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5 Steps to Finding Purpose and Feeling Happier

A commitment to personal growth is essential for starting the day with energy.

Key points

  • Habits and routines are the forces that propel our lives in specific directions. Over time, they have a profound effect on our quality of life.
  • Direction, purpose, and happiness are found in revitalizing activities that trigger excitement, creativity, and inspiration.
  • A commitment to ongoing personal growth is essential for starting each day with energy, drive, and maintaining sustainable happiness.
Surface / Unsplash
Source: Surface / Unsplash

What gets you out of bed in the morning? What do you look forward to? How do you greet the day?

Many people fall into habits or mind-numbing routines without considering that their daily activities propel their lives in specific directions. From a short-term perspective, having a bad day may seem like no big deal. But over time, if bad days outnumber good ones, any happiness you feel will be fleeting, a short burst rebooting to a baseline of dread the next morning. (See "Do You Have Depression or Lifestyle Fatigue?")

Finding direction and purpose

Purpose, mission, and direction are words loaded with meaning. Some people find fulfillment in work; others find it in family or relationships. Some may have talents that fuel passions or hobbies that have nothing to do with work or family. What do they all have in common? They engage in activities that revitalize and energize them — activities that fill them with excitement, spike their creativity, or inspire them.

Finding joy in your work may seem ideal, but it's not the only way to achieve direction and purpose. Consider these examples from patients I have worked with.

  • A lawyer who plays piano with his jazz band on weekends confesses, “Every gig is a jolt of adrenaline. I think of new chord progressions while standing on the subway platform. Sometimes I invite clients to come to hear my band. It’s been good for business.”
  • A teacher feeling burnout who returned to school to get a degree in social work and transitioned to being a guidance counselor. “It’s such a wonderful feeling; after all these years teaching, suddenly I feel born again," she says. "I love my new job.”
  • A psychotherapist who wrote a play about the challenges of being a therapist. After leaving his office, he dashes off to rehearsals, exhilarated as he works with the actors and the director. “Even when I was exhausted, seeing my play produced and performed was a thrill that I will never forget." (See "New Play Explores Therapist Burnout")

What do they all have in common? They committed to a path of ongoing personal growth. Rather than fall victim to burnout or routine, they found something new to inspire and awaken them. Not only did they feel happier, but they also started each day with more energy and drive. They didn’t wait for the right time; they created it.

Getting started

Here are some prompts to get you started. Think of the following questions and activities as jumping-off points for mindful consideration.

  1. Name three activities that you love, and that rejuvenate, inspire, and energize you.
  2. Are these activities related to specific jobs, or could they be hobbies?
  3. What opportunities do you have to pursue these activities? For example, can you take a class or volunteer? Do you know someone in the field?
  4. Talk to friends and brainstorm together. Sharing your feelings with others is always more effective than ruminating or obsessing alone. Talking to a therapist about lifestyle changes is also a great start.
  5. Find a mentor. Having a mentor in your field of interest is the express lane to achieving your dreams.

Expanding your life

Life is full of built-in struggles. But having purpose and drive are chosen battles that give meaning to it all. They make common suffering less burdensome and give your day a much-needed burst of fun.

I return to the poem "George Gray" by Edgar Lee Masters again and again and often share it with patients. For me, this section speaks directly to the heart of the matter:

To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,

But life without meaning is the torture

Of restlessness and vague desire —

It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

Having a purpose encourages you to take risks and step out of the shadows. It also insulates you against fear, petty concerns, and insecurities while fueling you with vitality and energy.

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