Data & Behavioural Insights

Three letters that lead to more meaning and purpose

Everyone is seeking more meaning and purpose in our lives. Whether you’re a senior manager at an employment services provider, a case manager on the front line in your community, or a job seeker looking for work, employment services is full of people looking for more meaning and purpose.

Why? Because we’re all human. We all seek the true north that purpose and meaning provides.


BEGging the question

The good news is we now know more about purpose and meaning than we ever did before. Once the domain of religions, philosophers, artists and poets, science is now discovering what purpose and meaning is in a measurable way – and giving us helpful formulas for how it can be better achieved.

At Esher House, our prescription comes down to a three letter acronym that spells out how to find more purpose and create meaning. This is applicable in our own lives and the lives of people we help.

That acronym is BEG. Ready to BEG the question? Read on.


B for ‘Be strengths led’

It seems like common sense that we should seek work or activities in life that play to our strengths. We may even think that, to an extent, we are. However, research shows that only 17% of people actually use their core character strengths at work, impacting their sense of purpose meaning.

Where did we go wrong?

Life takes us in diverse and unpredictable directions. Often, despite our plans or even our gut feelings, we end up in places that seem distanced from the core strengths that lie within our character. The good news is it’s possible to discover our strengths and find ways to follow them more directly.

  • Find your strengths

Character strengths are many and varied. From practical strengths like leadership, teamwork and a love of learning, to others like curiosity, hope, perspective, honesty and appreciation of beauty and excellence, there are a whole palette of colours that make up the human character.

While many people can intuit many of their strengths – or often, they are clear to others who observe them – we are today fortunate to have at our disposal a range of tools that assist in the discovery of strengths. Just one of them is the VIA character strengths survey, which can be completed online.

  •  Find your flow

Realigning in the direction of these strengths brings people into a state described as ‘flow’ by renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Defined as a sense of being focused and engaged or ‘living in the moment’, we are absorbed in activity, feel challenged and time passes quickly.

A range of activities can get people into flow; everyone has their own gateway. From sports and movement activities like yoga, swimming and judo to games, apps and puzzles or interests like fishing, gardening, painting or surfing, finding our flow allows us to step closer into our natural state of being.

  • Share with your community

Being strengths-led doesn’t mean keeping them to yourself. While today’s culture is often focused on that ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude to self-development, in fact, finding true meaning and purpose from our strengths means we need to put them into contact with our community around us. Aristotle’s strengths-led philosophical model argued that we achieve fulfilment, success and flourishing by performing our vocation in a community to the best of our ability. It is only through serving a community through our strengths that we can gain the full rewards of meaning and purpose.


E for ‘Everyday legacy’

Meaning and purpose are difficult concepts to define and understand. However, they are different things, and can be broken down into components to help us turn our ‘existential angst’ into sense.

  • Purpose

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously argued that ‘he who has a why to live can bear almost any how.’ Purpose has the power to both provide a destination, and the power to keep us moving towards it. It’s summed up in a Japanese framework called ikigai, which boils down to a question.

 What’s the reason for which you get up in the morning?

Science has also shown that it matters. People with purpose have been found to live longer than those without a purpose, and a purpose allows us to make decisions that are in our best interests in the long-term, rather than be cut down at the knees by short-term decisions for the present.

  • Meaning

Meaning is a little more than purpose. It can be summed up by the following formula:

Meaning = Purpose + Identity + Significance  (Where purpose is our striving across a lifetime, identity is where we feel we fit in the world and significance is how much we matter or make a difference to the world around us).

The philosophers have done the additional hard work of establishing an ethical context within which a sense of meaning is genuinely fruitful for the world. For while Mahatma Ghandi and the Dalai Lama may feel or have felt a sense of true meaning in their life and work, so may have Adolf Hitler.

This ethical matrix through which we direct purpose and find meaning can be summarised as:

Heroism…or be bold and dare to do.

Excellence…or cultivating virtues and strengths

Altruism…. or making ourselves and others happy

Discovery…. or being responsible for our own choices

  • Everyday legacy

Legacy seems like a challenging concept to grapple with. However the reality is, meaning is created when we are interacting with the world, not when we are locked up behind closed doors thinking about it. Our legacy survives in the world and the people that we interact with day in, day out.

That’s why creating an everyday legacy can build more meaning and purpose. By trying to leave everywhere you approach a little better than how you find it – whether that’s your family, your work or the person who served you a cup of coffee at the local shop, or picking up that piece of rubbish – you are opening the door to more meaning and purpose entering your life today, and in future.


G for ‘Gift yourself time’

The state of society is technically better than ever for human beings. Life expectancy has increased, murder rates have decreased, proper sanitation has spread to 70% of the globe, only 10% of the world now live in abject poverty. We live in better, safer, healthier and more affluent times than ever.

Except something’s wrong. We are also in the midst of a seeming contagion of anxiety, stress and depression. World Health Organisation (WHO) data from 2002, for example, showed 873,000 people died from suicide that year alone – more than those who were victims of war or violent crime. The WHO estimates that someone commits suicide somewhere on the globe every 40 seconds.

While the picture is very, very complex, we can be sure that one factor is we now have less time, not more. While the Kung people of Africa had a working week between 18-29 hours including their ‘commute’ to hunt game, there are people now who regularly do 40, 50, and 60 hour weeks (and often above) and have trouble switching off due to pervasive technology. Where has our time gone?

We now have less time to ‘navel gaze’ to incorporate and process the events that take place in our lives. In tribal societies, the likes of walkabouts, sweat lodges and the constant nature bathing gave people the space and time to compute life and deal with the form of loss that we call depression. Now, the space between emails barely gives people the chance to grab a coffee to keeps us going.

Though time is not on our side, giving yourself time means ensuring that, while you are outward facing in your community, you still make the time to focus on what and who matters most in your life. To ensure maximum purpose and meaning in our lives, we need to give yourselves back the luxury of time (if possible), rather than waiting until our final weeks and realising what we’ve missed.


The beautiful thing in all of us

The world of work plays a key role in providing us with purpose and meaning. In fact, scientific research shows the benefits that work providers (time structure, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment) have a very strong crossover with the very things that provide humans with well-being (positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment).

That’s why employment services has such an important role to play in our society. In helping people find and sustain employment, we provide their lives with wellbeing, purpose and meaning.

There’s two exploratory questions that can get individuals started in thinking about their purpose and finding meaning in line with BEG. In no particular order, they are the following two questions:

  • When have you been most excited to get up in the morning recently?
  • What are your best memories from the last 12 months?’

By drawing themes out of your answers to these two questions, you or your job seekers can begin to determine a direction of travel – and a gateway to more meaning in everyday life and work.

French philosopher Gabriel Marcel once said, ‘you know you have loved someone when you have glimpsed in them that which is too beautiful to die’. When it comes to finding our meaning and purpose in life, we and our job seekers both need to ask ourselves what about ourselves is too beautiful to die? By BEGging the question, we find that beautiful thing in all of us.