In response to the coronavirus pandemic, political leaders and public health experts are understandably calling on Americans to practice social distancing. To combat the spread of this virus, we need to dramatically restrict many of the activities that help fuel our economy. As a result, government assistance is needed to provide relief to the individuals and businesses harmed by this pandemic, through no fault of their own. However, even after concerns over community spread diminish, it will still take some time for individuals and businesses to recover.

At least in the short term, it is likely that people will not automatically go back to pre-pandemic behaviors regarding travel, shopping, attending events and large meetings, and dining out. Moreover, recommendations on social distancing are likely to prevail for some time.

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The changes in behaviors that have resulted from the pandemic suggest that a faster economic recovery will require a lot of innovation and entrepreneurship. Existing businesses will need to find new ways to deliver and produce goods and services, and new opportunities will arise for those who are able to innovate to meet the needs of people with their new behaviors. In addition, economic recovery will be influenced by confidence in capitalism. For businesses to thrive, Americans need to support them.

Recently, as part of a new research institute at North Dakota State University – The Sheila and Robert Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth – we conducted a survey to explore what motivates people to be entrepreneurs and to believe in entrepreneurial solutions to societal problems, as well as economic freedom more broadly. Based on our survey of more than 1,200 American adults, we found that an important predictor entrepreneurial motivation, belief in entrepreneurial solutions, and support of capitalism was a perceived ability to maintain a sense of meaning or purpose in life (known as existential agency).

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These results are consistent with laboratory experimental research on the power of meaning. Studies find that when people are prompted to reflect on life experiences that have made them feel meaningful, they are more confident in their own abilities, they are more driven to pursue their most important goals, and they are more optimistic about the future. These are the types of psychological states that help people thrive in a free society and give them the boldness and motivation needed to pursue uncertain entrepreneurial ventures.

Consequently, during this crisis, while a focus on meaning is important for the role it plays in physical and mental wellbeing, it also may be important to speeding up an economic recovery.

On a personal basis, we can connect with family, friends, and coworkers, and let them know they make a difference.

As a society, as we continue to create legislation that attempts to reduce the economic damage from this pandemic, we need to pay attention to the important role that work plays in promoting meaning.

Policies that hinder businesses’ ability to hire workers, like requiring a $15 minimum wage, or policies that create incentives for people not to work, would harm the recovery and individuals directly. Moreover, such policies would also potentially produce indirect harm by making it harder for people to feel meaningful and agentic.

When individuals are able to contribute to their families and communities, they are more likely to view their lives as meaningful. And when people feel meaningful, they are more motivated to contribute to their families and communities. Lower levels of meaning would harm individuals and slow the level of innovation/entrepreneurship that we need to recover quickly.