Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


“What the World Needs Now” — More Than Ever: Thriving with Social Purpose

Martin E. Ford, Peyton R. Smith

A pandemic fueled by wishful thinking and irresponsible choices.  Racial injustice exacerbated by self-serving motives that inhibit empathy and compassion.  Catastrophic climate changes accelerated by a lack of commitment to the well-being of those beyond our immediate experience.

To many, these threats feel overwhelming – even apocalyptic.  Yet our species has overcome many formidable challenges in our evolutionary history.  Indeed, when we look at how humans evolved, it is evident that we have been endowed with “super powers” that have enabled us to survive a wide range of environmental perils and societal conflicts.

What are these super powers?  There are many manifestations of the evolved assets that have made it possible for humans to soar above all other species.  Yet, as we explain in Motivating Self and Others: Thriving with Social Purpose, Life Meaning, and the Pursuit of Core Personal Goals, at the foundation of humanity’s success are motivational systems that, when amplified and infused with social purpose, create the conditions for optimal functioning.

The psychological forces that collectively inspire “motivation at its (human) best” are available to each and every one of us – not just to those with unique talents or special training.  We just need to be more intentional about cultivating the qualities that make up what we call the Thriving with Social Purpose (TSP) pattern of motivation and optimal functioning – namely:

  • An Active Approach goal orientation – a persistent bias toward initiating goal-directed action and moving toward desired outcomes (as opposed to reactive and avoidant goal orientations)
  • Personal Optimism – a way of thinking about personal capabilities that combines optimism about future goal striving with realism about current circumstances
  • Mindful Tenacity – a way of thinking about environmental supports and resources that combines hope, strategy, persistence, and realism about obstacles and constraints
  • Emotional Wisdom – harnessing the power of emotions to optimize their impact on goal seeking, which requires self-awareness, empathy, and the ability to adjust emotions and associated actions as circumstances change
  • Social Purpose – seeking to accomplish something that is larger than yourself and of benefit to others, while being careful not to neglect your own needs as you focus on others

The impact of these TSP modes of functioning is often transformative, both for individuals and for the families, communities, and societies that provide our lives with sustenance and meaning.

TSP patterns can be hard to engineer when there are inhibiting factors influencing motivation, yet the resulting upward spirals of aspiration and achievement are widely evident both in human history and in our everyday lives.  That is because motivation is at the core of all consequential human activity.  It is the key to effective parenting.  It is at the heart of the teaching and learning process.  It is the central dynamic in organizational success.  It is the essence of visionary leadership.  It is an essential contributor to healing and well-being, as well as a reliable source of life meaning.

Success in all of these life domains is highly dependent on developing Thriving with Social Purpose as a “home page” motivational approach to life’s challenges.  That is evident when we look at the TSP qualities of first responders, health professionals, and research teams focused on the COVID-19 pandemic. Or at the TSP leaders who are courageously fighting culturally embedded racism and injustice.  Or at the scientists, engineers, and influencers whose lives have become transformed by a TSP-fueled quest to curb climate change.

To paraphrase the legendary songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David, “what the world needs now” is more TSP, in our society at large and, especially, in those who are making decisions about the safety, security, and well-being of future generations.

About The Authors

Martin E. Ford

Martin E. Ford is Professor and Senior Associate Dean in the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University, USA. He received two APA early career awards dur...

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Peyton R. Smith

Peyton R. Smith developed and delivered leadership training worldwide for a decade prior to his retirement and after over 30 years of engineering and sales management, primarily at...

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