Meaning and purpose increase mental resilience

“Feeling your work has meaning and purpose increases mental resilience,” uncovers Dr Tara Swart, Neuroscientist in Residence at London’s Corinthia Hotel and Senior Lecturer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Like snowdrops rising from a snowy tundra, pressure and stress affect us all, every day. The ability to cope with that stress and pressure is found in the best of us, and shows itself across professions and ages.

Mental resilience, Dr Tara Swart explains, is the “ability to endure difficult times and bounce back from difficulty, quickly”.

Selecting those with a “particularly” high-stress profession, Swart has been conducting research on the mental resilience of bankers, corporate leaders and, most recently, journalists. Speaking Wednesday night at a presentation at The Corinthia Hotel, Swart presented her results from her most recent study: a seven month analysis of the mental resilience of 21 of London Press Association‘s journalists.

Compared to similar studies examining bankers, traders, telecoms and sales executives, journalists were found to be more able to cope with pressure than all other professions examined.

“Regular exposure to deadlines and work-related stress is one possible explanation,” poses Swart, “but the science would suggest that journalists have [a strong mental resilience] because journalists assign more meaning and purpose to their work.”

Tom Whipple, editor at The Times agrees with Swart’s hypothesis: “I think that [journalists] value work – and other small tasks – in a whole different way, because every task we undertake, every piece of writing or digital upload, is done with the knowledge and feeling that it is exciting and new.”

Value, meaning and purpose can be measured by ‘value tagging’ scores on a psychological questionnaire. Value tagging is our brain’s way of assigning priority and meaning (or “value”) to tasks and roles we have to perform. Value tagging scores and follow-up interviews across this study indicate that journalists attribute high values to their projects, and derive great meaning and a sense of belonging from their roles.

Managers should encourage workers to value their efforts

The idea that a worker can have no attachment to, or value for his work was first outlined by Karl Marx (Marx, 1844). Appearing throughout Psychology (and life!), in 2008, Dialogue contributor Dan Ariely and colleagues Emir Kamenica and Drazen Prelec concluded that people who believe their job has noble goals (and thus, appreciate the meaning of their labour) are likely to have increased productivity compared with those to whom work has no meaning (Ariely et al. 2008).

This reality, coupled with Swart’s latest research, suggests that there is a link between finding meaning and purpose from work, and remaining productive and demonstrating ‘mental resilience’ under pressure.

What if you don’t find meaning in your work?

Meaning and purpose are not the only factors affecting mental resilience; Swart suggests the key to improving mental resilience is through “joining up brain and body health”.

To accomplish this, Swart suggests:

  • Regular exposure to light stress

Regular exposure to short periods of stress – either physical or mental – and recovery following it help your brain to realise that it is capable of healing after a period of difficulty. This “stress inoculation” (Meichenbaum, 1972) can be enhanced by stepping into a sauna and then jumping into an ice bath or, as in the case of journalists, having a number of minor deadlines.

  • Reminding yourself of past successes
  • Finding cases of someone achieving your task

Swart cites the first four-minute mile – a seemingly impossible task until someone achieved it, encouraging many others to do the same – as her best example.

  • Laughing!
  • Enhancing your physical wellbeing by improving your rest, diet and food intake, drinking more water, ability to simplify what’s going on in your brain (practiced through mindfulness), taking deep breaths, and exercising regularly.

In our world of stress and stressors, the ability to survive and thrive – mental resilience – must be cultivated, every way we can do it.

Click here for more details about Dr Tara Swart’s study. For more discussion about purpose vs strategy, see Michael Chavez’s column on the importance of purpose in Amex and around the world in the next issue of Dialogue, out June 1st.

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