How to Craft a Vision of the Good Life

Article Summary: 

What is a vision of the good life? Why is it hard to create one? What are the benefits of having a vision of the good life? How to craft a vision of the good life?


Working hard but lacking energy and motivation?
Busy but feeling depleted?
Not sure what you want anymore—or what direction to take?
Feeling overcommitted, juggling too many things?

These are common feelings these days, even among high achievers and committed parents and citizens. The problem is that, if we let them go for too long, things can start unraveling. We begin to see a gap between where we are now and where we’d like to be. And then the gap grows.

These are signs that we’re lacking a clear vision for our lives—or that we’ve lost sight of it. Sometimes, we find ourselves living someone else’s vision.

“Ester asked why people are sad.
‘That’s simple,’ says the old man. ‘They are the prisoners of their personal history. Everyone believes that the main aim in life is to follow a plan. They never ask if that plan is theirs or if it was created by another person. They accumulate experiences, memories, things, other people’s ideas, and it is more than they can possibly cope with. And that is why they forget their dreams.’” -Paolo Coelho, The Zahir


What Is a Vision of the Good Life?

A vision is a bold and vivid picture of a better future. Many organizations have a vision statement. But vision isn’t only for organizations. It’s for us too.

In the context of our lives, a vision of the good life should clearly describe who we want to become, what we want to do, and where we want to go. A vision of the good life is the dream destination of our lives.

“Vision is a clear mental picture of what could be, fueled by the conviction that it should be.”
-Pastor Andy Stanley, Visioneering

In essence, our vision statement is an authentic rendering of how our purpose and core values can play out in the world. A personal vision statement asks:

Who do we want to be?
What do we want to do and contribute in life?
Who do we want to share it with?


Why Vision Is Hard

Crafting a vision of the good life can be difficult for many. There are many obstacles that can get in the way.

For starters, we’re constrained by what researchers call “presentism”: Harvard University professor Daniel Gilbert notes that our “imagination cannot easily transcend the boundaries of the present…. Most of us have a tough time imagining a tomorrow that is terribly different from today.”

Many of us have what’s called “status quo bias”: a preference for maintaining our current state of affairs. There’s also the fear factor. It takes courage to confront obstacles and still envision a better future.

Another challenge is the trap of caring too much about what others think. This can direct us toward the vision of others and away from our own vision. Other traps that can get in the way include the complacency of drifting through our lives or settling for just okay.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


Some people resist or struggle with the idea of having a vision of the good life because it sounds abstract and distant. But neither “vision” nor “good life” has to be complicated. A vision, as we’ve seen, is simply a picture of our desired future. And authors Richard Leider and David Shapiro define the good life simply and crisply:

“living in the place you belong, with the people you love, doing the right work—on purpose.”

Keep in mind that vision is different from purpose and goals. Our purpose is our reason for being, and we should think of it as timeless. Our goals are the objectives we want to accomplish, and they’re best thought of in shorter increments (e.g., today or this month or year). By contrast, our life vision is a vivid description of what we aspire to do with our lives. It’s best thought of over a lifetime (or at least a decade). (Obviously, people can choose to have a three-year vision, a five-year vision, etc. if they wish.)


The Benefits of Having a Vision

Having a vision of the good life can be catalytic. It can help us:

  • develop a clear sense of direction
  • get recentered when we feel lost
  • put our precious time and energy into what we really want
  • reclaim a sense of agency and control over our lives
  • know where to focus our attention and energy—and which detours to avoid
  • connect the dots between the different aspects of our lives
  • get back in the driver’s seat of our lives
  • make decisions and select which opportunities to pursue
  • set and enforce personal and professional boundaries
  • craft our goals, since they should flow naturally from our vision
  • get our motivation back, even during difficult times
  • boost our confidence
  • help us overcome doubt and fear
  • reduce our feelings of overwhelm because we’re clearer about what matters
  • get help from others because we have a clearer sense of what we want
  • live more proactively and intentionally
  • improve our performance

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


How to Craft a Vision of the Good Life

There are many ways to approach crafting a vision of the good life. Different approaches will work for different people. Here are some suggested approaches:

Begin by looking back to our childhood dreams. Many of us had dreams when we were younger—dreams, for example, of being an astronaut or an athlete, an author or a ballerina, a teacher or a firefighter. Many times, those dreams don’t so much point to the profession we actually choose as they do contain certain clues about our deeper make-up as a person—clues like wanting to explore, be active, create, make beauty, or help others.

Get in the habit of thinking more about the future we want, including who we want to be and how we’ll go about making it happen.

Think not just about big accomplishments but also about what we’d like everyday life to be like. Think about our normal days in the future. A vision of the good life isn’t only about aspiration and accomplishment. It’s also about peace and joy.

Look inward to capture our authentic essence. Our articulation of where we want to go should be grounded in who we are. Many people don’t look inward before projecting outward.

“Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart.
Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.”

-Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist

Clarify not only the mental picture of our desired future but also how we seek to feel in that desired future. That can include the feeling we want to bring to that future as well as the feeling we want to get in it.

Reflect on our view of the good life. What would living a good life mean for us and those we love?

Ensure the vision covers the important areas of our lives. A well-designed vision paints a picture of our desired destination across all the important aspects of our lives: family, work, health, education, service, community, hobbies, travel, and perhaps more.

Think also about an audacious aspiration for our life—something that’s challenging but would be amazing if we could make it happen.

“Fortune favors the audacious.”
-Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus
Dutch Christian humanist, theologian, and philosopher

Now take inputs from the points above and turn them into a vision statement draft. Start with statements or bullet points, and then form them into a paragraph or a page or two about our vision of the good life. It works best when we think ahead and put ourselves in it, writing in the present tense, noting what kind of person we are, where we are, who we’re with, what we’re doing, etc.

Think about how we’d like to be remembered by loved ones and others at the end of our life. What would be a life we’d be proud of?

Get clear on what would provide the most value to the people we’re committed to serving. How are we best positioned to help, given our strengths and passions, and which groups or causes?

Get clear on the things that provide the most meaning in our lives and build those into our vision, including what’s important to us and what would be worth spending our time on. It’s a good sign if we’d do it even without getting paid for it.

Share an early draft with trusted friends and colleagues and seek their input—and help. Revise it based on their input, but only the input we wholeheartedly agreed with. After all, this is our vision of the good life, not theirs.

Consider working with a coach or mentor to help with the vision crafting process. Often, it’s helpful with an outside perspective.

(See the Appendix for other options if these approaches aren’t working for you.)


Criteria to Use in Crafting Our Vision

For some, the vision crafting process will be one of the most valuable things they ever do. Given that, we should have a high standard for the output and a good process for developing it intentionally.

As we craft a vision for our lives, we should ensure that it’s:

  1. Clear and vivid in its description
  2. Aligned with our true authentic essence, unique to us, including our purpose and core values
  3. Unbounded by the status quo
  4. Distant enough that we have to work toward it (a lifetime, or at least ten years in the future)
  5. Broad enough to encompass all the major aspects of our lives (including personal, professional, and relationships)
  6. Motivating and inspiring to us, flooding our heart with palpable emotion and fueling us with conviction

Our life vision should fill us with energy and raise our sights for what we can do with our days on Earth.

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Some Cautions about the Vision Process

There are many potential pitfalls in the vision crafting process, so some cautions are in order.

Though clear and vivid, our vision shouldn’t be prescriptive. It should be directional but not tactical, not interloping into how we will get there (the realm of strategy and tactics). Also avoid making it vague and generic. Someone who knows us well should recognize us clearly in our vision.

Our vision can change over the years, and that’s okay. But if we’ve done it well, it shouldn’t change too often. That would be jarring and confounding.

Our vision statement doesn’t have to be perfect. View it as a draft—as a work-in-process that can and should change over time.

Watch out for too much focus on ego or material possessions in our vision. We know those are false friends destined to disappoint in the final analysis. Better to focus instead on connection and contribution.

Our vision is worthless without action. What’s the point if it just sits in a drawer? We’re wise to read our vision statement regularly (e.g., every month or quarter) and get to work on making it come alive.


Making Our Vision a Reality

It’s unrealistic to expect that we’ll travel a linear path to realize our vision. Stuff happens. Circumstances change. But we’re wise to hold fast to our vision and keep working to bring it to life.

“A vision without a plan is a delusion.”
-Neil Kurtz, CEO of Golden Living

We’re especially wise to clarify what knowledge and skills we need to develop now to be able to live into that desired future—and then block out time to get them.

We should start taking action now on things that will bring us closer to our vision—and do that every day.

“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”
-Epictetus, ancient Greek Stoic philosopher



In the end, our lives are short. Many people find themselves late in life with deep regrets. Why not set a marker now for how we’ll live and then pursue it with abandon?


Reflection Questions

  1. Do you have a vision of the good life?
  2. To what extent are you clear about what a good life would be for you?
  3. Is it informing the choices you make and actions you take on a regular basis?
  4. Are you moving toward it?
  5. What’s stopping you?


Tools for You

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


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Appendix: Other Options for the Vision Process

The visioning process is challenging for many. What works for one person may not work well for another. With that in mind, here are some other options for the vision crafting process:

Start with a “mind map.” Take a blank sheet of paper and a pencil, then write the word “Vision” in the middle of the page. Then add words, phrases, or images all around the page with things that may be included in your envisioning of a good life. Don’t edit. Just write or draw.

Use a vision board. Gather an array of photos, images, inspirational quotes, or other symbolic representations of your idea of a good life. Place them on a large poster sheet that can be displayed prominently in your home or office as a visual reminder of what you’d like your life to be like.

Consider drawing your vision of the good life. (Some way want to start with this.) The point isn’t artistry but rather creative symbols that represent your deepest aspirations. Have fun with it. Aristotle observed that “the soul never thinks without a picture.”

Consider journaling as a place to start to gather ideas. Sometimes starting more informally with private thoughts can help break the logjam of self-consciousness.

Clarify how you define success in different areas of your life, including both personal and professional. Build the most salient aspects of your desired success into your vision of the good life.

Write a letter from the future. Imagine yourself at the end of your life, having lived a good life. Write a letter from that future version of you to the you of today, describing what life is like, who you’ve become and what you’ve done, and how it feels.


Postscript: Inspirations on Vision

  • “There is no favorable wind for the sailor who doesn’t know where to go.” -Seneca, ancient Roman Stoic philosopher
  • “I’ve seen the promised land.” -Martin Luther King, Jr., minister, activist, and civil-rights leader
  • “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” -Proverbs 29:18
  • “I learned to organize my life around my dream, rather than try to force my dream into my chaotic life.” -Sonia Choquette, spiritual teacher and author
  • “See things as you would have them be instead of as they are.” -Robert Collier, author
  • “Connecting with one’s dreams releases one’s passion, energy, and excitement about life…. The key is uncovering your ideal self—the person you would like to be, including what you want in your life and work.” -Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, Resonant Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence
  • “…people stop dreaming because they got caught up in the hustle and bustle of surviving. And once we stop dreaming, we start to lead lives of quiet desperation, and little by little the passion and energy begin to disappear from our lives.” -Matthew Kelly, The Dream Manager
  • “All mean dream: but not equally. Those that dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” -T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph
  • “It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old. They grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.” -Gabriel Garcia Marquez, novelist
  • “The happiest people in life operate out of their imaginations and dreams, not their histories.” -Ed Mylett, The Power of One More
  • “Everyone is inspired by those who follow their dream.” -Maria Nemeth, Founder and Director, Academy for Coaching Excellence
  • “Be strong on vision, but flexible on detail.” -Jeff Bezos, founder and executive chairman, Amazon
  • “Despite the myth of the heroic visionary leader, there is little about developing and pursuing a vision that should be a solo endeavor.” -Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Power of Integrating Our Passions into Our Life and Work

In the world of personal development, passion is one of the things that’s most misunderstood. “Follow your passion” is common advice.

But is it right?

The answer may surprise you.


What Is a Passion?

Our passions are the things that consume us with palpable emotion over time. They’re the things we love so much that we’re willing to suffer for them. Researchers have defined passions as strong inclinations toward activities we value and like or love, and in which we invest our time and energy. (1)

Author and coach Curt Rosengren calls passion “the energy that comes from bringing more of you into what you do. In essence, passion comes from being who you are.” Our passions are connected with our intrinsic motivation (our impulse to do something because of the inherent satisfaction of doing so and not the desire for a reward for it)—and with our innate talents and abilities.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


Not Feeling Passion at Work

We can have passions in different domains of our lives. What are the signs of passion at work? The signs include loving our work, wanting to talk often about what we like about our work, or finding ourselves working extra hours even when we don’t have to, mainly for the inherent satisfaction.

To what extent are people passionate about their work?

According to the data analysis team at Zippia, only 20% of U.S. workers are passionate about their job. Around the world, according to the 2013 State of the Global Workplace report by Gallup, only 13% of workers are passionate about their work.


 The Benefits of Integrating Our Passions into Our Life and Work

There are powerful benefits to integrating passions into our life and work, according to researchers. For example, doing so can:

  • boost our motivation and engagement
  • increase our productivity and persistence
  • enhance our focus and creativity
  • help us achieve our goals
  • motivate us to keep learning, growing, and developing in that area
  • help us be more resilient in the face of challenges
  • lead to more happiness and fulfillment
  • help us avoid burnout
  • lead to much higher job satisfaction, according to a meta-analysis that reviewed data from nearly a hundred different studies (2)
  • lead to better work performance, according to a meta-analysis of sixty studies conducted over the past six decades
“Passion is the driver of achievement in all fields.”
-Sir Ken Robinson, author and advisor on education in the arts

Passion is also contagious. People pick up on our enthusiasm, and it can inspire them to find and work in their areas of passion as well.

There’s also a flip side to this: there’s much lost when we don’t have passion for what we’re doing. When we’re not living and working with passion, we’re much more likely to lack enthusiasm and “phone it in.” Over time, this can put us on a downward trajectory.

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Confusion about Passion

Passion can be tricky because it often gets confused with other things, including hobbies and interests. Passion is related to these things, but there are important differences.

  • A hobby is something we do for pleasure or relaxation and not as our main occupation.
  • An interest is a feeling of wanting to be involved in something or to learn more about it, or something that attracts and holds our attention.
  • A passion, as noted above, is something that consumes us with palpable emotion over time.

