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Coronavirus Disease 2019

Searching for Meaning During COVID-19

Interview with Dr. Christine Whelan on finding meaning in your life and work.

Christine Whelan, used with permission
Source: Christine Whelan, used with permission

We all search for purpose in life, but we often do not have any sense of direction in this journey. Everyone will take different paths but there are central questions of life, being, and purpose that guide us along, especially in our vocation. Though life seems to change almost every day while social distancing due to coronavirus, there is meaning and hope to be found.

Christine B. Whelan, Ph.D. is an author, professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and a nationally recognized expert in consumer choice and well-being. She is the author of five books on behavior change, most recently, The Big Picture: A Guide to Finding Your Purpose in Life and the director of the Money, Relationships and Equality Initiative at UW-Madison.

JA: Why did you set out to write your book?

CW: Young adults want their next steps to be in line with their purpose and passions, but what does that practically mean?

The Big Picture: A Guide to Finding Your Purpose in Life is the first small-steps program for young adults to uncover their own personal sense of purpose. After more than 15 years studying the self-help industry and more than a dozen years teaching at a University level, I know that successful behavioral change hinges on the synthesis of personal discovery and the ability to translate it into action. The Big Picture combines research, real-life tests of the efficacy of the exercises with more than 600 students nationwide, and an inviting movie-based schema into a guide that has been a proven success in colleges nationwide. And it’s needed now more than ever: According to my national studies, only 36% of 18-24 year-olds say that the career path that they have chosen is aligned with their life purpose.

JA: What is the primary takeaway you hope readers will learn from reading your book?

CW: Meaningful work is more important than salary: As they head into the job market, 69% of young adults say that they would be willing to take a cut in pay to work at a job that allowed them to focus on more meaningful work.

Pursuing your passions matters: 18- to 24-year-olds are significantly more likely than adults 25 and older to say that their ideal job is one in which they are able to pursue their personal passions, to integrate work and personal life in meaningful ways, contributes to society as a whole, and pays well.

The vast majority of young adults (85%) say they are still seeking a purpose or a mission for their lives. They are seeking a vocabulary for their feelings of hope, frustration, and excitement, a language for their yearnings of meaningful work and concrete steps to help them make sense of these “big questions” that challenge us all.

The Big Picture is a guide to figuring out what matters—and how to make it happen—by embracing a purpose mindset and connecting to something bigger. Running through the book is a movie theme that asks readers to harness their talents, interests, and values to take action, address problems, create solutions and touch the lives of others. The Big Picture helps readers learn about themselves, pinpoint their passions, take small steps forward right now and anticipate the plot-twists that will get in the way.

JA: What are some lessons from your book that can help people live more resiliently?

CW: This is the first guidebook to help young adults—high-schoolers, college students, and recent grads—get into that purpose mindset by asking why it matters before getting to the how of personal change.

  • What are my gifts—and how can I use those to help others and create meaning?
  • How do I reframe all those “shoulds” into actions in keeping with my values?
  • What purpose-based commitments can I make now to take action toward my personal vision?

JA: What are some insights from your book that help readers support a friend or loved one?

CW: Graduates nationwide are seeking direction and purpose. According to a recent national survey I commissioned as part of my research, 18- to 24-year-olds say that purpose is crucial to be an adult—but they don’t feel like they have it. More than 86% of young adults say that making decisions in line with their purpose makes them an adult, but only 43% say they have a clear picture of what they want in life—and only 30% know why they are here.

This isn’t good news: Coasting is existing, not thriving. For young adults who don’t have a clear picture of what they want in life, the majority say they are existing, while those with purpose are more likely to say they are thriving. Young adults want to do things that are in line with their purpose and passions, but they haven’t figured out what those are yet: Only 36% of 18- to 34 year-olds say that the career path that they have chosen is aligned with their life purpose.

Another key finding of this national general population survey of more than 700 adults ages 18-59 is that among older adults, the #1 advice they’d share with their 20-year-old self is to make sure you know your purpose before making big decisions. So, talk to the young adults in your life about purpose, and help them ask and answer these big questions today.

JA: What are you currently working on these days?

CW: I began my career studying self-help and behavior change, and then moved on to those deeper questions of purpose and meaning, especially for young adults as they are making the crucial early decisions in their career and forming relationships. As technology becomes an ever-greater part of our lives, however, questions of self-improvement and purpose mean wrestling with ideas of what it means to be human. Along with co-author Charles Raison, M.D., a psychiatrist and researcher, I’m now exploring how to strengthen the human element in an AI world. It’s the next frontier as we ask and answer those deep questions of what matters most in our thriving.


Follow Dr. Christine Whelan on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Follow the University of Wisconsin-Madison @uwmadison and @uwsohe on Twitter.

Whelan, C. (2016). The big picture: A guide to finding your purpose in life. Templeton Press.

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