The past year has 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.
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, we hope something might catch your eye in our articles: 27 must-read books and 15 inspiring self-development books. Additionally, if you’d like to join a discussion or exchange book ideas with other like-minded individuals, you might be interested in joining the Rest Less Book Club.
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, then post-pandemic 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.
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.