A key difference, then, between passions and hobbies and interests is the degree to which we’re emotionally invested in the activity. And this can change over time. A hobby can turn into a passion, and vice versa.


How to Know What Our Passions Are

To determine our passions, we can take assessments and/or observe our own experiences and ask ourselves questions like the following:

  1. What things bring me joy?
  2. Which subjects interest me the most, continually drawing me in?
  3. What would I keep doing enthusiastically even if I didn’t get paid for it?
  4. What am I continually curious about?
  5. What things do I get excited about doing or discovering?
  6. What fills me up with energy and makes me come alive?
  7. What activities do I lose myself in, losing track of time?
  8. What problem(s) do I feel compelled to solve?
  9. What am I curious about or fascinated with?
  10. Is there something I long to master?
  11. Is there a person, group, place, or cause that I feel compelled to help (e.g., youth, my hometown, endangered species, the planet)?
  12. What lit me up when I was a child?

We can also ask for feedback from others (e.g., family, friends, colleagues, mentors) about what they observe about our passions and how we can integrate them into our life and work.

Finally, we’re wise to experiment and explore possibilities—to try things.


Passion and Grit

Angela Duckworth, University of Pennsylvania Professor and co-founder of the Character Lab, notes that a passion isn’t about just obsession. It’s also about consistency over time—about how steadily we work on certain things with sustained and enduring devotion.

In her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, she writes that a passion isn’t just something we care about and enjoy intrinsically, but something we care about “in an abiding, loyal, steady way.” She ties passion to what she calls “grit,” which is a combination of “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.”


Passions Can Develop and Deepen over Time

Professor Duckworth notes that passions tend to be developed more than they’re discovered. In other words, there’s an important time dimension that tends to proceed with certain components, including interest, experimentation, discovery, development over time, practice, purpose, and persistence.

It begins, she notes, with interest—with intrinsically enjoying what we do. She notes that interests are typically “triggered by interactions with the outside world” and experimentation, and not discovered through introspection or analysis. Then, she writes, “what follows the initial discovery of an interest is a much lengthier and increasingly proactive period of interest development. Crucially, the initial triggering of a new interest must be followed by subsequent encounters that retrigger your attention—again and again and again.” In other words, the fire will go out if not tended to.

For the passion to blossom, it should be an activity that we practice—with “the daily discipline of trying to do things better than we did yesterday”—ideally leading to mastery.

For the passion to ripen, she reports, it should be connected to our purpose (our reason for being), with a conviction that our work matters. That means not only connecting to our personal interests but also to how we can serve or contribute to the wellbeing of others.

For us to maintain a passion, we must persevere with it through the inevitable challenges and setbacks.

In a nutshell, Duckworth recommends focusing not on following our passions but on fostering them intentionally and systematically over time.

“…here’s what science has to say: passion for your work is a little bit of discovery,
followed by a lot of development, and then a lifetime of deepening.
-Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


How to Integrate Our Passions into Our Life and Work

It’s one thing to know what our passions are (which isn’t straightforward for everyone), while it’s another thing to integrate them into our life and work.

For one thing, there are practical challenges. We live in the real world, with bills and mortgages to pay and retirements to save for. So, for starters, many people have given up on this game from the get-go. That’s understandable, but it warrants a second look.

Here are 8 steps we can take to integrate our passions into our life and work:

  1. Of course, we must begin by knowing what our passions are. (See above.)
  2. Challenge beliefs that aren’t serving us well. For example, reconsider a belief that that it’s not realistic to have passion in our life or to be passionate about what we do for a living.
  3. Evaluate how much time we’re operating in the area of our passions. Are we in the passion zone frequently, or rarely?
  4. Set goals that align with our passions. For example, if we have a passion for learning, we can set a goal of reading one nonfiction book every month or taking a new course every year.
  5. Decide what actions we’ll take and habits we’ll adopt to operate more in the areas of our passions. For example, we can choose one or two things that we do regularly as part of our morning, mid-day, or evening routine. Calendarize them and evaluate how it’s going regularly.
  6. Determine what we’ll do to reduce the amount of time we’re working on things outside our passions.
  7. Find others who share our passions and engage with them often.
  8. Connect our passions with our purpose, including ways we can serve others.

In this process, it may also be helpful to have a coach or mentor because we may not have clarity about our passions or how we can use them more.

As we go forward, we must remember to be patient. It can take a while to right the ship.


Myths and Misconceptions about Passions

There are many myths and misconceptions about passions. For starters, the idea that following our passion(s) will automatically lead us to success is prevalent and even a bit of a cliché.

It’s not wrong, but it’s only partly true.

It’s not enough to follow our passions. In this competitive world, our passions need a business model. We need to do things that others are willing to pay us for. And not all passions are well-suited to being our primary occupation that brings in our required income.

Many people don’t know what their passion is—and they may be intimidated by the thought. For many of us, our passions don’t come to us in a flash that’s crystal clear and that instantly changes our lives. Many of the people Angela Duckworth interviewed told her they spent years exploring several different interests, and the core passion wasn’t recognizable at the beginning.

In his book, Deep Work, Georgetown University computer science professor and author Cal Newport notes the flawed thinking that “there are some rarified jobs” that fuel passion—”perhaps working in a nonprofit or starting a software company—while all others are soulless and bland.” He argues that we don’t need a rarefied job; rather, what we need is a rarefied approach to our work. More on that below.

Some people may not want to have their passion incorporated into their job, as it may risk soiling it or leading to burnout. Also, we don’t necessarily have ONE PASSION. We can have many, and they can change over time.

There’s also a lot of confusion about the interplay between passion and purpose. For starters, many people use these terms interchangeably. Big mistake. A passion, as we’ve seen, is something that consumes us with palpable emotion over time. By contrast, our purpose is why we’re here, our reason for being. Stanford University professor William Damon defines it as “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond self.”

Ideally, we bring them closer together, tying our passions to our purpose and in the process redirecting our passions toward something more meaningful and significant.

“What ripens passion is the conviction that your work matters.
For most people, interest without purpose is nearly impossible to sustain for a lifetime.”

-Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Our passions, like pretty much anything in life, are at risk of dwindling over time. We can exhaust them or burn them out if we’re not careful. Two things can help here. The first is purpose. By connecting passions to purpose, we’ll attach them to a renewable source of energy. The second is novelty. Creatively finding new ways to use our passions—and with new people and different settings—will help keep the fire burning.


Mindsets about Passion

In his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport points out that “When it comes to creating work you love, following your passion is not particularly useful advice.” He explains:

“The conventional wisdom on career success—follow your passion—is seriously flawed. It not only fails to describe how most people actually end up with compelling careers, but for many people it can actually make things worse: leading to chronic job shifting and unrelenting angst when one’s reality inevitably falls shorts of the dream.”

The idea here is that if we have unrealistic standards about what work will be like, we’re likely to become disappointed and perhaps even cynical. Part of the problem, Newport notes, is that we have this fantasy of a perfectly right dream job waiting for us out there. We only need to find it. This is often naïve. People may have a dream job for a while, but things have a tendency to change, with new managers, organizational transformations, industry shifts, and changes in our own lives. Great work is more of a mindset and pursuit than it is a destination.

Newport distinguishes between two different mindsets about work. The first is the “passion mindset.” The idea here is that if we do what we love, the world will make us succeed. This mindset (which is common) is focused on what the world can offer us. The problem: it’s too simplistic, and it’s misleading.

The second is the “craftsman mindset” (a craftsman is skilled at a certain trade, perhaps working skillfully with his or her hands to make things with exquisite attention to quality and detail). This mindset is focused on what we can offer the world, not on what the world will do for us.

Newport urges us to adopt the craftsman mindset, not the passion mindset—and get good at something. Really good. And really good at something via developing “rare and valuable skills.” With this mindset, we can build up “career capital,” which will give us a strong base for crafting a career of great work that’s also generous with freedom and autonomy, ideally tied to a compelling purpose.

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In the end, it’s not so much about following our passions as it is about discovering, developing, and deepening them over time—and creatively integrating them into our life and work.

Ideally, we know not only our passions but also use our strengths (the things we’re good at, based on our innate talents, knowledge, and skills) to serve groups or causes we’re motivated to support in line with our core values. That’s a powerful approach to living honorably and living well.


Reflection Questions

  1. What are your passions?
  2. To what extent are you integrating your passions into your life and work (relationships, health, work, education, community, activities)?
  3. What more could you do?
  4. Is there anything preventing you from doing so and, if so, what will you do about it?
  5. What will you do differently, starting today?


Tools for You


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Postscript: Inspirations on Passions

  • “Allow yourself to be silently guided by that which you love the most.” -Rumi, 13th century poet and Sufi mystic
  • “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” -Steve Jobs, co-founder, Apple
  • “If there is any difference between you and me, it may simply be that I get up every day and have a chance to do what I love to do, every day. If you want to learn anything from me, this is the best advice I can give you.” -Warren Buffett, legendary investor
  • “Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.” -Oprah Winfrey, media entrepreneur, author, and philanthropist
  • “One of the huge mistakes people make is that they try to force an interest on themselves. You don’t choose your passions; your passions choose you.” -Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO, Amazon
  • “Paul and I, we never thought that we would make much money out of the thing. We just loved writing software.” -Bill Gates, co-founder, Microsoft
  • “I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for the joy, you can do it forever.” -Stephen King, writer
  • “People who are connected to their passion can be spotted from a mile away.” -Mark Shearer, Executive Vice President, Pitney Bowes

(1) In the academic literature, researchers distinguish between “obsessive passions” and “harmonious passions” in what’s called the “dualistic model of passion.” With obsessive passions, we’re consumed with an activity and have a hard time letting it go. It can lead to conflicts between this activity and other important things in our life—and potentially injury, burnout, or other adverse consequences (e.g., when we keep dancing even when we’re injured). The problem occurs because we tie things like self-esteem or social acceptance to the activity, so we persist at it rigidly and develop uncontrollable urges to continue engaging in it.

With harmonious passions, by contrast, we freely accept the activity as important to us and engage in it willingly but don’t attach contingencies to it and don’t feel compelled to continue it. We’re able to leave space for other important things in our lives. Such passions lead to higher work satisfaction and don’t lead to those kinds of conflicts—or to burnout. Source: Vallerand, Robert & Paquet, Yvan & Philippe, Frederick & Charest, Julie. (2010). On the Role of Passion for Work in Burnout: A Process Model. Journal of personality. 78. 289-312.

(2) Mark Allen Morris, “A Meta-Analytic Investigation of Vocational Interest-Based Job Fit, and Its Relationship to Job Satisfaction, Performance, and Turnover,” PhD dissertation, University of Houston, 2003.

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

On Spirituality and the Good Life

Article Summary: 

How spirituality and the good life are related, including the benefits of having a spiritual practice and examples of it.


We all want to live a good life, but are we living in such a way as to make it likely? In many cases, the cultural influences around us aren’t helping. Think about it.

How many of us feel anxious and stressed much of the time? To what degree are we influenced by cultural messages and forces related to consumerism and materialism, status and ego, fear and greed, manipulation and division? How many of us feel time-starved and struggle with numbing or workaholism? These are common traps, and they take us away from a life we’ll be proud of.

“The disastrous feature of our civilization is that it is far more developed materially than spiritually.
Its balance is disturbed.”
-Jean-Paul Sartre, French novelist and philosopher

When we focus on material circumstances, what happens when things change for the worse, as they’re wont to do? What happens when we’re shaken up with a health scare, relationship wound, or job loss? Do we really want to let our happiness depend solely on how things are going in our life, given that change is inevitable and that we all experience ups and downs regularly?

Enter spirituality. To some, it’s a loaded word, because it comes with baggage. But to many, it’s a powerful centering practice that adds depth, richness, and meaning to their lives, whether through prayer, worship, meditation, or other means.

Those who avoid spirituality for whatever reason may want to give it a second look, because it can be an important and powerful part of human experience.

“If a man is to live, he must be all alive, body, soul, mind, heart, spirit.”
-Thomas Merton, American Trappist monk, theologian, mystic, and social activist

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


What Is Spirituality?

Part of the problem is that there’s no widely accepted definition of spirituality, and many people conflate it with religion or dogma. We can think of it very simply as having to do with the human spirit, as opposed to material things. Here are some ways to think about it:

“Spirituality is the measure of how willing we are to allow grace—some power greater than ourselves—
to enter our lives and guide us along our way.”
-Mastin Kipp, author of Daily Love: Growing with Grace
“Spirituality is the process of living out a set of deeply held personal values,
of honoring a presence greater than ourselves.”
-Peter Block, author
“Spirituality for me is recognizing that I am connected to the energy of all creation, that I am a part of it and it is always a part of me. Whatever label or word we use to describe ‘it’ doesn’t matter. Words are completely inadequate.”
-Oprah Winfrey, media entrepreneur, philanthropist, and author

Many people view spirituality as an age-old quest for inner peace and liberation, for awakening and enlightenment. It can include a search for self-transcendence—or rising above and beyond our ego (what some people call “ego death”).

Spirituality tends to involve asking fundamental questions (e.g., Who am I? Where do I come from? What’s my place in this vast universe? Is there a higher power? What, if anything, gives life meaning?). For many, it entails a recognition of our interconnectedness, and perhaps a quest to reach a higher level of consciousness or experience a sense of oneness with all.

Spiritual routines can range from daily practices to weekly services to personal prayer or faith. They tend to evolve as we age, grow, and have different life experiences.

For some, spirituality is about faith and forgiveness, or ministry and service, or peace and joy. For others, it’s about a search for meaning and purpose, appreciation of truth and beauty, or reverence of the sacred. It can entail connecting with nature, the cosmos, or the divine. And for some people, it’s about mystery, miracles, and revelations—or deeply held aspirations for heaven or nirvana. For most, compassion and love are at the heart of it.

Paul Anderson, University of Minnesota professor emeritus, noted in a scholarly article that the word “spirit” comes from the Latin word spiritus, meaning “breath,” and is defined as “the vital principle or animating force traditionally believed to be within living beings; one’s essential nature.” The definition of the word “soul,” Anderson wrote, is comparable: “The animating and vital principle in the human being, credited with the faculties of thought, action, and emotion.”

