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What do mission statements tell us about wellbeing priorities?

Mission, or purpose, matters for wellbeing in two main ways:

  • wellbeing is part of our purposes

  • having a sense of purposefulness is an important part of wellbeing.

It is widely agreed that wellbeing requires a sense of purpose or mission that transcends our immediate personal self-interest. Thinking about wellbeing is closely connected with being ‘purpose-driven’. We all have personal purposes, but organizations have purposes too. Our sense of having a coherent purpose is greatly enhanced if we are explicit about it, if we share a significant part of our purposes with other people, and if our efforts and our progress towards are goals are recognized and rewarded.

Since most of us would prefer our work roles to be meaningful, purposeful, and coherent with some larger social purposes based on shared values, then our knowledge and appreciation of collective organizational missions can is important for work-related wellbeing. More generally, the discussion, production, sharing, and use of mission statements is about clarifying our ultimate values, intentions, and priorities. Just as individual interest in life’s purposes increases as basic comforts and securities become more taken-for-granted, so organizations since the late 20th century have been increasingly searching for a stronger sense of collective mission.

A mission statement is a formally agreed, concise, public declaration of what an organization wants to achieve, what and whom it stands for, and why it exists. Usually it consists mainly of words although sometimes it may include or consist solely of graphic depictions of desired processes and outcomes. It has since the 1970s rapidly become a core component in strategic planning and management, and is widely understood in governmental, commercial, and voluntary sectors alike as a crucial vehicle for signalling identities, intentions, and priorities. Usually it includes or is accompanied by statements about principles or values.

There is a loose consensus that the terminology referring to purposes should reflect some kind of hierarchy; although there is little agreement on the precise ordering, most would agree that vision, mission and values are superordinate to more specific purposes, outcomes or goals, which in their turn inform the selection of more specific objectives, results output targets, and activities. Wellbeing and happiness belong at the very top of any hierarchy, but components or aspects of them can be referred to a lower levels.

Since mission statements are about what organizations are meant to be ‘good for’, most good mission statements say something about wellbeing. One of the important potential functions of the wellbeing lens is to refocus attention on the ultimate human goods that people value. Although mission statements may include basic descriptions of organizational practice (and many unfortunately get stuck at this level), the core idea is that they should link activities with ultimate aims and values. National constitutions are generally expected to say something about state responsibilities to protect the rights and welfare of citizens, if not also to promote their wellbeing of happiness. The World Health Organization’s Constitutional definition of health is among the most well-known and widely-used mission statements about wellbeing.

Usually, a mission statement is aimed at all relevant stakeholders, including employees, investors, clients, other companies, monitoring bodies, and the general public. Other related concepts include:

  • ‘constitution’ (of a nation or organization),
  • ‘purpose statement’,
  • ‘vision statement’,
  • ‘corporate philosophy’, and
  • ‘organizational values’.

Some mission statements guide global or supranational organizations such as global businesses and United Nations organizations and multinational charities. Others guide governments, government departments, and federations at national level, and many more serve smaller subnational units such as corporations, local charities, and universities. At lower levels, there are statements about the goals, purposes, aims, or objectives that are supposed to guide programmes, projects, work teams, or activities. For individual-level clarification of life purposes, there are also an increasing variety of guidance texts and advisers specialising in the production of ‘personal mission statements’.

The importance and quality of mission statements is often hotly debated, and they are frequently accused of being vacuous, insincere, absurdly bombastic, and top-down. But even if their manifest function in communicating information is suspect, mission statement discussions clearly do potentially matter as kind of discursive activity which gives people a chance to talk about ultimate aims and values. The processes by which mission statements are developed and used are probably much more important than their overt content.

Interest in corporate mission statements originated in the for-profit business sector in the 1960s and 70s and rapidly expanded from the 1980s onwards. The overwhelming majority of large businesses now have mission statements, as do many public and private non-profit organizations such as religious, political, philanthropic, and academic organizations. This global surge of interest in corporate missions doubtless reflects broader trends towards public scrutiny of business and organizational ethics, and heightened interest in ethical investment, in finding meaningful, prosocial employment, and in effective philanthropy.

Qualitative mixed-methods research on mission statements (e.g. content analysis, focus group research, and comparisons between organizational rhetoric and behaviour) has good potential for producing important insights concerning trends in the aims, values, and rhetoric of particular categories of organizations and in society in general. For example, the mission statements of health-related organizations can be analysed to determine the balance of emphasis on palliative, curative, preventive and promotive work, or the relative prioritising of different categories of health issue. Or it might be instructive to explore how environmental organization mission statements address the links between human wellbeing and biophysical sustainability. Or university mission statements might be examined to establish the relative prevalence of rivalrous/zero-sum ambitions (‘being the best’ etc) versus aspirations to make excellent contributions to wellbeing. Or voluntary organisation mission statements can be examined in relation to their actual budget allocations, to determine the extent to which rhetoric matches practice.

Further reading

Amato, C.H. and L.H. Amato (2002) ‘Corporate commitment to quality of life: evidence from company mission statements.’ Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice 10,4: 69-87

Talbot, Marianne (2003) Make Your Mission Statement Work: Identify Your Organisation’s Values and Live Them Every Day. How To Books

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This article is from the free online course:

Social Wellbeing

The University of Edinburgh

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