5 ways to find meaning and purpose in your life

The past six months have caused many of us to reflect on our lives more than we ever have before. Unprecedented events can cause feelings of fear, but for so many of us, the main emotions that the pandemic stirred up were ones of anxiety, isolation, and a lack of purpose. People have lost their jobs, been worried about their health and their loved ones, and perhaps most unsettling of all – have been confined to their homes. No wonder so many of us felt like our lives suddenly lacked meaning. According to scientists, a crisis of purpose can be a symptom of isolation – and the thing about isolation is that you don’t have to be alone to experience it. It’s a deep, profound emotion, one that hinges on having meaningful connections and a sense of purpose in your life. But what if you don’t feel you have this?

If you’re lucky enough to have a loving family, a successful career and supportive friends, you might wonder why that doesn’t feel like enough – or why something feels like it’s missing. When you lack purpose and meaning it can feel like you’re walking numbly through life – or that you’re rudderless, floating aimlessly without purpose or direction. But finding purpose and meaning can tether you to something greater; it can give you ambition, intention, passion and energy. The good news is that if you aren’t sure what your purpose is, it’s never too late to find it. Here are five ideas to help find meaning and purpose in your life.

1. Read

Meaning and purpose are strongly linked to the idea of connection – and this is why reading can be one of the easiest and most accessible ways to find meaning in your life. Reading, at its core, is about connection. Reading the words of people we’ll never know connects us to them; it connects us to different times and different places -often ones that are entirely alien to us.

Studies show that people who read the Bible or other religious books tend to have a greater sense of purpose than people who don’t – but it isn’t necessarily the religious aspect that creates this feeling. People who read secular work, like fiction and poetry, are also continually shown to have a stronger sense of purpose. Think of some of the great literary characters in history. From Atticus Finch fighting for racial justice in To Kill A Mockingbird, to Frodo Baggins journeying to Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, what so many characters share is an unshakeable sense of purpose. The more we see purpose in the lives of other people – fictional or otherwise – the more we’re likely to see it in ourselves.

Some of the most inspirational and driven people in the world credit reading for giving them purpose, so if you’re feeling like your life lacks meaning, something as simple as picking a book up can make a difference and help you isolate what matters in your own life. If you want some reading inspiration, have a look at our guide to the 27 must-read books.

2. Fight for something

When you think about injustice, most of us can pinpoint some causes that bother us more than others. Perhaps it’s cruelty to children, or people who have to live through war and famine. It might be issues like racism or sexism. Maybe it’s animal rights or welfare, or issues about sustainability and conservation. It might be that your own experiences, or that of loved ones, have led you to be passionate about certain issues – for example, helping people deal with addiction or mental health problems.

Most of us have causes we care deeply about, and fighting for something bigger than ourselves can be an extremely rewarding way to find purpose and meaning. Take a moment to think about what upsets and angers you most – then try to identify different ways you can help rectify the issue. There are thousands of organisations and causes out there that desperately need help – and often, when you’re fighting for what you perceive to be a greater good, you can identify new ways to make a difference that are actually personal to you.

Donating your time and money to help others is a great way to find purpose, but finding a way to repurpose your skills, interests and experience to bring about positive change can be even more effective. If you’re a skilled writer, you could write articles to raise awareness about an issue you’re passionate about. If you enjoy public speaking, you could use your skills to educate people, or visit schools and talk to children about what you find important. If you’re passionate about music, you could look into how music can be used as therapy. Perhaps you could even consider a career change, where you’re able to combine your skills with a furthering cause that’s important to you. You can read our advice on career changes here.

If you’re not quite sure what ‘your’ cause is, or how you can make a difference, it might be helpful to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do you love doing?
  • What comes easily to you?
  • What do you care about?
  • If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?

If you still feel unsure, or have several causes you feel deeply passionate about, you might benefit from taking a values survey. These can help you identify the issue or cause that you’re truly most passionate about. Check out the Valued Living Questionnaire, the Portrait Values Questionnaire, and the Personal Values Questionnaire to help you pinpoint what resonates most.

3. Surround yourself with people who inspire you

It’s also helpful to take a moment to think about the people you surround yourself with. Try not to focus on people you ‘have’ to see, such as colleagues or immediate family members. Who do you choose to spend time with? If the people around you are negative people, it’s easy to get weighed down – and if these people aren’t interested in making positive change, it can be difficult to feel inspired. Of course, you don’t have to cut these people off to find purpose and meaning. But it’s helpful to try to spend time with people who inspire you and encourage you to make a difference.