Author and social forecaster Patricia Aburdene noted five hallmarks of spirituality: meaning or purpose, compassion, consciousness, service, and wellbeing. According to her, “The quest for spirituality is the greatest megatrend of our era.”

“We suffer when we don’t find ways to allow the concerns of the soul to manifest into our lives.”
-Rabbi Mordecai Finley


The Difference between Spirituality and Religion

Some people equate religion and spirituality, but that’s a mistake. They’re related but not the same. Here’s how the Dalai Lama described it:

“Religion I take to be concerned with faith in the claims of one faith tradition or another, an aspect of which is the acceptance of some form of heaven or nirvana. Connected with this are religious teachings or dogma, ritual prayer, and so on. Spirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit—such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony—which brings happiness to both self and others.”
-Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, in Ethics for the New Millennium

It’s been said that religion is an institution while spirituality is an experience. The way many people think about spirituality today often includes a sharper break from traditional religious institutions than in the past, and spirituality sometimes comes with an interesting blend of things (e.g., humanistic psychology and mystical traditions, or yoga and workplace wellness).

“Every religion is the product of the conceptual mind attempting to describe the mystery.”
-Ram Dass, psychologist and spiritual teacher

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The Benefits of Having a Spiritual Practice in Our Lives

Spiritual practice—and living in accordance with deeper truths and our highest values—can transform our lives by bringing us a sense of unity, interconnectedness, awe, mystery, abundance, eternity, unboundedness, lucidity, tranquility, liberation, transcendence, flow, and presence.

“The spiritual life is not a special career, involving abstraction from the world of things. It is a part of every man’s life; and until he has realized it, he is not a complete human being, has not entered into possession of all his powers.”
-Evelyn Underhill, English Anglo-Catholic writer and pacifist

A deep and lasting spiritual practice can help us realize that we’re whole regardless of the circumstances we happen to find ourselves in—and that we don’t need anything from anyone or the world to be and feel whole. A healthy spiritual practice can:

  • be a source of hope and comfort in hard times
  • provide a sense of meaning
  • give us inner peace
  • enhance our ability to cope with anxiety and stress as well as with difficult conditions or experiences
  • give us a state of expanded awareness and a more pure form of consciousness
  • lead to a clearer and more accurate understanding the nature of the world and universe as it really is, not as we’re conditioned to view it
  • give us a better sense of perspective and help us look beyond ourselves and our petty preoccupations and concerns
  • help us make sense of our life experiences and tribulations
  • help us tap into our inner strength and resilience
  • connect us with a spiritual community that provides not only solace and support but also companionship and joy
  • help us discover our purpose and core values—and build them into our daily lives
  • help us stop reacting so negatively to external events and stop being triggered by the same people and situations over and over
  • help us drop the yoke of judgment—of constantly judging ourselves and others
  • enhance our happiness and fulfillment
  • fill us with a deep and lasting joy
“…scientists have found, again and again, that those with a spiritual practice or who follow religious beliefs tend to be happier than those who don’t. Study after study has found that religious people tend to be less depressed and less anxious than nonbelievers, better able to handle the vicissitudes of life than nonbelievers. A 2015 survey by researchers at the London School of Economics and the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands found that participating in a religious organization was the only social activity associated with sustained happiness—even more than volunteering for a charity, taking educational courses, or participating in a political or community organization. It’s as if a sense of spirituality and an active, social religious practice were an effective vaccine against the virus of unhappiness.”
-Bryan Walsh, “Does Spirituality Make You Happy?” TIME, August 7, 2017


Examples of Spiritual Practices

Some people have never been exposed to spiritual practices, so they don’t know where to begin. Others may have had negative experiences with religious institutions (often involving shame or guilt) that they wish to avoid. So, it’s important to understand our options.  Here are some common spiritual practices:

  • Praying
  • Worshipping at a religious service
  • Meditating
  • Experiencing nature—even just walking and being present with the sights and sounds around us—and savoring it
  • Reading things that engage our heart and soul
  • Creating things (via art, music, writing, film, dance, etc.)
  • Being in community with others where we feel each other’s presence, engage in deep dialogue with trust and vulnerability, and avoid judging or trying to fix each other. (Author Parker Palmer notes that “inner work, though it’s a deeply personal matter, is not necessarily a private matter: inner work can be helped along by community.”)
  • Serving others and giving back
  • Engaging in spiritual contemplation (e.g., reflection on the divine)
  • Practicing yoga
  • Fasting
  • Journaling
  • Chanting
  • Practicing silence and/or solitude
  • Engaging in rituals (e.g., christening, bar mitzvah) or services (e.g., funerals)
  • Embarking on a spiritual retreat or pilgrimage

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


Spirituality and Connection

Connection and connectedness are fundamental aspects of spirituality. In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, researcher Brene Brown writes, “The heart of spirituality is connection.” To her, spirituality is “recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.”

Martin Buber, an Austrian-Israeli philosopher, once observed that “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.” “True compassion,” wrote Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön, “does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings.”

“We’re all just walking each other home.”
-Ram Dass, psychologist and spiritual teacher


Spirituality and Ego

One of the challenges with modern living is that, if we’re not careful, we can get to caught in our ego, which causes us to focus excessively on things like material possessions, image, or success—all of which lead only to fleeting pleasure for most. In this way, our ego keeps us from living from our heart and soul.

In his book, Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul, spiritual teacher Deepak Chopra distinguishes between the nature of the ego and the soul. The ego, he writes, tends to be rejecting, critical, opposing, clinging, agitated, resentful, selfish, conflicted, and judgmental. By contrast, the soul is accepting, approving, cooperating, detached, calm, forgiving, selfless, peaceful, and nonjudgmental. He notes that the ego and soul have two very different visions of fulfillment. See the table below.

The ego’s vision of fulfillment:

The soul’s vision of fulfillment:

I have everything I need to be comfortable. I am everything I need.
I am serene because bad things can’t come near me. I am secure because I have nothing to fear in myself.
Through hard work, anything can be achieved. The flow of life’s abundance brings me everything.
I measure myself by my accomplishments. I do not measure myself by any external standard.
I win much more often than I lose. Giving is more important than winning.
I have a strong self-image. I have no self-image; I am beyond images.
Because I’m attractive, I win the attention of the opposite sex. Other people are attracted to me as soul to soul.
When I find the perfect love, it will be on my terms. I can find perfect love, because I have discovered it first in myself.

A key part of spirituality is living more from our soul and less from our ego.

“When the ego dies, the soul awakes.”
-Mahatma Gandhi, Indian lawyer and transformational leader



For many people, spirituality is an essential aspect of living a good life. There are many different spiritual traditions and practices. For many of us, a disciplined spiritual practice can be powerful and transformative as we take the focus off ourselves, give thanks, stand in reverence, and come back to our true nature, wholeness, and divine source.


Reflection Questions

  1. Are you too caught up in the hustle and bustle of modern life?
  2. Do you have a spiritual practice that enriches your life?
  3. What more will you do to live from your heart and feed your soul?


Tools for You

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


Related Articles


Postscript: Inspirations on Spirituality

  • “Little by little, wean yourself. This is the gist of what I have to say. From an embryo whose nourishment comes in the blood, move to an infant drinking milk, to a child on solid food, to a searcher after wisdom, to a hunter of invisible game.” -Rumi, 13th century poet and Sufi mystic
  • “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” -Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French priest and scientist
  • “But you are not your bank account, or your ambition. You’re not the cold clay lump you leave behind when you die. You’re not your collection of walking personality disorders. You are Spirit, you are love, and even though it is hard to believe sometimes, you are free. You’re here to love, and be loved, freely.” -Anne Lamott, writer, teacher, and political activist
  • “The ultimate source of happiness is within us. Not money, not power, not status. Some of my friends are billionaires, but they are very unhappy people. Power and money fail to bring inner peace. Outward attainment will not bring real inner joyfulness. We must look inside.” -Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama
  • “One of our problems today is that we are not well acquainted with the literature of the spirit. We’re interested in the news of the day and the problems of the hour…. When you get to be older, and the concerns of the day have all been attended to, and you turn to the inner life—well, if you don’t know where it is or what it is, you’ll be sorry.” -Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
  • “Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth, or power. Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be at least a little bit different for our having passed through it.” -Harold Kushner, rabbi, author, and lecturer
  • “As we become more obsessed with succeeding… we lose touch with our souls and disappear into our roles.” -Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness
  • “Everyone has a calling, which is the small, unsettling voice from deep within our souls, an inner urge, which hounds us to live out our purpose in a certain way. A calling is a concern of the spirit. Since a calling implies that someone calls, my belief is that the called is God.” -Dave Wondra, executive coach
  • “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” -Matthew 6:19-20
  • “God takes our willingness and leads us mysteriously down the path where our deepest longings will finally be met in relationship with him and others.” -John Burke, founder and lead pastor of Gateway Church
  • “The deepest desire of our hearts is for union with God. God created us for union with himself: This is the original purpose of our lives.” -Brennan Manning, author and priest
  • “We are already one. But we imagine that we are not. We have to recover our original unity.” -Thomas Merton, American Trappist monk, theologian, mystic, and social activist
  • “Fulfillment is not a matter of self-improvement. It involves a shift away from the ego’s agenda, turning from externals to the inner world. The soul holds out a kind of happiness that isn’t dependent on whether conditions outside are good or bad.” -Deepak Chopra, spiritual teacher and author
  • “…our purpose for being alive is fulfilled by moving more and more deeply into our spiritual hearts and experiencing the presence of love.” -H. Ronald Hulnick and Mary R. Hulnick, Loyalty to Your Soul
  • “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” -Romans 12:2, King James version
  • “My religion consists of a humble admiration for the Superior Spirit who reveals Himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds….” / “There has to be something behind things, something deeply hidden.” -Albert Einstein, German-born theoretical physicist
  • “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will make you an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass, God is waiting.” -Warner Heisenberg, German theoretical physicist
  • “The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshiped in the cathedral or the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate, and beautiful.” -Francis Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief
  • “Amidst all the mysteries by which we are surrounded, nothing is more certain than that we are in the presence of an Infinite and Eternal Energy from which all things proceed.” -Herbert Spencer, English philosopher and psychologist
  • “Invoked or not invoked, God is present.” Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit. (Latin inscription over the entrance to Carl Jung’s home in Switzerland)
  • “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.” -Dag Hammarskjöld, Swedish diplomat
  • “And then the knowledge comes to me that I have space within me for a second, timeless, larger life.” -Rainer Maria Rilke, Austrian poet and novelist
  • “Man’s aim in life is not to add to his material possessions, but his predominant calling is to come nearer his Maker.” -Mahatma Gandhi, Indian lawyer and transformational leader
  • “…the kingdom of God is within you.” -Jesus Christ to his disciples in Luke 17:21
  • “…spiritual truth is diametrically opposed to the values of our contemporary culture and the way it conditions people to behave…. The collective disease of humanity is that people are so engrossed in what happens, so hypnotized by the world of fluctuating forms, so absorbed in the content of their lives, they have forgotten the essence, that which is beyond content, beyond form, beyond thought. They are so consumed by time that they have forgotten eternity, which is their origin, their home, their destiny.” -Eckhart Tolle, spiritual teacher and author
  • “Human history is the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.” -C.S. Lewis, British scholar, writer, and lay theologian
  • “…underneath the level of physical appearances and separate forms, you are one with all that is.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” -St. Catherine of Alexandria, princess, scholar, and Christian saint
  • “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” -Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French priest and scientist

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Importance of Service in Living a Good Life

These days, it’s easy to become self-involved. So much is coming at us so quickly. We live in a world of speed and busyness in an age of social media, celebrities, and influencers.

These cultural influences are strong, pulling our egos toward a certain way of living that can become superficial and materialistic. We can be obsessed with climbing professionally, with chasing success. And we can take all that we have for granted, as we’re so focused on chasing more.

This may keep us occupied (if not overloaded), but it’s not a recipe for good living. In all the chase, with all its focus on success, we can miss out on one of the great gifts and joys of life: serving.

Service is a remarkable thing because it allows us to help others while also helping ourselves.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


The Benefits of Serving Others

There are many benefits of serving and helping others, according to the research. Here are some of the main ones:

Helping others feels good. Researchers call it a “warm glow.” Even small acts of kindness can bring emotional rewards to the helper. (1)

“I don’t think there’s anything as wonderful in life as being able to help someone else.”
-Betty Ford, activist, former U.S. first lady, and founder, Betty Ford Center

Service is a powerful contributor to our happiness, fulfillment, and overall life satisfaction. According to a large and growing body of research, helping others is often associated with and can lead to higher levels of happiness. Volunteering leads to a boost in our mental health and happiness, especially among people who volunteer more often (e.g., at least once a month), and people who volunteered in the last year were more satisfied with their lives.

Service can help our life and work be more meaningful. And it can help us discover our purpose and core values.

Serving others can help us discover who we are. It’s an important part of what I call “discover mode”: learning about who we are (including our core values, strengths, passions, and aspirations) and what we can do in the world.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
-Mahatma Gandhi, Indian lawyer and transformational leader

Helping others can help us transcend our egos. When we’re helping others, it’s hard to remain preoccupied with our own petty dramas.

Serving people can help us feel more grateful for what we have. We may begin to glimpse how fortunate or privileged we’ve been. It may give us a sharper perspective.

Serving others can be a powerful source of motivation. If we take the time to discover our core values and excavate our convictions, we’ll find that we long to contribute to some people, groups, or causes. We have a lot of energy to activate if we’ll only get started on it.

Serving other people with commitment and skill can help boost our confidence. As we help and have impact, we develop a greater belief in our capacities and conviction that we can add even more value.

Helping others builds our character. It may help us develop generosity, humility, empathy, trustworthiness, responsibility, loyalty, and even moral excellence.

Helping people can help us heal from deep wounds and traumatic experiences. There’s an intriguing expression: “When you feel sad, serve.” Too often, we get lost in our own wallowing and don’t see how readily we could change the dynamic if we’d only reach out and try to help someone else.

“…if you’re hurting, you need to help somebody ease their hurt. If you’re in pain, help somebody else’s pain. And when you’re in a mess, you get yourself out of the mess helping somebody out of theirs. And in the process, you get to become a member of what I call the greatest fellowship of all, the sorority of compassion and the fraternity of service.”
-Oprah Winfrey, media entrepreneur, philanthropist, and author

Serving people can bring us out of isolation and back into relationship and a sense of belonging in community. This could include spiritual communities that promote service or a focus on something larger than the self.

