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Four Steps to Discovering Your Life’s Calling

Four practices may help connect us with what makes life meaningful.

Source: mohamed_hassan/Pixabay

Although philosophers and theologians have written about it for millennia, finding a sense of purpose, meaning, or calling is often viewed as a pretentious and even self-absorbed topic.

Several years ago, I found myself sitting in a cafe, listening to two people chat about their lives. I could barely stop my eyes from rolling when one of them asked, “Dude! What really is the meaning of life?” And the other responded, “Dude! That’s deep.”

Behind the potentially pretentious nature of this conversation, however, lie some very practical questions about how to lead our lives. When we face difficult decisions, what’s truly meaningful to us often comes into play. Should I or shouldn’t I get married? Am I ready to have kids? Should I take this job or not? Should I go back to school or not?

Not surprisingly, research shows that people who have a greater sense of purpose or meaning in life tend to be happier, less depressed, and less anxious.

Diane Dreher, author of Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling, believes that all of us have the potential to find our sense of purpose.

“In whatever season of life you find yourself now,” she writes, “You are poised on the edge of possibility, ready to begin the journey to become more fully yourself.”

But Dreher, who is a professor of Renaissance literature in addition to a counselor, is quick to add that society doesn’t necessarily support us in this quest.

“In the Renaissance, theologians and artists realized that we all have particular gifts and particular strengths and that discovering them and using them gives us a sense of joy and meaning in life,” Dreher told me in an interview on KPFA Radio’s About Health program. “Today, our culture reinforces us for consumerism, which is not the same as finding our calling. To look outside ourselves to find ourselves—by buying the latest product—is really distracting.”

Indeed, dozens of studies now show that money, along with the “stuff” it can be used to buy, doesn’t necessarily make us happier.

In a recent article in the journal Nature, for instance, researchers analyzed data from the Gallup World Poll, a representative survey of more than 1.7 million people around the globe. Their results indicate that money only makes people happier to a point. Once a person earns $60,000 to $75,000, on average, emotional well-being stops increasing at higher levels of income.

Although these numbers differ from country to country, there is always a point at which more money no longer yields more happiness. In other words, once we earn enough money to survive and feel comfortable, the recipe for happiness may not be to enrich our bank accounts further.

What people really desire is a sense of personal meaning in their lives, Dreher asserts. Yet, she argues that instead of pursuing activities that will help cultivate this sense of meaning, “people feel empty inside, and so they go out and buy more things.”

Finding meaning isn’t easy, of course. Most of us get caught up in our busy days, our many responsibilities, and the numerous pressures we face. We may spend the bulk of our time pursuing goals that are more important to others—our bosses, families, or friends—than to us.

Although it’s not necessarily unhealthy to do things for other people, it’s easy to forget ourselves in the process. We too easily wind up doing what we feel we should do, rather than pursuing what could really bring us happiness.

But Dreher suggests that four simple practices might help bring us a little closer to discovering what might be truly meaningful to us.

1. Reflect on Your Childhood

The great psychologist Abraham Maslow called them “peak experiences”—moments when we’ve felt closest to being self-actualized. Most of us have at least glimpsed these experiences, which people sometimes describe as exciting, exhilarating, or even mystical: looking over a vast ocean, helping someone in need, or feeling the joy of solving a difficult problem.

What constitutes a peak experience obviously can differ dramatically from person to person. But Dreher suggests that many of us were more connected to these experiences as children than we are today. And we can use this to our advantage.

“Really think about what you used to love doing as a child,” she advises. “When you were a child, did you like to go out exploring, did you love nature, did you like to play games, art, musical instruments, reading, what?”

Getting in touch with these experiences can provide powerful clues about what we might find most meaningful in our lives today.

2. Create an Exploration List

One of the major themes of the Renaissance was exploration, whether on the high seas or in the science lab. But, in our modern lives, we rarely allow ourselves to explore.

“Most of us are so locked into routines and responsibilities that we lose touch with our curiosity, intuitions, and deep personal interests,” Dreher writes.

One antidote to this tendency is to create an exploration list. Similar to a bucket list, but a bit more experimental, such a list can contain anything you’d like to try out—activities you enjoyed as a child but have left by the wayside, things you’ve always wanted to do, undertakings you’ve been putting off.

Dreher advises not to get too caught in practicality or self-criticism when creating this list. “Some of these ideas will seem simple, others scary, some even silly,” she writes. “Just write them down.” Once you’ve finished, consider actually trying at least one of them.

3. Reflect on Challenges

Discovering our callings can be challenging. It always has been.

“Michelangelo had problems in his early life, because his father wanted him to become a cloth merchant,” Dreher told me. “Every time Michelangelo would be drawing a picture, his father would beat him and say, ‘This is worthless, and you’ll never come to anything.’”

But reflecting on our challenges can provide clues regarding what we most value in life. Consider any major challenges you’ve faced. Besides being potentially very painful, did they change your view about what’s important, valuable, or meaningful in life? If they didn’t, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if they did, consider what this knowledge might mean for how you can live a fuller life today.

4. Be Mindful of Your Energies

We’ve all noticed our energy levels change as we go about the day. Sometimes this is due to mundane things like not getting enough sleep or missing our morning coffee.

Other times, however, our energy levels are affected by more significant concerns. One secret to discovering our sense of calling is to pay attention to what we’re doing when we feel a rush of energy, and, conversely, what we’re doing when our energy flags.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this sense of energy “flow,” a state of absorption in an activity or situation, such that nothing else seems to matter. Sometimes called being “in the zone,” Csikszentmihalyi’s research shows that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow.

Flow is most likely to occur when the task we’re performing is something that both meets our desires and draws on our gifts. In other words, we get “into the flow” when we’re doing something we both value and feel capable of doing.

As you go about the day, pay attention to what puts you in a state of flow. What activities energize you? What activities drain you? What activities can you count on to lift your spirits? “Your energies are vital messages from your core self,” Dreher writes. “They tell you whether you’re using your gifts and following your heart or living by someone else’s design.”

Nobody is pretending that these four practices will instantly revolutionize your life. But they’re a good start. Finding meaning or purpose is one of the hardest things any of us will ever do. It takes significant time, and it’s probably not something we’ll ever fully accomplish. After all, what’s meaningful to us can shift as we grow and change.

Life is a journey—sometimes fun, often challenging. But these four practices may help us connect with what makes that journey meaningful.

More from David B. Feldman Ph.D.
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