A sense of connection and purpose
As 2021 is drawing to a close, the sense of trepidation around COVID is still palpable. What are new variants going to do, and when will life ever be normal again? To get through 2022 – not just functioning, but stronger – we need to feel connected, and to have a clear sense of purpose.
One thing the COVID crisis has taught us is that many events in life cannot be controlled. No matter how we try, our best behaviours, well-laid-out plans, and measures to contain adverse circumstances cannot ward off adversity altogether. We have no choice as humans, but to learn to deal with difficulty and uncertainty – facing life events that are hard and make us scared. How to do that well is a theme of countless books, and of myriad psychological interventions.
“A universal truth, it seems to me, is that if we truly want to be happy and at peace, we need to feel connected.”
No matter what angle you choose, it seems that the evidence-based way of combatting fear and accepting life’s uncontrollable events is to feel connected; connected with other people and, ultimately, connected with the entire human race and the planet. My own impression, based on my personal journey and my observation of the paths of many others, is that when it comes to connectivity, the “how” and the “what” are a very personal choice, but the “why” is not. The “why” is the wish to be happy and at peace, a wish all humans share, no matter what their background, age or life circumstances. A universal truth, it seems to me, is that if we truly want to be happy and at peace, we need to feel connected.
Unfortunately, modern life does not always help us to feel our shared humanity, and to experience true and enduring inter-relatedness. One of the hurdles is that the reward system we have built in many societies is very focused on individual gain. Inevitably, that makes us see others as competitors or even enemies, makes us combative and inward looking, and makes it harder for us to truly connect.
“As our best selves, we provide our entire community — staff and students — with a strong sense of purpose in life, individually, and as a collective.”
One of the most important elements of feeling happier, fulfilled and at peace seems to be a sense of purpose in life. It takes us out of our narrow, relatively short-term realm of focusing on what we individually think we need to feel good, and opens our minds to the needs of others. If we learn how to play a positive role in the lives of others, we will feel a sense of connection and we will stop feeling isolated, even without actively trying.
Universities are wonderful places to feel that connection with other people, and with the planet at large. We are focused on doing good for others, through our research, our teaching, and our impact and outreach. We sometimes get steered off-course because we too are part of a societal system that sometimes pulls us away from connectedness. But as our best selves, we provide our entire community – staff and students – with a strong sense of purpose in life, individually, and as a collective. When the individual and the shared, community sense of purpose overlap – with the latter becoming increasingly prominent over time – people will feel most happy.
“The less rigid we are individually about who we feel close to and can connect with, the happier we will be, and the less scary and threatening life will appear.”
Obviously the risk of strict and stifling “entry criteria” for well-defined communities is always there. Even if, once we are “admitted”, we do not initially feel alone, being part of a community that is closed off won’t, in the end, provide us with a true sense of happiness. The inherent tribalism and rigid rules will inhibit individual feelings of freedom, which are ultimately needed for genuine connection. Universities are wonderful places to create communities with a strong sense of shared purpose, without being dogmatic about the membership, or restrictive about the behaviours, beliefs and rules. That is why equality and diversity are so important to complement inclusion. The less rigid we are individually about who we feel close to and can connect with, the happier we will be, and the less scary and threatening life will appear.
Universities did an incredible job in 2021, globally and locally. By and large, we kept our research and our teaching going, against all odds. Also, the crisis has made us highly collaborative, in our COVID research, and in our work with colleague universities to stay active and open for students, virtually and, where possible, face to face. I hope that in 2022 and beyond, global universities can nurture their sense of connectivity by holding on to that shared purpose.
I will do my best to help my own university community feel that our achievements as a group are so much more important than our individual gains. I know it will not always be easy, and I also know that it will require constant vigilance for me personally, to not fall into the trap of being overly focused on myself to feel at peace with life. But I truly cannot think of a better place to practice and live up to the aspirations I have set out here than the wonderful, socially active, outward-looking university that I have the privilege to be working for.
I wish for all of humanity a purposeful and peaceful 2022.