Serving others can help us create new or stronger friendships. We can befriend the people we’re serving or the people we’re serving alongside. These can become some of the most important relationships in our lives.

Helping others can warm up our cold hearts. Our hearts sometimes take a beating in today’s world. Our heart may be asleep, closed, or cold from pain, suffering, or isolation. Enter the warm glow of serving others.

Service can help us redeem some of the wrongs we’ve done and some of the pain we’ve inflicted on others. Let’s face it: we’ve all made mistakes and hurt people, including our loved ones. Too often, those are the ones we’ve hurt the most. Service can be an agent of redemption in our lives.

Helping others can have positive effects on our own health. According to the research, it can lead to lower stress and inflammation, reduced pain, healthier hearts, and even protection against anxiety, burnout, and depression.

Service can be inspiring and contagious. When people see someone serving others, it summons their better angels and makes them want to join in or follow suit. As this phenomenon spreads, it can help uplift communities.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


How to Go About Serving Others

Service doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, it’s often best when we keep it simple, heart to heart. Still, here are a few tips for going about it:

Developing self-awareness can be a great place to start. If we know our strengths, we can look for ways to use them when serving others, giving us a double win because it feels good to use our strengths on something important. The same holds true for our purpose, values, and passions.

If we pause to consider how we’re uniquely or powerfully qualified or positioned to help some people, groups, organizations, or causes—based on our knowledge, skills, experiences, or even our wounds—it can help us target our service efforts more effectively.

When we take time to discover what people, groups, or causes we feel called to serve, it can elevate our motivation and make it more likely we’ll stick with it.


Pervasive Service

In our book, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives, Christopher Gergen and I wrote about something that intentional people who integrate their purpose and passions do well: “pervasive service,” which is “an ethic of contribution as a defining feature of our lives.”

Can we build service into our daily habits? Can we creatively find ways to serve—in ways big and small—our spouse or partner, family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, workplace, and community? What if we walked around with our helping antenna up, scanning for ways to respond to needs around us?

Service and giving shouldn’t be relegated to an occasional good deed—or to an annual tax write-off.  What if we looked to bring them into each of our days—thus adding up to a lifetime of contribution? Viewed this way, service can become an organizing principle of our lives, a habit that permeates our personal lives and work and community endeavors.

Ideally, our acts of service evolve into deeper commitments that ripen us and enhance our inner life.

“There are occasions and opportunities for service that will vary throughout anyone’s life. The initial gate is that you understand that that’s a piece of being a full person. It’s a matter of saying yes to the opportunity when it appropriately appears. Every day is a preparation for serving something.”
-Buie Seawell, attorney and professor, University of Denver

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.


Some Cautions about Service

As with many things in life, there are some important nuances and even potential traps here.

First, let’s not make this about giving and expecting something in return. Not everything has to be transactional or come with an expectation or obligation. That just cheapens it.

Second, serving others doesn’t make us better than them. We all have dignity and potential. And we all have ups and downs and our unique context and challenges.

Third, there’s an ego risk that can come with serving. Let’s not let serving morph into a savior syndrome, and let’s not become self-righteous and smug about it.

Fourth, let’s watch out for the trap of being too focused on others—and giving ourselves away in the process. As the flight attendants wisely advise, let’s put on our own oxygen masks first. (See my article, “Are You Focusing Too Much on Others’ Needs.”)

“If takers are selfish and failed givers are selfless, successful givers are otherish: they care about benefiting others, but they also have ambitious goals for advancing their own interests…. Selfless giving, in the absence of self-preservation instincts, easily becomes overwhelming. Being otherish means being willing to give more than you receive, but still keeping your own interests in sight, using them as a guide for choosing when, where, how, and to whom you give.”
-Adam Grant, Give and Take



Service, while remarkable in its own ways and often uplifting, as we’ve seen, doesn’t have to be grandiose and world-changing. Our little acts of contribution can make a real difference day to day and add up over time to big sums.

So, yes, let’s dedicate ourselves to worthy and mighty causes, if we can. Let’s follow in the footsteps of great servants through the ages, if we can. But let’s also focus on what’s right in front of us: Raising our kids as best we can. Holding the door open for someone. Being kind to people we encounter on the street. Thanking the barista with a kind word and a smile. Stopping to see if someone needs help. Giving someone a ride. Checking in on a friend or colleague.

We’re likely to regret it if we don’t build service into our lives. If we do serve and serve often, it’s a beautiful gift both to the world and ourselves—and a way for us to honor the lives we’ve been given.


Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent are you helping and serving?
  2. What more could you do?
  3. What will you start with, right now?


Tools for You

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


Related Articles


Related Books

  • Tom Rath, Life’s Great Question: Discover How You Contribute to the World
  • Billy Shore, The Cathedral Within: Transforming Your Life by Giving Something Back
  • Adam Grant, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success
  • Stephen Trzeciak and Anthony Mazzarelli, Wonder Drug: 7 Scientifically Proven Ways that Serving Others Is the Best Medicine for Yourself


Postscript: Inspirations on Serving Others

  • “Life’s most urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • “It is high time the ideal of success should be replaced with the ideal of service.” -Albert Einstein, German-born theoretical physicist
  • “Service is the very purpose of life. It is the rent we pay for living on the planet.” -Marian Wright Edelman, activist for civil rights and children’s rights
  • “…taking care of others, helping others, ultimately is the way to discover your own joy and to have a happy life.” -Dalai Lama
  • “Not everybody can be famous. But everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato or Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • “…the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” -Albert Schweitzer, humanitarian, philosopher, and physician
  • “…when you choose the paradigm of service, looking at life through that paradigm, it turns everything you do from a job into a gift.” -Oprah Winfrey, media entrepreneur, philanthropist, and author
  • “A growing body of evidence suggests that the single greatest driver of both achievement and wellbeing is understanding how your daily efforts enhance the lives of others.” -Tom Rath, Life’s Great Question
  • “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” -John F. Kennedy, former U.S. president
  • “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted, and behold, service was joy.” -Rabindranath Tagore, Indian poet, writer, and social reformer
  • “Every now and then I think about my own death, and I think about my own funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long…. I’d like for somebody to say some day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others…. I just want to leave a committed life behind.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • “The old… should, it seems, have their physical labors reduced; their mental activities should be actually increased. They should endeavor, too, by means of their counsel and practical wisdom to be of as much service as possible to their friends and to the young, and above all to the state.” -Cicero, De Officiis

(1) Serving others is a form of what researchers call “prosocial behavior” (including giving money to charity, volunteering, sharing food, donating blood or an organ, or otherwise voluntarily helping others). Researchers have discovered that people derive pleasure from helping others. Lara B. Aknin and Ashley V. Whillans found that it matters how people go about helping. Looking at the evidence on helping using self-determination theory, Aknin and Whillans discovered that prosocial behavior is more likely to lead to happiness when people have autonomy and choice over who and how they help, when they see the impacts of their help, and when they have opportunities to connect with people while helping. (Source: Lara B. Aknin and Ashley V. Whillans, “Helping and Happiness: A Review and Guide for Public Policy,” Social Issues and Policy Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, 2021)

“Human beings are exceptionally prosocial.
Not only do we go out of our way to help other people, but we often feel good when we do.”
-Lara B. Aknin and Ashley V. Whillans

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!


Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Journaling: Benefits and Best Practices

We humans have been journaling, writing diaries, or otherwise writing down our thoughts, feelings, and experiences for centuries. It’s a practice that dates back to the ancients. And it’s a tool that’s been used by pilgrims, explorers, soldiers, inventors, entrepreneurs, and artists.

People journal for different reasons. Some people journal to engage in deeper reflection, while others do it to help manage stress or process difficult experiences. Some journal as a way to reinforce their strengths or accomplishments; others focus on gratitude. Many therapists, counselors, and coaches recommend journaling, and many teachers assign it in schools.

Those who journal are in excellent company. People known to have engaged in some form of journaling include: John Quincy Adams, Marcus Aurelius, Lewis Carroll, Winston Churchill, Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, Joan Didion, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Anne Frank, Benjamin Franklin, Arianna Huffington, Thomas Jefferson, Franz Kafka, Frida Kahlo, Martina Navratilova, Anais Nin, Sylvia Plath, Seneca, Susan Sontag, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Queen Victoria, Leonardo da Vinci, George Washington, Oscar Wilde, Oprah Winfrey, and Virginia Woolf.

“I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone,
and I hope you’ll be a great source of comfort and support.”
-Anne Frank’s first entry in her journal, 13th birthday, June 12, 1942
Anne Frank writing at her desk at school, 1940

Different Types of Journaling

There are different types of journaling. One common form is “expressive writing.” It involves writing continuously about an issue in our lives, including our deepest thoughts and feelings. According to James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth, authors of Opening Up by Writing It Down, it can include different variations, including writing about a problem we’re facing, journaling about our worries and concerns, or doing a word association around a certain word (e.g., “stress”).

Another common form is “gratitude journaling”: writing about positive experiences that we’re thankful for.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.


The Benefits of Journaling

Hundreds of studies over several decades have documented an impressive array of benefits deriving from journaling. For example, it can help us:

  • discern the lessons and patterns of our experiences
  • understand our experiences and feelings in new ways
  • get a clearer sense of our progress over time
  • remember the good things we experience, which can otherwise be easy to forget
  • become more self-aware
  • boost our confidence
  • remain more mindful of our thoughts and feelings

Journaling also comes with a large number of mental and physical health benefits. For example, it can help us:

  • cope with stressful events
  • reduce anxiety
  • regulate our emotions and ease our distress when we’re struggling with difficult feelings
  • reduce the frequency of intrusive thoughts
  • improve our mood
  • enhance our psychological wellbeing
  • make sense of our personal history, of the events and experiences that have shaped us (1)
  • cultivate a greater sense of purpose and meaning
  • have a lower risk of depression

According to the research, journaling is associated with lowered blood pressure, better sleep, and fewer stress-related doctor visits and less time spent in the hospital. It’s also associated with improved function of our immune system, lungs, liver, and memory as well as reduced symptoms of chronic diseases. In addition, it can help with recovery from traumatic events, in part because it allows us to process our experiences and emotions.

Journaling can also benefit our brain and cognitive capacity.

“The practice of writing can enhance the brain’s intake, processing, retaining, and retrieving of information… it promotes the brain’s attentive focus … boosts long-term memory, illuminates patterns, gives the brain time for reflection, and when well-guided, is a source of conceptual development and stimulus of the brain’s highest cognition.”
Judy Willis, board-certified neurologist and teacher

At work, journaling is associated with less work absenteeism and less time out of work following job loss. And at school, it’s associated with higher grades. Journaling can help us address many of the common traps of living, including overthinking, self-doubt, negative self-talk, drifting, settling, and more.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


Journaling is not only inexpensive and straightforward to engage in but it also avoids the need for having people there to listen every time we want to get something off our chest. The pages are always there for us, and they never interrupt or misunderstand. As Anne Frank once wrote, “Paper has more patience than people.”

Benefits come not only from journaling itself but also from going back and reviewing what we’ve written some time later. This review process can help us recapture forgotten stories or experiences and see patterns.

Note that there can be downsides of journaling for some people—or of journaling in certain ways. For example, it’s not always a pleasant experience, since it sometimes involves dredging up painful feelings.


How to Journal: Best Practices

When it comes to how we should journal, there’s of course no single formula. Different people will approach journaling in different ways. The key is to find what works for us. Still, here are some tips:

Remember that journaling is for us and us alone, not for an audience. If we’re self-conscious as we write or concerned about judgment from others, it can reduce or eliminate the value of journaling.

Start small. For many, it’s best to begin with only a few minutes on a manageable topic (e.g., a recounting of the day or a single incident).

Try journaling in different ways. Try writing in a bound journal or spiral notebook. Or try using a digital writing app or voice recording app. (Note, though, that writing by hand comes with real benefits that can easily outweigh the slight loss of speed compared to typing or speaking.) Experiment and see what works.

Try different frequencies. There’s a debate about the ideal frequency of journaling. Some people swear by the practice of daily journaling, in part because it builds a healthy habit, while others warn against the monotony that can come from having a regular cadence. In the end, we should find out what works for us and do that.

Find a quiet and peaceful space without interruptions and distractions. Going deep into our thoughts and feelings requires focus and concentration.

Choose a time of day that works best—the time when our thoughts and reflections flow most naturally. Many people swear by morning journaling. Others prefer to wait until they feel inspired or troubled.

Be sure to include both feelings and thoughts. This helps us avoid unhealthy rumination and makes it more likely that we’ll see patterns and themes. Start with expressing feelings first and then move on to thoughts and thinking patterns.

Be forthright in expressing exactly how we feel without any editing or filtering.

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”
-William Wordsworth, English Romantic poet

Bear in mind that journaling may bring up painful feelings or some anxiety, and that’s okay. Feel free to take a break and come back to it later. Keep in mind the strong potential for long-term benefits if we stick with it.

“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”
Natalie Goldberg, writer

Don’t get caught up in written rumination—in rehashing difficult things over and over. That can actually be counterproductive.

“One of the interesting problems of writing too much, especially if you’re going through a difficult a time, is that writing becomes more like rumination and that’s the last thing in the world you need.”
-Dr. James Pennebaker, social psychologist

Feel free to draw in the journal. We don’t have to limit ourselves only to text. But researchers advise against drawing only, as it can lead to worse moods.

Try journaling prompts, especially if we’re not sure where to begin. Examples: things that bring us joy, what we’re feeling or noticing right now, people who or places that make us feel the happiest, dreams we have about the future, or what deserves our best attention now.

“…one thing journaling has taught me is that the mind is a surprising place, and you often don’t know what it may be hiding until you start knocking around in there. In other words: Writing in your journal
is the only way to find out what you should be writing about.”
Hayley Phelan, “What’s All This About Journaling?” New York Times, October 25, 2018

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


Journaling for Leaders

Many leaders have noted how journaling has helped them become a better leader and grow as a person. These days, many leaders are time-starved and deluged by inputs and information, so having a simple process that facilitates thinking, reflection, and analysis can be powerful.