While it’s helpful to read about inspiring people, sometimes it can feel a little intimidating. If you read about a civil rights leader who awoke a generation, for example, you might feel motivated in some ways – but you also may also feel daunted , as though you’ll never be able to make such a difference, no matter how hard you try. But often the small things we do have an enormous impact, and if there are people in your life who motivate you and uplift you, try to spend more time with them. If you have a friend who goes on social justice talks or protests, consider going along to the next one. If you have a friend who volunteers at the local soup kitchen, ask if you can join them.

If you don’t have people in your life who inspire you in this way, don’t worry. Today, there are so many different ways we can meet new people, forge meaningful connections, and get inspired – from joining Facebook groups and community hubs to setting up online support groups. Have a read of our article on ways to meet new people in the current climate to find out more.

4. Listen to others

Many of us are our own worst critics. We find it easy to see things like talent, passion and intelligence in other people, but unfortunately, we often don’t see ourselves so clearly. It can be hugely beneficial to ask people for their feedback and thoughts – to ask others what they appreciate about you, what they think you’re good at, what makes you special. When you hear and evaluate what other people appreciate about you, it can give you suggestions as to your values and skills – and these can be instrumental in helping you pursue a meaningful life.

For example, if someone tells you that you’re unusually empathic, or they find it easy to talk openly to you, you may realise that you can use this trait to help others – perhaps retraining as counsellor, or volunteering on help lines. Remember that it’s never too late to make a career change. If someone says that they believe you’re nurturing, or patient, or able to connect with teenagers in a way others aren’t, it can reinforce some of the values and passions that already exist inside you – but you just haven’t fully picked up on yet. The truth is that it can be strangely difficult to recognise the things you care most about, or what you’re naturally best at, simply because they’re so ingrained in us that we just don’t notice what they are. So ask people around you for insight and feedback – and then listen to them.

Finally, don’t forget to listen to yourself, too. When you think about a passion or a cause, what is your gut telling you? Do you really want to volunteer for a particular charity – or are you only doing it because you think it’s the proper thing to do? Do you really want to pursue that new hobby – or are you doing it because you can’t think of anything else? Try not to do anything for the sake of it, and don’t do anything you feel uncomfortable with. When you find your purpose, it will feel right. So listen to your intuition, because only you know what’s best for you.

5. Help other people

It’s widely accepted that certain emotions and behaviours that help boost our wellbeing have a powerful effect on giving us a sense of purpose – and two of these are generosity and selflessness. Volunteering, helping others and finding a way to give back are strongly associated with having a more meaningful, purposeful life.

There are many ways you can help other people. You can donate money to a cause you care about, give your time by volunteering for a charity, or you can help out people around you directly – for example, visiting an elderly neighbour to provide company, or offering to do the shop for a friend who’s unwell. Whether you decide to help others every day or once a week, the simple act of helping other people and being kind can go a long way to making you feel like your life has purpose.

It’s also worth mentioning that once you start working to help others, you’re likely to meet new people who will further inspire you. Volunteering at a homeless shelter once a week, for example, can put you in contact with people who dedicate their lives to those less fortunate than them – and often, it’s these experiences that have the most profound effect on us.

There’s no guarantee that volunteering will lead to a lightbulb moment where you suddenly realise what your purpose is. However, there are many different ways you can help others and give back, and once you find the ‘right’ way to do that, it should feel as though it makes sense, and the act of helping is invigorating and not exhausting. If you want to find out how you can help others from the comfort and safety of your own home, have a read of our article about virtual volunteering.

Final thoughts…

No matter how hard we search, finding purpose and meaning in our lives isn’t usually something that happens quickly. It can take months, years, or even a lifetime to find our true purpose – but there are some who say it’s the search which is the most meaningful of all. You might find that what inspires and drives you changes over time. This is all part and parcel of our natural evolution as people – it doesn’t mean you’re giving up on anything.

If you find an act, hobby, job or cause that gives you purpose, it doesn’t matter what it is – all that matters is that you get something out of it. If you choose to pursue a new passion or cause, take some time to reflect on it as you go along. Ask yourself if the new road you’re on feels like the right direction for you to go in – and if it isn’t, it’s fine to change course.

