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Lacking a Sense of Purpose? 5 Ways to Begin to Find Meaning

Life without purpose is a meaningless life. Here's how to get back on track.

Key points

  • The end of a chapter in life, or a bout of depression or anxiety can trigger one to feel a lack of purpose.
  • The key to finding purpose is clearing away the obstacles that interfere with taking action.
  • Actions one can take to find purpose include rediscovering old hobbies and experimenting with new things.
malikmccotterjordan/pixabay
Source: malikmccotterjordan/pixabay

What gives your life meaning? Why are you here? What should you do with your life? These are all important and natural existential and practical questions that we all ask ourselves at times. They all circle around the notion of having a purpose, a reason to wake up and move forward in our lives, a way of finding satisfaction, even joy. Unfortunately for too many of us, that sense of purpose has been absent for long stretches, or what gave us that sense of meaning has withered for a lot of good reason, or worst of all for some, it was never really there.

Like a lot of problems, our lack of purpose is not so much the problem but the outcome of other underlying problems. Here are some of the common sources:

End of a chapter

Henry worked at a job that he enjoyed and gave him a sense of identity and meaning for 30 years, but now that he is retired, he feels useless and lost. While this is a struggle for Henry, it is also understandable. There is a sudden hole in his everyday life; he has gone through a loss, and with loss comes grief. One chapter of his life has closed, and he is in that challenging transition period of redefining and rediscovering who is apart from who he was. But for others, it may be triggered by children leaving home, the passing away of a parent that you cared for so long, or by physical or emotional limitations that take away activities that used to bring you joy.

Depression

Grief and depression are related but different. Grief is tied to loss and follows a natural process; depression can be biological or situational where you feel trapped. Your world turns to gray; you find yourself constantly are saying to yourself, "why bother?" The depression drains your energy, making it hard to move forward; your depressive brain tells you that you can’t do what you want to do or it won’t matter.

Anxiety

I recently listened to a talk by Bruce Greyson, MD, the author of After , who researches near-death experiences. Most people report that their near-death experiences as extremely positive; they felt loved, it left them no longer fearing death. Greyson worried that folks who were suicidal would hear these stories and now become more suicidal since the fear of what happens next is taken away. But what he found out when he interviewed folks who had been suicidal and had near-death experiences was that they became less suicidal after. Why? Because, he said, once people were not afraid of dying, they were no longer afraid of living. After these experiences, they were bolder, able to embrace life more fully and take risks that they didn’t take before, and this, in turn, reduced their suicidal thoughts.

The moral of this story, to me, is about learning to live life despite anxiety. Anxiety makes your world seem unsafe; it makes your world smaller and you too cautious; it drains your passion and creativity; it prevents you from doing what you truly want to do.

Shoulds

Some folks' heads and lives are loaded with shoulds, those rules that are reducing your perspective to black-and-white, right-and-wrong thinking, often driven by underlying anxiety. The end result is that these shoulds and your sense of purpose are being restrained and shackled.

Again, these are the drivers that can erode your sense of purpose. Is it time to get back on track with your life? Here’s how to get started:

1. Treat your depression

Depression often creates its own loop: Your depression drains your energy, your why-bother attitude undermines your motivation; without the motivation, you don't do and make the changes that can pull you out of the depression.

The key here is breaking the loop and it doesn’t matter what side the equation you start with: tackling the depression directly through medication and/or counseling or taking baby steps to act despite how you feel to get you moving forward.

Depression is like a dead battery in the car — if it sits, it doesn’t get better and only gets worse. Just as you need to push the car or jumpstart the battery to get it recharged, you need to do the same to yourself through action. What the action is less important than taking action itself.

2. Reconnect with old passions

One of the things that can help Henry make his transition to retired life is thinking about and exploring old passions from his pre-work days or interests that have been pushed aside over his years of work. This may be old hobbies — playing guitar, gardening, or raising chickens — or old dreams — traveling across the country, writing the great American novel. What he’s looking for is something that ignites him.

3. Reach out to others

Or Henry can find ways to help others. You’ve heard this a million times — if you want to help yourself help others. This works because it gets you out of your head and your narrow life and into the life of others; you can feel good because generally people appreciate what you do and appreciation gives you a sense of value and making a difference however small. Here Henry can volunteer, rework his skills from his job and find new ways to apply them.

4. Get out of your head into your gut

If you are wired to be heavily driven by shoulds, you want to start rewiring your brain to pay attention to and use your emotions as information. All those shoulds can leave you feeling anxious, confused, guilty, whereas your emotions are your source of passion, desire, and energy. Start by paying attention to those slightest wisps of feeling that tell you what you want and don’t want. Once you notice them, do something concrete with them — again, act. What you do is less important than the doing. That is how you learn to trust your emotions and use them to guide you, and how you rewire your brain.

5. Explore, experiment

You can’t figure out your sense of purpose by sitting on the couch and mulling it over. Life is a process of elimination. You need to explore and experiment and try things and see what sticks, what works, what doesn’t. You want to shut down that critical voice that tells you that you have to do it right or that it is the best fit. Instead, focus on doing different, experiment with being bold, and taking acceptable risks.

The theme here is that the path to discovering or reigniting your sense of purpose is not about making a new decision but focusing on the process that leads to that decision — clearing away the obstacles that keep you from acting, moving forward even though you are unsure where you are going or where it may lead, following those small voices that tell you that yes, this is important to you. You discover and define you by discovering and defining you.

Finally, in closing: As Buckminster Fuller said, “What is the one thing that you can do that no one else can do because of who you are?"

What's your answer?

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