Leaders can use journaling to process difficult events, think through important decisions, prepare themselves for upcoming challenges, vent their frustrations, or document their journey and see progress and patterns. And they can use it to reconnect with their inner voice when they’re flooded with outside inputs.

Journaling can help leaders be more mindful and present with their colleagues—and empathetic toward their struggles. It can also help them make better decisions and unearth important insights about vexing situations, including innovative ideas that may otherwise have been lost. Importantly, journaling can serve as a pressure valve that allows leaders to process difficult emotions and release some of the stress and pressure associated with the job. Finally, it can help steel them for tough battles ahead.

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
-Anne Frank


Journaling for Creativity and Innovation

British entrepreneur Richard Branson keeps notebooks full of questions as part of his creative process. Journals can be a great tool for entrepreneurs to capture their ideas about new products and services to launch, based on observing customer problems and spotting market gaps.

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, advocates a distinct form of journaling as a way to recover our creativity and reconnect with our own inner spiritual guide. With her “morning pages,” as she calls them, she advocates writing three pages of strictly stream-of-consciousness, longhand writing every morning—simply writing down whatever comes to mind, jumping from topic to topic, no matter how banal or bizarre—until the three pages are filled. She explains:

“Nothing is too petty, too silly, too stupid, or too weird to be included… Nobody is allowed to read your morning pages except you…. Morning pages are nonnegotiable. Never skip or skimp on morning pages. Your mood doesn’t matter…. If you can’t think of anything to write, then write, ‘I can’t think of anything to write.’”



With our busy lives and frenetic work schedules, journaling can be a great way to slow down and reflect, reawakening a rich inner life. There’s a reason so many different types of people have been doing it through the ages.

“How noble and good everyone could be if, at the end of each day, they were to review their own behavior and weigh up the rights and wrongs. They would automatically try to do better at the start of each new day and, after a while, would certainly accomplish a great deal. Everyone is welcome to this prescription; it costs nothing and is definitely useful.”
-Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl


Reflection Questions

  1. Are you using journaling as a practice for personal development, emotional expression, gratitude, creativity, or leadership?
  2. If you’ve tried journaling before but not kept up with it, will you give it another try using some of the tips above?


Tools for You

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


Related Articles


Postscript: Inspirations on Journaling

  • “Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up into your brain.” -Jack London, novelist, journalist, and activist
  • “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” -Louis L’Amour, American novelist and short story writer
  • “Write hard and clear about what hurts.” -Ernest Hemingway, American novelist, short-story writer, and journalist
  • “Writing is medicine. It is an appropriate antidote to injury. It is an appropriate companion for any difficult change.” -Julia Cameron, American teacher, author, and artist
  • “Listen. The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you, the better you will hear what is sounding outside.” -Dag Hammarskjöld, Swedish economist and diplomat


Resources on Journaling

  • Nancy J. Adler, Leadership Insight Journal
  • Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity
  • Hal Elrod, The Miracle Morning Journal
  • Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl
  • Ryan Holiday, The Daily Stoic Journal
  • James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth, Opening Up by Writing It Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain
  • Five Minute Journal (app)


Appendix: Why Does Journaling Work?

Based on a large body of research over time, we know that journaling comes with many benefits. It’s less clear, though, why that’s the case. Here are some of the most likely reasons why it’s so beneficial for so many. Journaling:

  • helps us get distance from painful or confusing experiences, seeing them in a fresh light without the pressures of the moment
  • can facilitate emotional release of unconscious conflicts
  • helps us avoid the problem of stuffing our emotions down (it’s healthy to acknowledge, express, and label our feelings about difficult events)
  • facilitates the process of mentally organizing our experiences, allowing us to examine root causes and formulate a coherent story
  • helps us uncover new insights about ourselves and the way we’re suffering or experiencing the world
  • can lower our emotional inhibition
  • gives us a heightened sense of control over our emotions and our lives
  • involves a powerful combination of both recording and processing, of both remembering and reflecting
  • can provide a sense of emotional catharsis

(1) Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams notes the importance of “narrative identity,” an internalized story we create about ourselves. It helps us form a coherent story of our lives, which in turn can help us view our lives more holistically and positively.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!


Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Why We Need Meditation and Mindfulness Now More than Ever

meditation illustration

With the way we’re living in the world today, many of us struggle with stress, anxiety, and other harmful mental states. Many people struggle with worrying, overthinking, or ruminating. Some struggle with “monkey mind,” with thoughts swinging wildly in different directions. In some cases, we’re too frazzled to have a rich inner life, and our hearts are heavy with the burdens of the day and concerns of the world.

Enter meditation.

With meditation, we can train our minds to become more present, focused, and still. We can train our attention and awareness, helping us feel calm and clear. Meditation is a means of quieting and focusing our mind.

Though we can stop there if we wish, focusing only on the psychological benefits, we’d be missing a big part of the point—and the other potential benefits. As a time-honored practice in several religious traditions, with roots in the teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions, meditation is a contemplative practice intended to help us achieve greater spiritual insight. It can awaken our compassion and help us feel more connected to others, potentially including all beings, God, and the universe. And for some, it can lead to a more mindful and enlightened state of awareness and existence.

That leads us to the deeper territory of mindfulness. So, what is mindfulness, and how does it relate to meditation?



According to Jason Marsh of the Greater Good Science Center, “Mindfulness describes a moment-to-moment awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. It’s a state of being attuned to what’s going on in your body and in the surrounding environment—being in the present moment without thinking about the future or what happened in the past.” Quite simply, we can think of it in terms of just three words:

Be here now.”
-Ram Dass, psychologist and spiritual teacher

When we’re mindful, we’re fully aware of the present moment while calmly noticing and accepting our thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in or judging them. Mindfulness is both a state and a practice. When we’re practicing it, we deliberately refocus our attention on experiencing the present moment, or what spiritual teacher Eckart Tolle calls “the now.”

Mindfulness has seen a surge of interest in recent years—from mindfulness in the workplace (including at companies including Aetna, Alphabet, BlackRock, Facebook, Ford, General Mills, Meta, Pixar, and more) and mindful eating to the rapid spread of mindfulness-based stress reduction programs at medical schools, hospitals, and other institutions around the world.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


The Link between Meditation and Mindfulness

Though some people use the terms “meditation” and “mindfulness” interchangeably, that’s a mistake. They’re related but not the same.

Meditation is a practice that can lead to a state of mindfulness, and mindfulness meditation is one of several forms of meditation. (See below for examples of different types of meditation.)


The Benefits of Meditation

University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson has conducted experiments on the effects of meditation on the brain. His results suggest that meditation may lead to changes in the physical structure of the brain regions associated with attention, fear, anger, compassion, anxiety, and depression. According to Jason Marsh of the Greater Good Science Center, brain imaging studies reveal that a half-hour of daily mindfulness meditation can increase the density of gray matter in the parts of the brains associated with memory and empathy.

According to researchers, meditation has many beneficial physical effects, including potential improvements in:

  • blood pressure
  • metabolism
  • immune response
  • sleep
  • longevity
  • alleviation of pain (including chronic pain)

Researchers also point to many mental and emotional benefits. For example, meditation, when done well over time, can:

  • improve brain activity and cognitive function (including mitigation of cognitive decline)
  • enhance attention, focus, and concentration
  • improve our mood and increase positive emotions that help provide resilience against negative emotions
  • help us cultivate self-awareness
  • promote empathy and compassion
  • decrease our anxiety and emotional reactivity
  • help us manage and reduce worrying and rumination
  • help improve performance on specific tasks (e.g., ones that require attention and accuracy)
  • help us manage our cravings (e.g., if we struggle with alcohol or overeating)
  • help us overcome burnout
  • help reduce symptoms of depression

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.


Different Types of Meditation

With its long history through the ages and its practice in different parts of the world, it’s not surprising that there are many different ways to practice meditation. Here are several different types of meditation:

Mindfulness meditation. We observe our thoughts nonjudgmentally without reacting to them, acknowledge them, and then let them go. It can also include deep breathing and bringing our attention to our mind and body. Many people consider focused attention meditation and open monitoring meditation as branches of mindfulness meditation.

Body scan meditation. We direct our attention to sensations happening in our body. We can mentally scan over different regions of our body, from head to toe.

Loving kindness meditation (also known as metta meditation). We silently repeat in our mind phrases of benevolence or good wishes directed at ourselves and people we love—and perhaps other people we don’t know or even rivals, animals, and/or the world or universe.

Transcendental meditation. We use a silent mantra repeated in our mind for a certain period of time or turn our attention within and end up with simple being, perhaps leading to what’s called “pure awareness” or “transcendental being.”

Death meditation (maranasati). We meditate on the fact that death can strike at any time. The idea is that being mindful of death can help us live well. According to the Buddha, “of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.”


Mindfulness Practices

Beyond meditation itself, there are also other things we can do to help make us more mindful. Here are several:

Deep breathing practices. During deep breathing practices (also included in many different types of meditation), we can place our attention on our breath (e.g., we can focus on the top of our head when we breathe in and our diaphragm when we breathe out). This can include exercises like box breathing, in which we breathe in while slowly counting to four, hold our breath for four seconds, slowly exhale for four seconds, and then hold our breath again. (Each of these four steps forms one side of an imaginary box.)

Being aware of your breath forces you into the present moment—the key to all inner transformation.”
-Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth

Engage in everyday activities mindfully. When we’re doing something—anything—we can place our attention on what we’re doing and only that. For example, we can focus on the taste, texture, and smell of the food we’re eating, or on the sensations and smells of the dishes we’re washing.

Reduce distractions. It seems like the modern world is designed to agitate our monkey mind with a barrage of inputs and distractions. Put our smartphones away (out of sight) and turn off notifications. The goal here is breaking our addiction to numbing and distraction so we can be more mindful about what we’re doing and experiencing.

Play the “game of fives.” Notice five things in our immediate vicinity that we see, hear, or smell. Then, fully experience them. It may help to imagine that it’s the first time we’ve ever experienced that thing. When we do this, all our attention moves to what we’re noticing in the now. (1)

Find sanctuary. Find or create places or practices of peace that reconnect us with our heart—and build them into the flow of our lives. (See our article, “Renewing Yourself Amidst the Chaos.”)

Engage in prayer, worship, or spiritual contemplation. By doing so, we can rise above the immediate concerns of our busy days and tap into something larger than ourselves with reverence, gratitude, awe, and wonder.


Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


Related Articles



  • Greater Good Science Center’s guide to mindfulness practices
  • UCLA Health guided meditations
  • Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation
  • Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness
  • Ellen Langer, Mindfulness
  • Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment
  • Calm app


Postscript: Inspirations on Meditation and Mindfulness

  • “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” -John Milton, Paradise Lost
  • “By the practice of meditation, you will find that you are carrying within your heart a portable paradise.” -Paramahansa Yogananda, Indian Hindu monk, yogi, and guru
  • “Learn to watch your drama unfold while at the same time knowing you are more than your drama.” -Ram Dass, spiritual teacher, psychologist, and writer
  • “As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are. Otherwise, you will miss most of your life.” -Jack Kornfield, American Buddhist monk, teacher, and writer
  • “You can learn more in an hour of silence than you can in a year from books.” -Matthew Kelly, The Rhythm of Life
  • “What your future holds for you depends on your state of consciousness now.” -Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
  • “Regardless of how we get there, either through meditation or more directly by paying attention to novelty and questioning assumptions, to be mindful is to be in the present, noticing all the wonders that we didn’t realize were right in front of us.” -Ellen Langer, Mindfulness

(1) A similar approach is the “54321 grounding method,” in which we take deep breaths and become aware of our surroundings and then look for five things we can see, four things we can touch, three things we can hear, two things we can smell, and one thing we can taste.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!


Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

What Reflecting on Death Can Teach Us about Living

Death. We have a tendency to avoid thinking about it, talking about it, and planning for it.

For many, death is their greatest fear. So much left behind. So many mysteries.

It doesn’t help that so many of us are cut off from nature in the modern developed world. We have so many amenities and conveniences and so much sheltering that we rarely encounter the natural phenomenon of death all around us, from the animal and plant kingdoms to the birth and death of galaxies and stars.

Because of our anxieties and fears, we revert to avoidance and denial. It can be a tough and painful topic, especially if we’ve lost those close to us or faced grave illnesses ourselves or among loved ones. Conceptually, we know death is inevitable. But that doesn’t make it easier to face.


Memento Mori

Enter “memento mori” (Latin for “remember that you will die”), an ancient practice of reflecting on our mortality to help us live better. The concept of memento mori has been a recurring theme in various cultures, civilizations, and religions throughout human history. (See the Appendix for a brief history of this concept from civilizations around the world.)

In ancient Rome, acknowledging death as an inescapable reality of human existence was seen as a means of promoting humility and wisdom. The Stoics of ancient Greece and Rome encouraged people to contemplate their mortality, because they believed that doing so would lead to a more virtuous and meaningful life.

This isn’t only a curious (if morbid) inheritance from the ancients. It’s also an intriguing and important finding from modern science—and a deep conviction of those who have had brushes with mortality. Case in point:

A review of 18 studies suggests that the prospect of death leads to greater appreciation of life, more rapid formulation of values, more thought about the meaning of life, and stronger social connections. As I have learned from the experience, when you consider how short life can be, you create more meaning in the world.”
-Tom Rath, Life’s Great Question

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The Benefits of Reflecting on Our Mortality

Though reflecting on our mortality can be uncomfortable and even painful, it also comes with a slew of potential benefits. Here are the main ones:

Trap Avoidance. Reflecting on death helps us cut through many of the most common traps of living, including avoidance, complacency, conformity, disconnection, drifting, fear, indecision, materialism, postponing, and settling.

It is the denial of death that is partially responsible for people living empty, purposeless lives; for when you live as if you’ll live forever, it becomes too easy to postpone the things you know that you must do.
-Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Swiss-American psychiatrist

Perspective. In a sense, death is the ultimate purveyor of perspective. It helps us see trivial things for what they are—and face up to the fact that much of what we worry about and consume ourselves with isn’t so important after all. Reflecting on death can help us stop fretting about things that are outside our control. And memento mori also reveals how “tempus fugit” (“time flies”)—how precious moments and chapters of our lives have come and gone like the current in a river.

