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5 Steps Toward Finding Happiness

It starts with cultivating a sense of meaning and purpose.

Key points

  • Happiness is not the destination; it's the byproduct of purpose and meaning.
  • We must do some introspection to uncover our purpose and cultivate meaning.
  • Purpose is about understanding our unique value based on our experiences, interests, skills, and values.

Too many of us Americans get hung up in our pursuit of happiness because we don’t understand the truth that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt knew so well. “Happiness,” she said, “is not a goal, it’s a byproduct.”

Happiness, like love, tends to elude us when we are most intent on finding it—and shows up when we are simply going about our lives.

 John-Manuel Andriote
To cross the bridge to happiness, we must begin by finding our purpose and cultivating meaning.
Source: John-Manuel Andriote

We are far more likely to realize we are happy while we are engaged in living a life, doing work, conducting ourselves a certain way, or filling a role that gives us a sense of purpose and meaning.

Having that sense of purpose and deriving meaning from your experiences—knowing your “why”—is a key to living deliberately and consciously. It’s also an important ingredient of resilience. It’s what keeps you grounded in self-awareness as you approach relationships with others, with your work, and with the world.

So much rides on whether we live lives of purpose and meaning—or simply stumble through life without enjoying the pleasure and satisfaction (dare I say happiness) that comes from them. You are worth the small bit of effort it takes to figure out, if you haven’t yet, what you might consider your calling or vocation, your purpose, and what it means to you.

How to find purpose and meaning

If you have wondered where to find your purpose and how to cultivate meaning in your life, the starting point is a deep dive—inside yourself. Here are five steps you can take to uncover a sense of purpose and meaning drawing from your deepest self and your life’s experiences. You might want to have a pen and paper handy to jot down your responses to the questions I pose.

  1. What is important to you? Relationships? Work? Education? Spirituality? The environment? Animal welfare? Helping others? Think about what you value most in your life—and why you value it, what it means to you.
  2. What inspires you? When have you “lost yourself” in an activity where you were startled to realize how much time had passed because you were so absorbed in it? How did it make you feel? What about it made you feel good?
  3. What are you good at? Where and how did you get good at it? Did you have mentors or teachers who taught it to you? How do you feel about this skill of yours? How do you put it to use?
  4. How does your work reflect your sense of purpose? Does it? Does your employer’s purpose gel with your own? Is there other work that would better suit your understanding of your own purpose?
  5. What do you want to be remembered for? Something you made or did? How you make others feel in your presence? How you improved your corner of the world?

The benefits of purpose and meaning

Something that becomes apparent in talking about purpose and meaning in life is that a sense of purpose comes from looking deep inside, while we find meaning largely in our interactions with others. Giving to others, whether in our family or in the larger community or even the world, is how our purposeful actions become meaningful.

Living with integrity and authenticity as your sense of purpose aligns with the choices you make—for your work, for how you present yourself, for how you spend your time—is the kind of life whose byproduct is happiness. And it is definitely worth pursuing.