Have you struggled to find meaning and purpose in your life recently? Or have you found something that’s helped give you direction? We’d love to hear about your experiences. Send us an email at [email protected] or leave us a comment below.

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20 thoughts on “5 ways to find meaning and purpose in your life

  1. Avatar
    Mayer weir on Reply

    I’m touched by this beautiful piece of writing.Its , I feel the Balance of giving to others, and a strong belief we can make things better for those around us.A purpose.
    We need more amazing inspiring articles.This is the most uplifting article I’ve read for months.Thank you for your balanced positive and truthfully uplifting view.

    1. Avatar
      Christine Twigg on Reply

      What a relevant, uplifting and honest article. It addresses things that people are often too embarrassed to talk about – unless you are lucky enough to be able to. I certainly have been more reflective these last six months and am trying to find a new path to follow especially regarding changing friendships.

    2. Avatar
      Wendy on Reply

      I’m so pleased I’ve read this, I’m feeling that I have lost all purpose and whilst I desperately want to help others I’ve lost so much confidence in the past weeks of isolation. I know I have to make that brave first step. Does this group have zoom meetings, it would be great to talk to others

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    Sas on Reply

    I wish I could found inspiration, my purpose now at this time of life, my get and go has gone to the point I often think my time here is done.
    I have 2 great kids who do look after me, it is Only them who hold me here. I have no drive to anything. Going to work keeps me busy and organised.

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    Brian Flynn on Reply

    I really appreciate Restless treating us as ‘whole’ people. We are not our employment status just as we are not our jobs and I love that you are adding to the sum total of our experience as well as providing your services. Thank you.

  4. Avatar
    Wendy on Reply

    Pre Covid,
    I used to volunteer for the National trust (now on hold)
    run a kindness rock painting workshop( on hold )and sing in a choir (also on hold).
    I have re started jogging and trying to increase my fitness levels but still lack a purpose.
    This article has helped enormously as I have seen that my gifts are spreading kindness and that I have great empathy so I am going to look for openings where I can use these skills.
    Thank you.

  5. Avatar
    Valerie on Reply

    Pre-Covid I was keenly interested in understanding the theory of “spirituality”; the inner core of each of us as I understand it. I have researeched much information by listening to those who are interested in understanding ourselves and our relationship with nature, the planet and the Universe and the Source of intelligent life. I still have so much to learn; the subject is as vast as the cosmos, the human mind and our perceptions of life. It is an endless topic, much of which is being confirmed by Science. I have joined the Amazon Prime Video Channel “Gaia” (the Earth). It has increased my knowledge in so many areas, to “my satisfaction”; which I believe is all any of us can say with knowing, at any given time in our lives. Each of us percive life differently. It is a tolerant belief system which can encompass all religions or none, its up to our relationship with life and our inner self. It’s a topic of love, empathy and compassion. There are so many different aspects, whether following a theoretical journey or what I class as a practical aspect of the subject (whether holistic or self-empowering). It is mind challenging and thought provoking. There are many places to research the topic through many different avenues; discussion, reading, study, holistic practices, watching videos; purchased, on Gaia, YouTube or subsribing to Hay House Website. If anyone is truly interested in understanding as much as they can about so many topics that create the vast tapestry of life; then I am sure they would encounter a journey as personal and beautifully wonderful, awe inspiring as I have. It’s not our destination that counts as much as the journey; full of wonder, appreciation and amazement. It has and continues to give me a reason for living and diminishes so much fear we often feel about life and death. I now find that I have an insaiteable appetite for understanding myself, others and life.

  6. Avatar
    David on Reply

    My wife and I have been doing a lot of soul searching in a drive to look to how our lives can change beyond C19. My wife, being an actress lost her income stream immediately on lockdown, she was in a play which opened in London but the following tour had to be cancelled. I have kept my work throughout and not been furloughed. I admire my wife greatly as she immediately set about to develop other skills. There was very little for self employed people in terms of money but she applied for a self development grant from the Arts Council to build a home studio. She has spent many hours learning the technical requirements and I have built her an improvised home studio in our basement, last week she earned her first money from an audio book so very proud of her. This has all been achieved while tackling feelings og inadequacy and felling not good for anything. Having each other has no doubt been our main stay in these difficult times, we have a single girlfriend also who has been finding the isolation difficult to cope with so we have taken her under our wing which has been a gift for all of us. Friendships are very important, more so now. The future will write itself, we have to be in this moment deal with its strife and embrace its joys.