Clarity and Focus. The thought of death makes us, in the words of author and educator Parker Palmer, “fierce with reality.” It can help us see what’s most important in our lives with much greater clarity. And it serves as a powerful focusing agent for us.

The confronting of death gives the most positive reality to life itself. It makes the individual existence real, absolute, and concrete. Death is the one fact of my life which is not relative but absolute and my awareness of this gives my existence and what I do about each hour an absolute quality.
-Rollo May, existential psychologist

Prioritization. In the face of death, we’re able to see what’s truly important and what’s not—and then act accordingly. For example, if we’re preoccupied with material accumulation, we may be forced to reconsider when we pause to recall that “You can’t take it with you,” as the saying goes.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.”
-Steve Jobs, entrepreneur

Inspiration and Motivation. Though some assume that pondering death may be depressing or even debilitating, it can actually be quite the opposite. Recalling that we won’t live forever can light a fire under us and get us moving and taking action on the things that matter most.

There’s something coming for all of us. It’s called death. Rather than fearing it, it can become one of our greatest counselors. So, if this was the last week of your life, what would you cherish most? How would you live? How would you love? What truth would you tell today?
-Tony Robbins, author, entrepreneur, and philanthropist

Courage. The perspective of mortality noted above, with its accompanying clarity and motivation, can fill our hearts with courage to start facing our fears and stop them from inhibiting our progress and development.

Appreciation. Reflecting on the inevitability of our death can also help us snap out of the trance of taking the beauty and wonder of life and the universe for granted. It’s easy to put our heads down and focus on what’s in front of us, but memento mori can help us tune back into the astonishing beauty and majesty of life. It can help us come back to savoring simple pleasures and being thankful for the people and experiences in our lives. And come back to peace and joy.

…it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Lutheran pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi dissident

Mindfulness. In our daily lives, it’s easy to descend into anxiety, stress, and distraction. There are a lot of inputs coming at us, so it’s harder than ever to remain in the present moment with ease, peace, and equanimity. Remaining cognizant of our mortality can help us remain mindful: fully present, calmly aware and accepting of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive to what’s happening around us.

Intentionality and Intentional Living. One of the most powerful benefits of maintaining awareness of our mortality is how it can help us craft our life and work intentionally. No more blind following of others; no more abdication of our quality of life to our overly demanding and underlying giving workplace. The end of passive acceptance and surrender. Time to wake up, take our life back, and design it according to our purpose and values—and with input from our heart, not just our head. In this sense, memento mori leads right into that other famous Latin expression, “carpe diem” (“seize the day”).

Every day, think as you wake up, ‘I am fortunate to be alive.
I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it

-Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama

Forgiveness. Reflecting on our coming death can also help us do one of the things we find most difficult: forgive. Such intentional release of resentment and anger can lessen the pain we feel from old wounds, while potentially also releasing others from a yoke. It may lead to greater understanding, empathy, or compassion. Importantly, it doesn’t have to mean forgetting or excusing, or reconciling. But it does mean greater peace—and getting in with our life instead of wasting precious time looking back.

Forgiveness is not the misguided act of condoning irresponsible, hurtful behavior. Nor is it a
superficial turning of the other cheek that leaves us feeling victimized and martyred. Rather it is
the finishing of old business that allows us to experience the present,
free of contamination
from the past.
-Dr. Joan Borysenko, Fire in the Soul: A New Psychology of Spiritual Optimism

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How It Works: Practical Approaches for Memento Mori

It’s one thing to acknowledge all the benefits of remaining mindful of our mortality. It’s another thing altogether to get beyond the avoidance, awkwardness, and pain, and actually bring this practice into our lives. So, how to go about it? Here are some suggestions:

Reading. Since this is so foreign to our modern sensibilities, one of the best ways to access the power of memento mori is through reading, including some of the classics and religious or spiritual readings. That can help us dial into this tradition and understand its value. (See below for a list of related books.)

Reminders and mementos. Since our tendency is to avoid thinking about death, it helps to have visual or tactile reminders in our everyday lives. Personally, I like using a memento like a necklace or a medallion that I can wear or carry around, but we can also use Post-It notes on our desk or mirror. Anything that keeps this though present in our lives.

Meditation and prayer. Prayer can not only connect us with a higher power but also help us tune into the finitude of life within the larger context of the divine. And meditation can do the same. (See the section below on Buddhist meditation on death, maranasati.)

Discussions. If we’re reluctant to think about it, sometimes it can help to talk about it with family, friends, or small groups. That way, we can help normalize it instead of avoiding it. We can also connect with others around this important topic while also learning about their views about life and death, not to mention more practical matters like making arrangements for funerals, financial and legal matters, and more.

Visits and volunteering. Spend time with people in the later chapters of their lives and with people facing health scares. In many cultures today, there’s too little interaction across generations, a big problem because it leaves so much of the hard-earned wisdom of older generations unknown and unshared. There’s also a huge problem in many cultures with loneliness. This is aggravated when people avoid spending time with those facing life-threatening conditions or the end of life because it’s awkward or they wouldn’t know what to say. (1)

Who takes care of these people when there isn’t anybody, when their support system is gone?
Do they fall through the cracks

-Inez Russell, founder and CEO, Friends for Life

Religious services. Attend services at a faith-based institution of your choice and be open to how ancient teachings and scriptures may inform our lives today—and the importance of looking at life from a larger perspective.

Graves. Visit the graves of loved ones. By doing that, we can pay our respects and honor their memories, maintaining a relationship with them and listening to what they may have to teach us—albeit silently but often powerfully—about living.

Do you avoid reflecting on your mortality, or do you embrace memento mori as a life-enhancing perspective that can help us live well and focus on what’s important?

What will you do differently about this, starting today?


Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


Related Articles


Related Books

  • Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson
  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
  • Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
  • Clayton Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life?
  • Parker Palmer, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old
  • Bronnie Ware, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing
  • The sacred texts of your and other religions


Appendix: Reflecting on Death through the Ages

Through the ages, various cultures, religions, and philosophical, artistic, and literary traditions have urged people to reflect on their mortality and what it means for living well. Here’s a brief history:

Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptians had beliefs and traditions incorporating the concept of mortality and the impermanence of life. For example, they had rituals and customs around mummies (the preservation of dead bodies), tombs, and pyramids. The point of many of these revolved around the importance of preparing for the journey to the next world, acknowledging that life on Earth is temporary and encouraging people to lead a righteous life. Historians point to the Book of the Dead funerary text and ancient Egyptian art depicting scenes of death and judgment. Many Egyptians during that time had a strong belief in living in accordance with Ma’at (the concept of balance, order, and truth), which was seen as a way to ensure a favorable judgment in the afterlife—reinforcing the idea that how we approach this life has consequences for the next.


This religion, practiced by about 1.2 billion people today, addresses the concept of mortality and the impermanence of life. Several aspects of Hinduism emphasize the idea that all living beings will eventually die. With Hinduism, there’s a belief in samsara, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and the soul (atman) continues on a journey through various lifetimes until it reaches moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirth). The Bhagavad Gita, a sacred text, emphasizes the idea that the soul is eternal while the physical body is temporary. Practices like meditation and yoga, closely associated with Hinduism, can help people gain insight into the nature of their existence, including the impermanence of the body and the importance of spiritual growth.

Ancient Rome

In ancient Rome, according to legend, when a victorious general took a victory march in the streets, a servant would follow him and repeat this: “Respice pose te. Hominem te esse memento. Memento mori.” (“Look behind. Remember thou art mortal. Remember you will die.”). The idea was that this would help the victorious general put things in perspective right at the time when his hubris was bound to trip him up. As noted above, memento mori is also an important precept of Stoicism.


Judaism contains teachings and practices that address mortality and the impermanence of life. For example, the Talmud, a central text in Judaism, contains discussions and teachings about the transitory nature of life and the importance of living a righteous and meaningful life. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, includes reflecting on our sins and our mortality. It’s a time for Jews to repent and seek forgiveness, acknowledging the need for spiritual renewal. Judaism has funeral and mourning traditions that are symbolic of the impermanence of life. Also, consider the teachings of the Psalms:

You turn people back to dust, saying, ‘Return to dust, you mortals.’… you sweep people away in the sleep of death…. Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away…. Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
-excerpts from Psalm 90 NIV


Buddhism, practiced by about 500 million people today, emphasizes the recognition of suffering as part of life and the impermanence of all things. Together, these serve as a means to encourage mindfulness and a deep understanding of our shared human condition. The “Four Noble Truths” (the foundational teaching of Buddhism”) begin with the recognition of suffering (dukkha)—including the suffering of birth, aging, sickness, and death. One of the three marks of existence in Buddhism is anicca (impermanence).

A common Buddhist practice is maranasati (meditation on the fact that death can strike at any time). Meditating on or being mindful of death is essential to good living. According to the Buddha, “of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme,” presumably because it’s so important and powerful. Buddhism also includes funeral and death rituals, including chanting of sutras that emphasize the transient nature of life. In Buddhist art, the Wheel of Life (Bhavacakra) represents the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The “Five Remembrances” of Buddhism, which are statements about the nature of life, include the following:

I am sure to become old; I cannot avoid aging.
I am sure to become ill; I cannot avoid illness.
I am sure to die; I cannot avoid death.
I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.


Taoism is a philosophical and spiritual tradition from ancient China that drew inspiration from nature, such as the changing of seasons and the cycles of life and death in the natural world. It encouraged people to cultivate a harmonious relationship with the ever-changing world around them. That mean embracing the Tao (often translated as “the Way” but meant to describe the fundamental principle underlying the universe). Living in harmony with the Tao involves accepting the natural cycles of life, including birth and death.

Taoism’s most famous concept is “yin and yang,” the dualistic nature of reality, which notes that life and death are two sides of the same coin. (Without death, there can be no life, and vice versa.) The concept of Wu Wei (translated as “non-action” or “effortless action”) suggests that we should go with the flow of life and avoid unnecessary resistance, including resistance to death.

Artistic depiction of yin and yang. Source: Adobe Stock


In Christianity, currently practiced by about 2.4 billion people worldwide, we see reflections on death in crucifixes, tombs, funerary art, and the Psalms. Many of these serve as reminders to believers of the importance of leading meaningful and righteous lives. Christian theological teachings include the resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgment. Its liturgical readings include themes of mortality, repentance, and the need for salvation and grace.

The Christian liturgical calendar begins with Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the season of Lent (a time of reflection, fasting, and repentance). During Ash Wednesday services, a minister or priest applies ashes in the shape of a cross on the foreheads of worshippers while saying the phrase, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Christian funeral services often include readings and prayers that emphasize the brevity of life and the hope of resurrection. The cross is, of course, the central symbol of Christianity. It represents the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ, and it’s a powerful reminder of the Christian belief in salvation through Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection.

Keep death daily before your eyes.”
-St. Benedict, 6th century Italian Christian monk, writer, and theologian


For Muslims (currently about two billion worldwide), there are daily prayers, funeral prayers, sermons, and other reminders of the certainty of death. Take the five daily prayers (Salat), for example. During these prayers, people recite specific verses from the Quran, including verses emphasizing the fleeting nature of life and the Day of Judgment. The Khutbah (sermon) of Jumu’ah (Friday Prayer) often includes reminders about death, the importance of good deeds, and the Day of Judgment. Muslims are also encouraged to engage in the remembrance of death (dhikr al-mawt). The Arabic phrase, “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un,” translates to: “Verily, we belong to Allah, and verily, to Him we shall return.”


We also see memento mori depicted in art, including the “danse macabre” (“dance of death”) of the Late Middle Ages, when the plague (the “Black Death”) was ravaging Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. It features depictions of death personified as a skeletal figure, often accompanied by living individuals from various social classes and all walks of life (from kings and clergy to peasants and children), engaging in a dance or procession. Its central theme was that death is the great equalizer, because death eventually comes for everyone, regardless of their station in life.

We also see memento mori depicted in the “vanitas” still-life paintings of the 17th century Dutch Golden Age, with skulls, hourglasses, clocks, candles, wilting flowers, rotting fruit, fraying books and scrolls, and broken musical instruments symbolically representing the transience and futility of earthly life and the impermanence of material possessions. The Latin word “vanitas” means “vanity” or “emptiness.” These artists were urging viewers to reflect on the vanity of their worldly pursuits and the excesses and distractions of earthly life—and to focus on the eternal instead.

Example of vanitas painting. Source: Adobe Stock.


We also see memento mori themes in literature and philosophy. Writers and philosophers, famously including Montaigne and Shakespeare, explored the concept’s implications for human existence and the pursuit of wisdom.

To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us… let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death….
We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere.

-Michel de Montaigne, French Renaissance philosopher

In Leo Tolstoy’s novel, The Death of Ivan Ilych, the main character had a medallion attached to his watch chain with “respice finem” (“consider the end”) inscribed on it.


Postscript: Inspirations on Memento Mori

  • “The one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death.” -Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo
  • “Plan with your whole life in mind.” -Aristotle, ancient Greek philosopher
  • “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day.… The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” -Lucius Annaeus Seneca, ancient Roman Stoic philosopher
  • “Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone—those that are now, and those to come. Existence flows past us like a river…. Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here…. You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
  • “O remember how short my time is.” -Psalm 89:47
  • “Celebration is only possible through the deep realization that life and death are never completely separate. Celebration can only really come about where fear and love, joy and sorrow, tears and smiles can exist together. Celebration is the acceptance of life in a constantly increasing awareness of its preciousness. And life is precious not only because it can be seen, touched, and tasted but also because it will be gone one day.” -Henri Nouwen, Ministry and Spirituality
  • “Death destroys a man, but the idea of death saves him.” -E.M. Forster, English writer
  • “If you are fully alive to the prospect of dying, you really start reprioritizing your life.” -Mitch Albom, writer
  • “…the more you confront the facts of finitude… and work with them, rather than against them—the more productive, meaningful, and joyful life becomes.” -Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
  • “It’s easy to lose track of that mortality, to forget time, to think that you’re going to live forever. The idea that you’re gonna die and that life is short is only depressing if you’re thinking about it wrong. If you’re thinking about it right it should give you a sense of priority. It should even give you a sense of meaning; it should let you know what’s important, what you’re trying to do while you’re here on this planet.” -Ryan Holiday, writer
  • “I can’t think of a sadder way to die than with the knowledge that I never showed up in this world as who I really am. I can’t think of a more graced way to die than with the knowledge that I showed up here as my true self, the best I knew how, able to engage life freely and lovingly because I had become fierce with reality.” -Parker Palmer, On the Brink of Everything

(1) Many years ago, I got the chance to interview Inez Russell, founder and CEO of Friends for Life in Waco, Texas. She met several elderly people in the local hospital who were alone and confused or despondent. She was touched personally and also discovered that about one in three seniors over 65 are socially isolated. So, she got busy and started an organization to improve the quality of life for seniors, particularly those who are without family to care for them. Through its programs that help with life skills, independent living, money management, guardianship, and more, Friends for Life helps the elderly and people with disabilities live independently as long as possible, protects and cares for those who are unable to do it themselves, and brings generations together to enrich lives.

