Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Alder taught, but a quest for meaning.
It is no wonder that the first pillar of the PERLE Resilience Model starts with ‘P’ for purpose. Having a sense of meaning brings immense richness to our everyday lives. As dental professionals, finding purpose in our work plays a crucial role in our engagement and satisfaction. Studies report lower levels of meaning relate to increased rates of burnout and compassion fatigue.
Having a sense of purpose in life can be defined as the degree to which people make sense of their lives and the world around them, perceiving their life to have inherent value and be worth living (Steger et al. 2021). We gain purpose from experiences, situations, big or small, and reflecting on the cosmic meaning of everything.
The search for meaning has been an important question pondered throughout history. Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates viewed the meaning of life as both personal and spiritual growth. For Plato, the meaning of life was knowledge. For Aristotle, the purpose of life was to achieve eudaimonia (happiness through the pursuit of meaning). The literature validates that high levels of meaning in individuals create happier people, healthier immune systems, more satisfying relationships, longer lives, and slower advancement of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease (Steger 2012; Roepke et al. 2014; Cohen et al. 2016; Alimujiang et al. 2019).
There are many routes to finding purpose in dentistry. In this chapter, we explore three strategies: using your core values as a dental professional, practising acts of kindness at work, and finding meaning in stressful times.
Using Our Core Values at Work
Understanding our core values as dental professionals can help us navigate a long, purposeful dental career. Our values can also help us manage difficult situations at work, such as a challenging, aggressive patient. Research on values‐based healthcare points to benefits of our patients feeling cared for, respected, and having trust in us. Working with our patients and doing things that are incongruent with our core values can contribute to negative feelings towards work. Burnout and compassion fatigue seem also to be impacted by value incongruence. A large Canadian study of more than 8000 participants reported that workload and value incongruence predicted burnout amongst physicians (Leiter et al. 2009). The interplay between values and workload in women had greater consequences than men in their study, with greater levels of burnout. Clarifying our core values allows us to better define our roles and expectations in the dental field. We can engage more fully and shape how we show up in the spaces we work in.
A life full of rarely lived values can feel stifling. When we live our values and express our strengths, work and our personal life become both joyful and meaningful.
But what are values? And how do they differ from goals? Our values are our heart’s deepest desires in how we want to treat ourselves and others. They are what we stand for in life and give us meaning and purpose. We can think of them as our inner compass to choose effective actions. Translating our values to effective action – action that is aligned with who we are and what matters the most – requires us to really understand what we stand for. Without this, when we are disconnected from our values, we can act in ways that are incongruent from the ways we want to be in life. Living life guided by our values, on the other hand, allows us to feel more engaged and experience life as rich and meaningful.
We spend a lot of our time as a society thinking about our goals. Values are not the same as goals: values are how we want to behave and goals are things we want to achieve. Examples of values we use with our patients at work include patient centeredness, integrity, respect, compassion, kindness, professionalism, teamwork, support, and service. Values provide a direction we want to keep moving in. When we align our values with our goals, our motivation becomes supercharged, known as ‘intrinsic motivation’. This is a, psychologically speaking, good type of motivation that will help us stick to our habits in the longer term; for example, if connecting with nature is a value, you’ll prioritise taking a nature walk, or if self‐care is important, you’re more likely to exercise and prioritise good nutrition.