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Whelan’s Purpose Research Features in New Great Courses Audio Series

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Dr. Christine Whelan

Dr. Christine Whelan, Director of the Money, Relationships, and Equality (MORE) Initiative at SoHE and Clinical Professor of Consumer Science, has released a series of ten audio lectures on the subject of “Finding Your Purpose,” with The Great Courses and Audible Originals. Known as “the happiness professor” among her students and in media interviews, she is committed to connecting more people with research-based insights on mental health and well-being, personal finances, and self-improvement. Below, she discusses the research and drive behind her work.

What does it mean to “find one’s purpose”?

Rather than thinking about purpose as a fixed idea—something you “find” one day and then stick in your back pocket as you walk the journey of life—I instead encourage all of us to think in terms of a purpose mindset. Living with a purpose mindset means using your gifts, in keeping with your values, to make a positive impact in the lives of others each day. Finding your purpose, then, means figuring out what matters most to you, why it matters, and how to make it happen in your life in a prosocial way. It can be as simple as prioritizing family meals or as big as taking steps to reduce world hunger. Living purposefully is an active choice. And it is one that research finds helps us thrive in our personal, professional, and social lives. 

How did you pursue this specialization through your training and research?

My high school motto comes from Seneca: Not for school, but for life we learn. I’ve always taken a multidisciplinary approach toward research, preferring to translate the best academic research in a variety of fields and then test it out in real-life situations. My doctoral dissertation was on the self-help industry—what works and what doesn’t on the path to behavioral change—and when I began teaching, my students asked me for advice. Rather than offer prescriptive advice, I worked with them to frame the bigger questions. Through small-steps exercises, we worked together to turn the daunting idea of purpose into a pleasurable exploration of life’s possibilities. This really paved the way for my current work.

It’s a difficult time for many people—financially, emotionally, and in their relationships. What does the research say about how a focus on purpose can help?

Research shows that when we internalize societal problems as individual shortcomings, we are both less likely to make changes in the world around us and less likely to get the personal change we hope to see. Second, being solipsistic (me-focused) doesn’t make us happy in the long-run. Research shows that prosocial, purposeful behavior is, in fact, the secret to lasting happiness—and this is what we’re all about in the School of Human Ecology! 

The good news is that living purposefully will make us happy as individuals and will benefit others, too. Research finds that folks who have a strong sense of purpose are healthier, happier, more resilient, have better relationships, and even earn more money. Plus, when you know why it matters (your purpose), you’re more likely to know how to make it happen (your goals), whatever it may be.

Purpose is prosocial, meaning that it’s about using your gifts, in keeping with your values, to make a positive impact on the world around you. Purpose is something you do. It’s that perfect fizzy mix of individual action and a broader social vision.

What is one thing people can do for themselves today to improve their mood and move toward honoring their purpose?

In addition to downloading my new Audible lecture series? 😉  I’d invite everyone to join me in a daily purpose exercise. Consider these 5 questions:

  1. What are my three core values that I’d like to guide me today?
  2. What are my three top gifts that I want to use today?
  3. Who are three individuals or groups I’d like to positively impact today?
  4. What are three fears or anxieties that might come up along the way?
  5. What are three purpose-based commitments I can make—and achieve—right now? 

Some big feelings might come up if you allow them, and that’s okay. Name them, accept them, integrate them. This is all part of the process of reflection. Then, put all your answers together in a MadLibs-style Purpose Statement. Post it in your office, on your bathroom mirror, on your desktop, or on the fridge.

Anxieties can make us turn inward and tell ourselves we’ve failed when times are tough. Nope. You’re not alone. And we can move forward, on purpose, together.

Learn more about Dr. Whelan’s work on her personal website or in her TEDx talk, and see the Money, Relationships, and Equality (MORE) Initiative for free resources she developed to help families, couples, and individuals navigate the pandemic’s financial challenges.