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Why Self-Awareness Is So Important–And How to Develop It

Article Summary: 

Self-awareness is critical in our life, work, and relationships, but many of us struggle with it. How to develop self-awareness.


To be self-aware is to have a good understanding of ourselves, including conscious knowledge of our feelings, motives, and desires. Self-awareness (also known as self-knowledge) involves having a clear, accurate, and deep understanding of our emotions, values, strengths, and weaknesses. It also involves having a realistic view of ourselves, including a good and true sense of how we’re coming across to others.

In her book, Insight: The Surprising Truth About How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More Than We Think, organizational psychologist Dr. Tasha Eurich defines self-awareness as “the ability to see ourselves clearly to understand who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world around us.” She calls it the “meta-skill of the 21st century.” It may be an important skill in this century, but we’ve known about the importance of self-awareness for millennia.

“Know thyself.”
-inscribed on the temple wall at Delphi, 6th century BCE

According to researchers, there are two types:

  1. Internal (or private) self-awareness is about how clearly we see ourselves and whether we notice and reflect on our own internal state.
  2. External (or public) self-awareness is about being aware of how we appear to others.


Self-Awareness and Emotional Intelligence

Self-awareness is closely associated with emotional intelligence (EQ). Pioneering psychologist Daniel Goleman considers self-awareness one of the four domains of emotional intelligence (along with self-management, social awareness, and relationship management)—and emphasizes that it’s the foundation for the other three.

According to Goleman, self-awareness involves certain personal competences, including:

  • Accurate self-assessment: knowing our strengths and weaknesses
  • Emotional self-awareness: reading our own emotions and recognizing their impact
  • Self-confidence: having a good sense of our capabilities and self-worth

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The Consequences of Lacking Self-Awareness

When we lack self-awareness, we have blind spots that get us into trouble, and we don’t know the underlying reasons for our actions. As a result, we’re likely to keep making the same mistakes, and we’ll be less likely to take responsibility for them, damaging our credibility.

Think of the compulsive talkers who don’t let others get a word in during conversations, unaware that people find it off-putting because it shows a lack of interest in others. Consider the frequent criticizers who spend so much time judging others instead of addressing their own issues.

Think of the people who keep bringing up politics out of the blue and saying things that hurt or offend the people around them without realizing it. Consider the people who speak loudly in public places, unaware that they’re disturbing everyone around them.

Think about the reserved introvert who unintentionally comes across as aloof or uninterested. Note the chronic complainer who never asks others how they’re doing. Consider the perpetual dreamers who never get around to the things they need to do to get started.

We’re all flawed—and prone to self-deception—so we should approach these cases with empathy and grace. But in many cases, a little self-awareness would go a long way toward helping people get out of their own way.

“Knowledge of the self is the mother of all knowledge. So it is incumbent on me to know my self, to know it completely, to know its minutiae, its characteristics, its subtleties, and its very atoms.”
-Khalil Gibran, Lebanese writer and poet


20 Benefits of Developing Self-Awareness

The good news is that we can develop self-awareness, even if we’re low on it (as many are). Having a high level of self-awareness can help us in many ways. For example, it can:

  1. help us see our blind spots for the first time—or see them more clearly
  2. improve our decision-making
  3. help us communicate more effectively
  4. increase our confidence
  5. help us manage stress
  6. enhance our sense of personal control
  7. help us develop our social intelligence and relational awareness, in the process improving our relationships
  8. help us avoid wearing a mask or creating a persona that lacks authenticity
  9. increase our happiness and fulfillment
  10. help us recognize the ruts we’ve fallen into
  11. help us use more of our potential
  12. enhance our influence
  13. facilitate higher job satisfaction
  14. improve our ethical behavior, making us less likely to lie, cheat, or steal
  15. help us avoid looking to others too much for what we should do
  16. help us find good work that’s a good fit for us—and know what work we should avoid
  17. help us understand what makes us come alive and what drains us
  18. help us discover our purpose and what feels meaningful
  19. help us answer the question of what we should do with our lives based on what we’re good at and how we can best add value to others
  20. help us connect with our dreams, including a vision of our ideal self, in the process invoking our energy and excitement for life

Developing our self-awareness is a necessary step in honoring our nature and becoming who we want to be instead of conforming to the desires of others. It’s also a necessary step in developing self-acceptance and self-compassion. Developing self-awareness also helps illuminate our “shadow side”—the parts of our personality that we don’t want to admit—which is a necessary part of human development.

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Why Self-Awareness Can Be So Hard

Organizational psychologist Dr. Tasha Eurich and her colleagues researched self-awareness via multiple investigations with nearly 5,000 participants. She describes their results as follows:

“…even though most people believe they are self-aware, self-awareness is a truly rare quality:
We estimate that only 10-15% of the people we studied actually fit the criteria.”

Why is this so hard? Several reasons.

We’re subject to all sorts of influences from our family and friends, and from our culture, that cause us to question who we are and pull us away from it. We’re confused by the cultural influences that don’t align with our own values. Sometimes, we end up defaulting to the values given to us by our parents, peers, or culture (e.g., values related to money or success) and rarely take the time for self-inquiry—or to consider the downsides of those values and whether there may be better alternatives.

It’s hard to admit our weaknesses and face them. Being self-aware often hurts, so we tend to avoid it. This is the work of our fragile ego in defense mode.

We’re used to hiding tender parts of ourselves when we don’t feel safe admitting or revealing who we really are. We fear harsh judgment by ourselves or others.

We’re too busy or overscheduled, so we don’t take time for reflection and introspection.

We tend to default to emotion-driven interpretations of events and encounters instead of pausing to reflect on our inner state and how we may have contributed to things.

We’re accustomed to leaping right into action instead of having the patience and humility to inquire into the deeper reasons for things and our self-sabotaging patterns.

We feel uncomfortable with the cognitive dissonance between the messiness of reality and our perfectionistic tendencies. It’s too painful to look at our shortcomings, so we remain in denial.


How to Develop Self-Awareness

Clearly, developing self-awareness is difficult, for many reasons. But given all its powerful benefits, it’s worth our focused and ongoing attention.

So, how to develop self-awareness? Before answering that, we’re wise to ask: Awareness of what, exactly? What does self-awareness include? Ideally, it includes our life story, purpose, values, vision, strengths, passions, emotions, motivations, needs, desires, successes, curiosities, weaknesses, shadow sides, traps, vulnerabilities, and blind spots.

Given that, here are things we can do to facilitate greater self-awareness:

Develop a propensity for frequent self-reflection (1), including taking time to reflect on meetings or other encounters and their emotional wake. Also, pay attention to what we love and long for, and what makes us come alive. This requires a commitment to self-inquiry and an intentional discovery process (what I call “discover mode”), including listening to our inner voice.

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is.”
-Frederick Buechner, Presbyterian minister, theologian, and writer

Seek input and guidance from family, friends, mentors, and coaches. Ask for honest feedback, including about our weaknesses and blind spots. At work, this should include “360-degree reviews.”

Convene a small group to facilitate deep conversations about meaningful things in members’ lives. Make sure the conversation includes self-reflection with input from the group, so participants have a chance to consider new insights in a safe environment and search for patterns.

“…inner work, though it’s a deeply personal matter, is not necessarily a private matter:
inner work can be helped along by community.”
-Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

Try using the Johari Window. It’s a framework that helps us identify what’s known to ourselves (or not) and what’s known to others about us (or not). See the image below.

Source: Adobe Stock

For many of us, we don’t let many people see our true selves (limiting what shows up in the upper left “Arena” quadrant). Also, we may have several blind spots—things that are known by others about us that we’re not aware of (in the upper right quadrant). Consider writing down ten words that describe yourself (your main characteristics) and then having one or more people who know you well do the same for you. Then, compare the lists to see the extent of overlap on the different lists. One goal of this work is to get us to show more about ourselves to others, in the process shrinking how much of ourselves we hide or that remains unknown to others.

Journal intentionally, since it can help us reflect on our feelings and experiences, sometimes uncovering insights or patterns.

Take time for renewal and sanctuary, including daily restorative activities (e.g., gardening or yoga) and places or practices of peace that help us recenter our hearts. Without time for renewal and sanctuary, we’ll be too scattered and frazzled to maintain self-awareness.

Take assessments that facilitate our self-awareness and personal growth. Examples include:



Self-awareness is sometimes painful—like when we discover hard truths about how others see us or first learn about major blind spots. Still, it’s well worth it. Without self-awareness, we’re likely to fall into several traps—and perhaps remain in them unknowingly, blind to our unhappy predicament.

Developing self-awareness can help facilitate real growth and development—and sometimes breakthroughs. We can only grow and develop when we have the courage to admit the traps we’re in and acknowledge our shadow side.

As we commit or recommit to developing our self-awareness, we’re wise to consider where many people get it wrong and trip up. Here are three final cautions about this process of becoming more self-aware:

First, self-awareness isn’t only about introspection and talk. The real value comes when we take action in the world based on a high level of self-awareness, such as when we build our life and work around our strengths and find viable workarounds for our weaknesses and blind spots, like asking for help from people who are strong in those areas.

“Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.”
-Thomas Jefferson, former U.S. president

Second, self-awareness isn’t only about the self. It’s also about the self in the larger context of our lives, including our family, friends, community, work, convictions, and commitments. As Quaker teacher Douglas Steere wisely noted, the ancient question “Who am I?” inevitably leads to the question “Whose am I?”

Third, our identities aren’t fixed. We’re multifaceted and dynamic, so our self-awareness needs to keep up with the changes in our inner and outer lives. New challenges and changes will continue—both imposed on us and chosen by us—giving us opportunities for more depth and insight in our quest to know ourselves so we can live more fully and freely.


Reflection Questions

  1. How well do you know yourself, and how can you be sure?
  2. Do you keep falling into old traps and patterns that hold you back, indicating that you may have some blind spots?
  3. Are you asking for feedback regularly and truly being open to it?


Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


Related Articles

“How can man know himself? It is a dark, mysterious business…. It is also an agonizing, hazardous undertaking thus to dig into oneself, to climb down toughly and directly into the tunnels of one’s being…. Let the young soul survey its own life with a view of the following question: ‘What have you truly loved thus far? What has ever uplifted your soul, what has dominated and delighted it at the same time?’ Assemble these revered objects in a row before you and perhaps they will reveal a law by their nature and their order: the fundamental law of your very self. Compare these objects, see how they complement, enlarge, outdo, transfigure one another; how they form a ladder on whose steps you have been climbing up to yourself so far….”
-Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher


Related Books and Videos

  • Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation
  • Tasha Eurich, Insight: The Surprising Truth about How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More than We Think
  • William L. Sparks, “The Power of Self-Awareness,” TEDxAsheville
  • Tasha Eurich, “Increase Your Self-Awareness with One Simple Fix,” TEDxMileHigh


Postscript: Inspirations on Self-Awareness

  • “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.” -Lao Tzu, ancient Chinese philosopher
  • “Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.” -Epictetus, ancient Greek Stoic philosopher
  • “Full wise is he that can himself know.” -Chaucer, 14th century British storyteller
  • “If a man does not know himself, how should he know his functions and his powers?” -Michel de Montaigne, 16th century French Renaissance philosopher and writer
  • “Self-knowledge is best learned, not by contemplation, but by action. Strive to do your duty and you will soon discover of what stuff you are made.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German writer, poet, scientist, and statesman
  • “The purpose of life seems to be to acquaint man with himself.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century American essayist
  • “…the world’s wisdom traditions offer a valuable secret. They teach that the unsettled mind comes about through one thing only: losing sight of who we really are…. The answer lies in finding out who you really are—a conscious agent who can choose, at any time, to live from the level of the true self.” -Deepak Chopra, spiritual teacher and author
  • “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” -Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  • “Most folks go through most days on automatic pilot and don’t reflect upon it. When you say, ‘Why did I do that? What was that in service to inside of me? What old button, or issue, or agenda did that hit in me? When have I been here before?’ these are questions that begin to open up the mechanism working within each of us. And through that, you gain some greater sense of self-awareness. And with that, the potential for a great sense of freedom in how you live your life.” -James Hollis, quoted in Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
  • “The deepest vocational question is not ‘What ought I to do with my life?’ It is the more elemental and demanding ‘Who am I? What is my nature?’” -Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
  • “To be aware of a single shortcoming within oneself is more useful than to be aware of a thousand in somebody else.” -Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama
  • “Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I would like it to be about—or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions…. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live—but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.” -Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

(1) Caution: introspection is helpful but can sometimes lead us astray, especially when we use it to ask the wrong questions. Based on data from her research on the most self-aware people, organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich recommends asking ourselves “what” instead of “why” questions to improve the value of our introspection. The “why” questions (e.g., “Why do I feel so bad?”), she notes, often concern unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motives, and our instincts about them are often wrong. What’s more, those “why” questions tend to invite negative thought patterns, including rumination. Better questions, she proposes, are “what” questions: “What are the situations that make me feel bad? What do they have in common? What are the patterns?” Those “what” questions are more likely to lead to productive insights. (Source: Tasha Eurich, “What Self-Awareness Really Is (And How to Cultivate It),” Harvard Business Review, January 4, 2018.)

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Power of Reframing to Change Our Outlook


Article Summary:

Many of us suffer with a large volume of negative thoughts. Reframing is a powerful practice that can change the way we see the world and ensure that we’re responding intentionally and not reacting automatically (and negatively) to things. On the power of reframing.


