By Capella Hauer, SSWAA Membership Coordinator
My first year as a School Social Worker, in my very first PD just days before hundreds of students would arrive, my principal asked all staff to take fifteen minutes and write their origin story. What brought you to education, to this school, to this moment, he asked. He shared that he would be reading these stories later so he could deepen his understanding of each staff member. But I believe there was another layer to this task, as there often was for this principal.
After writing my so-called origin story I felt uplifted and excited to finally be here. After years of soul searching, college courses and internships, I had arrived at my first full-time career position to fulfill what I believe is my life purpose. Simply put, I want to help. This activity had grounded me in all the work I had already done, and all the work I was about to do.
This activity stuck with me, and from then on, especially the hardest days of being a social worker, I would remind myself of why I was there. I would then check in with myself. Was I still fulfilling my purpose? Was I still mentally, physically, and emotionally able to continue?
There is growing evidence linking a sense of purpose with better mental health. Not only mental health, but also better cognitive functioning, stress management, and even physical health. Research shows having a strong sense of purpose in life increases memory, positive self-image, better executive functioning, and lower levels of depression. These connections seem clear. If you are driven by a specific purpose in life, you are more likely to focus your daily activities achieving this purpose, and your brain will be satisfied by those reward endorphins.
“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
― Victor Frankl
As I think of the connection between purpose and mental health, I simultaneously think of Viktor Frankl. Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, was the most impactful book I read as a teenager. Viktor Frankl was born in Austria in 1905 and had a successful career as a psychologist and neurologist combating suicide in high school students and women. During his early career he asserted that meaning was the central motivational force in human beings, not power. Through the years he continued distilling this theory, which he coined logotherapy.
In 1942, Viktor Frankl was sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp, followed by three other concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Frankl’s wife, mother, father, and brother all died in the camps. When he returned home, he wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in nine days. In it, he shares his experience of being prisoner in Nazi concentration camps. He also shares his thoughts on meaning and logotherapy. Frankl argues the meaning of life is found in every moment of living, and that this theory helped him survive the Holocaust.
“If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.”
― Viktor Frankl
This book was powerful to me for two reasons. Most importantly, my grandfather was a survivor of World War II. But also, this book emphasized the importance of living a life full of meaning, even in difficult circumstances. While Frankl’s book and theory has received valid criticism, I believe there are still valuable lessons within it. Research supports this theory, again in finding the connection between a sense of meaning in life and multiple better health factors.
I have yet to meet an educator or social worker who has joined the profession for any reason other than passion, a drive for positive change, or a deeply moving origin story. When I have provided professional development on self-care and burnout prevention, I often turn back to this question and activity that my principal started; what brought you here?
This summer I challenge you to try this. Ask yourself: What is my purpose or meaning? Am I still fulfilling my purpose? Am I still mentally, physically, and emotionally able to continue? How can I support myself in continuing to live my life with meaning?
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
Capella Hauer is the Membership Coordinator for the School Social Work Association of America. She graduated from New Mexico Highlands University in 2015 with her Master’s in Clinical Social Work. She practiced School Social Work for five years in Tucson, Arizona where she obtained her certificate in Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics and ran a non-profit bakery out of her home. She currently lives in Tucson with her husband and two dogs. If you popped into her home, you would most likely find her reading outside or dancing while baking cookies.