  7. Avatar
    Jill on Reply

    I, too, am grateful for this article. So many people do not understand at all why retirement is horrible and casts you adrift with no sense of purpose whatsoever. I’ve been retired seven years but not really found a sense of purpose. I restored my house, and sold it, restored the new one I bought, and tried various yoga and other exercise groups. I volunteered in a school helping slow readers. I joined a journaling group. I went to French classes, upholstery classes, photography classes. I went on long walks and joined the library. I run a retirees’ group associated with my profession and organise lunches and speakers. Eventually I joined a political group and then found not only a sense of purpose but also way TOO much to do! My skills in paperwork and organisation were greatly valued to the point where I got overwhelmed with the amount to do and almost as stressed as when I was at work being paid to be stressed! I have yet to find a happy medium and lock down has definitely made everything worse in that I awake each morning and after wondering what day it is, wonder how I can occupy myself all through it. Some days I feel I’m just marking time, waiting to die. This article has reassured me I am not the crazy person my other half thinks I am (he adores watching TV 24/7). Thank you for writing it.

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    Kate on Reply

    5 years ago I lost everything- my mobility, followed closely by my job, house, most of my friends and finally my marriage. I have children who have grown up, and we are still in touch. However I have struggled to found a purpose to my life. And still do. Over the last few months everything I do has been suspended.

  9. Avatar
    Lynn Whitmore on Reply

    These suggestions would be amazing, and beautifully written, in normal times but unfortunately how can we do items 3-5 in times of lockdown or restricted access to others?

    1. Avatar
      Helen on Reply

      Hi Lynn. I guess that as restrictions start to ease, we can begin to invite people back into our lives. Some of it, of course, is still digitally or over the phone, but those interactions still matter a great deal (perhaps, more than ever).

  10. Avatar
    Jason on Reply

    I’m glad I read this article, intact that I signed up .
    I’ve only just started but I’ll make sure I catch your articles each time. Thank you

  11. Avatar
    Sue G on Reply

    Hi,Thankyou so much for this post.It has come at a time in my own life were I’m looking for a new career/business venture but not sure which direction to go in.Also looking for new hobbies,new inspiring people to meet as my main hobby Dancing is on hold because of coved.Still meet up with my lovely dance friends doing other things until we can get back to it.Yes there are many things out there to get involved with,but whatever you decide to get involved in has to resonate with you.Thanks once again ,I’m going to have a look into some of those things surgested.

  12. Avatar
    Jayne on Reply

    I too am a “newbie” to Restless and very much enjoyed reading the articles and other members contributions.😀

    Having worked full-time for nearly 40 years; l decided last year to retire myself, regardless of the government’s pensionable age changes!

    Prior to Covid, l had been building up hobbies and interests, and enjoying more quality time with my already retired friends. I guess when you have been used to working and had a busy timetable of tasks everyday; It is quite strange to find yourself in control of all of your own time!

    I try to look on each day as a challenge/opportunity to experience/learn new things and get used to change, sometimes it only little things like “using the McDonald’s drive through” instead of sitting inside when l meet my friend – at a social distance of course! I’ve started reading again, which l love and didn’t have the time for when l was working. My next challenge is to get back on my bike after health problems – but l plan to take little steps and see how far l can get? Thank you for the extra ideas.

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    Dawn on Reply

    I decided to stop drinking recently 7 weeks ago purely for health benefits to lose some weight which am pleased to say is working and have recently enrolled on a college course online, and have taken up jogging which am definitely getting better at. It has made me feel better even though I work full-time so am fairly occupied.

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    Teresa Briscoe on Reply

    Thank you for this article. I read it after suffering my third bereavement this year, my Dad, my husband, and now my husband’s dog, our dog, and my one connection with my husband. I’m struggling with all of this, why? Why me? What did I do to deserve this? But your article underlines fundamental points in that it’s my personal loss, my loss of a sense of purpose. Not having my life’s focus is a key point now. Though I am grieving and need time to grieve, this article reminds me why I need to remain focused on what other purposes are out there to give me focus so that I don’t become swallowed up in my bereavements. In time, I can return to these fine words, and think again. Thank you.

  15. Avatar
    Lucy on Reply

    Great article, and needed now more than ever. I would add Make Something to this list. Keeping our hands busy and focusing, then having a ‘thing’ at the end to be proud of or delighted in gives me great joy. And a sense of purpose, even if it’s only for an hour or two.

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