part of broader COVID-19 recovery strategies.

Companies can apply to share their learnings and participate in the initiative as a partner, by joining the Forum’s Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare.

Learn more about the impact.

When someone doesn’t find that sense of purpose in their job, they are more likely to leave in search of an opportunity that connects more deeply to who they are and the strengths they bring. For business leaders, this dynamic puts a premium on knowing what motivates their teams and intentionally pairing people with work that both inspires them and plays to their strengths. MHI’s latest research illuminates how supportive environments can help employees thrive. When employees feel that their purpose is aligned to an organization’s purpose, they will be more loyal, engaged, and willing to advocate for their company. The benefit is clear: people who live their purpose at work are healthier, more resilient, more productive, and more likely to stay than people who don’t.

Meaningful work is a critical aspect of a rewarding life, but it’s far from the full picture.

Meaningful work is a critical aspect of a rewarding life, but it’s far from the full picture. Image: McKinsey & Partners

Pursuing a purposeful personal life

Many of us devote much of our time to our professional responsibilities, so it’s equally important to evaluate the sources of meaning and fulfilment in your personal life. For some, this may include caring for family, volunteering for a social or political cause, pursuing creative endeavours and hobbies, or exploring religious or spiritual beliefs. Then, having taken stock, determine if there is a new area where you want to intentionally invest time – whether finding a new way to use your time and talent to help others or experimenting with a new creative outlet.

Cultivating well-being is an ongoing journey. The good news is, like any skill, well-being is something you can practice, nurture and improve. Finding personal and professional meaning is no exception. If clarity around your personal and professional purpose doesn’t come easily, don’t fret. Give yourself the space and time to reflect on your own experiences and connect with those that you trust to explore what the future might hold for you.

A colleague who has studied purpose extensively offers this practical advice: Every day for a month, ask yourself when you felt most alive that day and when you felt most drained. Reflecting on those questions may offer some interesting insights and help you on a path to purpose in all facets of your life.

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