Finding meaning in one’s life is such an integral concept to Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, that he includes it in his shorthand for happiness, PERMA, which stands for Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement.
While the fleeting happiness we get from something like watching a gorgeous sunset is nice and part of the “pleasant life,” Martin says, if we want to be happy in the long term, we need to strive for “the Meaningful Life” in which “we find a deep sense of fulfillment by employing our unique strengths for a purpose greater than ourselves.”
It sounds wonderful. A “purpose-driven life” as it were. But how do we find it? In church, synagogue or mosque? Alone in the wilderness with our thoughts or while finding a deep sense of connection with our friends and families?
Some seem to have a clearer view of how to arrive there than others. The passionate artist, the pediatric surgeon, idealistic missionary or dedicated social worker ... they seem to already know or quickly find their strengths, follow their passions, help, teach and give to others, and gain a deep sense of satisfaction from their work. But most of us spend a little more time wandering in the wilderness.
Here are a few ideas for those who are still searching for a greater sense of purpose in life:
Working with children, seniors, at-risk teenagers … anyone who needs help will give you a quick on-ramp to the purpose superhighway. Many cities have volunteer clearinghouses like Volunteer Match that will help match you with an organization. Or if you prefer, stay close to your community and pitch in at the local elementary school. The rewards will be immediate and plentiful.
When we pursue a meaningful future, it sheds a special light over our daily life, painting the most mundane and pedestrian activities in brighter colors.” — Ran Zilca, research scientist, author and chief data-science officer at Happify. His latest book, Ride of Your Life, was released this year.**
2. Get in touch with the divine
Pray, meditate, walk outside, stargaze. There are myriad ways to remind ourselves that we are small bits of a large, interconnected universe. Whether you believe in God, a higher power or the power of humankind, prayer and meditation, as well as reconnecting with nature, are ways to get in touch with the sacred.
I believe that meaning is an experience that we can cultivate, influence, and in a certain sense, create… The best way to make this meaning—to have this experience—is by identifying and then living our life purposes." — Eric Maisel, Ph.D., a California-licensed family therapist who has written more than 40 books, including Life Purpose Boot Camp
3. Spread positive emotion
Give to the world what you would like to get back. See how you might add more positive emotion to your life by strengthening relationships and being kind and compassionate toward friends and strangers alike. Start performing small Happy Acts as a way of giving back.
We can endure the most difficult of times and even thrive in the midst of the chaos around us when we give our lives meaning." —Barb Schmidt, international speaker, philanthropist, spiritual mentor and best-selling author of The Practice.
4. Practice gratitude
Focus on things already meaningful in your life instead of taking them for granted, invest each one with a deep sense of gratitude. Soon you may feel motivated and energized to help and protect the people and things you care about, whether that means writing a letter to a nephew or starting a non-profit.
When you were younger, did you love to draw, throw pottery or write short plays? Something about the act of creating makes us feel alive and part of the dynamic universe. We can make something out of nothing! It’s exhilarating.
You can do your thing in solitude or join a playhouse or rent space in a collective studio. In this way, a hobby has the potential to develop into not only a great source of purpose and a sense of identity but also of important and meaningful relationships.
And once you've gotten really great at something, you can teach others to do it. You will get back much more than you give.
For much more on finding a sense of meaning and purpose in your life, see our feature story, "The Path to Purpose," in the October issue of Live Happy magazine—on newsstands September 1.
**Expert quotes are from the “Survey” section (pages 28-29) of the October issue of Live Happy magazine.