Many of us are walking around much of the time in a mild state of anxiety, frustration, or negativity, and it colors almost everything we think and do. Our thought-streams are heavy with negative self-talk, worrying, rumination, and harsh self-judgment from our unhealthy propensity to engage in flawed and superficial comparisons. According to researchers, we humans have a negativity bias: we tend to over-focus on negatives and underweight positives.

One factor at work here is the prevalence of cognitive distortions, which occur when our thought patterns are flawed or irrational—and usually unhelpful or even damaging. Common cognitive distortions include:

  • Assuming the worst
  • Discounting the positive
  • All-or-nothing thinking: imagining there are only great or terrible outcomes to a situation
  • Blaming: finding fault with others or circumstances instead of looking within
  • Catastrophizing: assuming the worst and blowing things out of proportion
  • Overgeneralizing: seeing negative events as an ongoing pattern of problems
  • Mind-reading: making assumptions about what others are thinking (e.g., that people are judging us negatively), with little or even no evidence
  • Mental filtering: focusing only on negatives and ignoring positives
  • Emotional reasoning: drawing conclusions or labeling ourselves from how we feel (e.g., leaping from “I felt stupid in that meeting today” to “I am stupid”)
Reality is always kinder than the stories we tell about it.”
-Byron Katie, Loving What Is

The problem with such thinking traps and cognitive distortions is that they have an array of negative influences, including:

  • loss of our sense of control, agency, and responsibility
  • sense of helplessness
  • more stress
  • lower confidence, wellbeing, and joy
  • reduced motivation
  • lower performance
Our life is what our thoughts make it.
-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

This is also dangerous in teams and organizations, because such negative thinking can become normalized and spread rapidly through groups, poisoning the culture. Whole teams can get stuck in downward spirals of negative thinking.

What to do about it? Enter cognitive reframing.


Cognitive Reframing

Cognitive reframing—also known as cognitive restructuring—entails shifting our mindset to look at a situation or relationship from a more helpful perspective. With such reframing, we can replace flawed or destructive thought patterns with better ones. In doing so, we can change the way we view people, situations, and even memories—and thus our experience of living and our behavior.

The essential idea behind reframing is that the frame through which a person views a situation determines their point of view. When that frame is shifted, the meaning changes, and thinking and behavior often change along with it.-Amy Morin, psychotherapist and author

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


The Benefits of Reframing

When our mental frameworks are causing us distress, cognitive reframing can help us shift them to more helpful ones. This has all sorts of benefits, including positive effects on our mood, mental health, general wellbeing, and self-esteem.

Reframing can help us promote gratitude and appreciation, attract new opportunities, strengthen relationships, reduce stress, and manage loss and grief. Perhaps this explains why cognitive reframing is used to treat a variety of conditions, including: addiction, anxiety, chronic pain, depression, eating disorders, insomnia, pain disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder, and stress.


Practical Reframing Approaches

Reframing is something we can all do, whether we’re students, parents, workers, salespeople, managers, or CEOs. It’s relevant across all areas of life, from personal happiness and marriage to teamwork and work performance.

There are many different reframing approaches. Here are several of the main ones:

Asking questions and investigating the evidence. When we’re experiencing negative thought-streams, we can ask ourselves if there are other ways to look at the situation. What evidence supports this thought, and what evidence contradicts it? If we’re judging ourselves harshly, we can ask what our manager, colleagues, and/or staff would say about our work.

Puzzle framing. We can reframe problems not as weights that bring us down but as puzzles to be solved. Problems are a downer, but puzzles come with challenge, fun, and mystery. Here, we can take a cue from Quincy Jones:

I don’t have problems. I have puzzles….
I can solve a puzzle. A problem just stresses me out.”
-Quincy Jones, record producer, songwriter, and composer

Reframing failure. A manager who sees people on the team making mistakes can jump right into corrections and reprimands, or the manager can reframe it as evidence that team members are stretching themselves, trying new things, and attempting to innovate. All these, of course, are essential for high performance over the long haul.

Three gifts. In his book, Positive Intelligence, Shirzad Chamine writes about the “three-gifts technique”: when facing a bad situation, we brainstorm three scenarios in which that situation could turn into an opportunity or even a gift. It could take days, months, or years to unfold, but the situation ends up having benefits. Example: the head of sales of a company that had recently lost its biggest customer was initially skeptical about this exercise but, with some thought, she realized:

  1. It could be a wake-up call for the company that it’s losing its edge, thereby triggering more urgency in new product development, which could attract many more clients over time.
  2. The loss could help the sales team be more open to new skill development.
  3. It could free up the service staff to provide better service to existing customers, resulting in more referral sales.

Gratitude recasting. Here, we change the focus from a regret or loss to what we’re grateful for. Example: If a grandparent regrets not having had enough time with the grandchildren when they were younger, a recast could be: I’m grateful for the time we did spend together, and we still have time to get to know each other and do fun things.

According to researchers, subjects who engaged in grateful recasting had more healing, closure, and redemption as well as less unpleasant emotional impact from upsetting experiences. They also demonstrated fewer intrusive memories, such as wondering why a bad event happened, whether it could’ve been prevented, and whether they caused it.

Processing a life experience through a grateful lens does not mean denying negativity. It is not a form of superficial happiology. Instead, it means realizing the power you have to transform an obstacle into an opportunity.”
-Dr. Robert Emmons, Professor of Psychology, University of California, Davis

“The work.” In her book, Loving What Is, Byron Katie notes that we’re all a mirror of our own thinking coming back at us. Her methodology of “inquiry,” with its four questions, is a powerful form of reframing. When we have a troubling thought, she notes, we can ask:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can we absolutely know it’s true?
  3. How do we react when we believe that thought?
  4. Who or what would we be without the thought?

Context reframing. Here, we change the way we think about the set of circumstances around our challenges. For example, if our flight is delayed, instead of focusing on the hassle, we can pause to consider the larger context of having so much wealth and privilege to be able to fly to places we want or need to go.

Stop taking things personally. In his book, The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz notes that most of the things we experience in the world aren’t directed toward us, though we assume they are. Too often, we’re quick to take personal offense and let resentment fester. Instead, we should consider the likelihood that the situation had nothing to do with us: perhaps the person who made that comment was having a bad day or is struggling with some personal challenges or past traumas—or just lacks emotional intelligence or social grace?

Multidimensional view. In her book, When Changing Nothing Changes Everything: The Power of Reframing Your Life, Laurie Polich Short recommends viewing things through four lenses:

  1. Big view lens, to view our lives from a broader perspective
  2. Present view lens, to help us see what we’re missing now—and what each moment can bring
  3. Rear view lens, to help us see how we’re wired and how our past is affecting us so we can retain faith for what’s ahead
  4. Higher view lens, to help us see that our life may be given to us for a purpose much bigger than ourselves, in the process seeing more of what God wants us to see
Where we choose to focus makes all the difference in what we see.”
-Laurie Polich Short, When Changing Nothing Changes Everything: The Power of Reframing Your Life

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.


Examples of Reframing in Action

Those reframing approaches can lead to an incredible array of possibilities in virtually all areas of our life and work. Here are examples of this phenomenon in action in common scenarios:

If we’re stuck in traffic, instead of getting frustrated, we can appreciate the opportunity to practice deep breathing or listen to nice music or interesting podcasts.

When facing a challenging situation, we can ask ourselves questions like: Is there another way to look at this? What are some other possible reasons for it? What would I say to a friend faced with this?

If we have limiting beliefs, we can simply add the word “yet” to our thoughts about them or change the focus to things we know we can do. For example:

Limiting Belief Reframe
“I can’t do this.” “I can’t do this yet.”
“I’ve never led anyone before. I don’t know what I’m doing.” “I’ve helped lots of people figure things out. I have good people skills and lots of valuable experience to draw upon.”
“I’m not good enough to manage this project.” “I’m committed, hard-working, and capable. And I have what it takes to figure this out.”

If we’re feeling helpless, we can change our focus from helplessness to curiosity about what it might take to address our challenges, much like becoming a detective trying to solve a mystery.

If we’re feeling stuck, we can realize that we’re never truly stuck because we always have the capacity to generate new ideas, as Dave Evans and Bill Burnett point out in their book, Designing Your Life.

When feeling nervous about public speaking or leading a meeting, we can change our focus from fears of screwing up and being embarrassed to a more positive frame: Great, all this adrenaline shows that I care and will give me the energy to share my passion for this subject.

Every single important thing we do is something we didn’t use to be good at,
and in fact, might be something we used to fear

-Seth Godin, entrepreneur and author

If we’re struggling with a daunting transition, we can view it as a challenge to overcome or even an exciting opportunity for learning, growth, and adventure.

If there is no struggle, there is no progress.
-Frederick Douglass, American social reformer, abolitionist, and statesman

If we’ve been handed a tough assignment at work, instead of dreading and resenting the pressure, we can view it as an opportunity to learn something new and raise our profile by adding more value to the team.

When we receive tough feedback or criticism, instead of shutting down and feeling resentment or self-righteousness, we can extract value from the feedback, noting that it can help us improve—and that it shows the person cares about our development.

If team members are feeling frustrated and disempowered, they can reframe their mindset about their role (and manager). Too often, workers give too much deference to their managers or are too quick to abdicate responsibility for what’s happening in the organization, blaming people in positions of authority. The best workers do all they can to help the organization achieve its goals. This means taking risks, shaking things up, and helping leaders get better (e.g., by informing them of problems they may not be aware of, asking tough questions, and letting their manager know what they need to succeed).

If managers are concerned about conflict on a team, they can reframe conflict from a behavioral taboo to a necessary practice in the quest for excellence. (See my article, “Why Conflict Is Good—And How to Manage It.”)

If we’re struggling with micromanagement or a need to swoop in and save people, we can change how we see a situation involving someone in need. For example, instead of believing the thought that the person will suffer without our help, we can note how the person can develop new coping skills that will serve them well going forward.


Conclusion: The Power of Reframing

Reframing is a powerful practice that can change the way we see the world and ensure that we’re responding intentionally and not reacting automatically (and negatively) to things. This will help us become more resilient.

For reframing to work, we must learn to recognize distorted thinking and have the motivation to change our ways. Since our thought patterns can be deeply engrained, sometimes it’s wise to get help from a therapist or coach.

Reframing can be the difference between a life of frequent disappointment and one with more satisfaction and ease. What’s more, its effects are cumulative. Positive thought-streams have favorable effects that ripple out, helping us and others.

Our key to transforming anything lies in our ability to reframe it.”
-Marianne Williamson, spiritual teacher and author


Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


Related Articles and Books


Postscript: Inspirations on the Power of Reframing

  • “It’s only a thought and a thought can be changed.” -Louise Hay, author
  • “The difference between misery and happiness depends on what we do with our attention.” -Sharon Salzberg, world-renowned meditation teacher and best-selling author
  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” -John Milton, Paradise Lost
  • “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” -Marcel Proust, The Captive
  • “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is.” -Eckhart Tolle, spiritual teacher and author
  • “Everything can be taken from a man but…the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” -Viktor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor
  • “The secret to living your best life lies largely in your ability to see all that is in front of you.” -Laurie Polich Short, When Changing Nothing Changes Everything
  • “There is enough light for those who choose to see, and enough darkness for those who are of a contrary disposition.” -Blaise Pascal, French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher
  • “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.” -Matthew 6:23-23 NIV

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!


Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Benefits of Nature and Getting Outside

Nature – path by water trees and mountains

How much time do you spend inside? How about staring at a screen? These days, we’re spending more and more of our time indoors and online. Many people don’t get outside enough.

Too many of us are nature-deprived. It’s part of a larger historical trend from the Industrial Revolution. With bigger cities and factories and more office work and indoor living, more and more of us have started feeling separate from nature—or even alienated from it. This has real implications. Richard Louv, an author and co-founder of the Child & Nature Network who coined the term “nature deficit disorder,” noted:

Nature is not only nice to have, but it’s a have-to-have for physical health and cognitive functioning.” (1)


The Benefits of Getting Outside and Being in Nature

Being in nature has all sorts of benefits. According to the research, being in nature can lead to a reduction of anxiety, blood pressure, heart rate, stress hormones, anger, attention fatigue, muscle tension, the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder (a mood disorder in climates where there’s less sunlight during parts of the year), and more.

Furthermore, spending time in nature can help promote the following:

  1. greater attentional capacity, including focus and concentration
  2. our ability to connect with others (a key contributor to our happiness)
  3. creativity and creative problem-solving abilities
  4. empathy and love (2)
  5. more exercise
  6. immune function
  7. a sense of meaningfulness
  8. physical wellbeing
  9. positive mood
  10. sleep quality
  11. vitality
  12. healthy management of body weight
I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people.
I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.
’” -Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

To be clear, being in nature doesn’t have to mean deep wilderness expeditions. Many people these days live in cities or suburbs, and they’re wise to take advantage of what Linda Åkeson McGurk, author of The Open-Air Life, calls “nearby nature.” That means just getting outside in our local neighborhoods and finding whatever green or blue (water) spaces we can.


Sunlight plays an important role here. Direct sunlight has about 200 times the intensity of office lights. Our body’s internal clock depends on the daily cycle of sunlight and darkness. Getting exposure to sunlight helps us feel more tired at night and shorten the time to fall asleep. Sunlight exposure can help with fatigue and low mood. It also helps us get Vitamin D, which is important for our bones, blood cells, and immune system, as well as absorption of certain minerals (e.g., calcium and phosphorus). Also, it helps keep our serotonin levels up, which keeps our mood calm, positive, and focused.

Getting outside can also help us be more social. When we go outside, we get more chances to see and connect with people, which is essential for our health and happiness. (See my article, “The Most Important Contributor to Happiness.”)

There are different theories as to why being in nature is so beneficial. One is “biophilia theory”: since we evolved in wild, natural settings and relied on the environment for survival, we have an innate drive and need to be in nature. Another is “attention restoration theory”: being in nature replenishes our cognitive resources, like our ability to pay attention and concentrate, when they get depleted.

If you’ve been using your brain to multitask—as most of us do most of the day—and then you set that aside and go on a walk, without all of the gadgets, you’ve let the prefrontal cortex recover. And that’s when we see these bursts in creativity, problem-solving, and feelings of well-being.
-David Strayer, professor of cognition and neural science, University of Utah

Most likely, it’s a combination of these and other factors.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.


10 Tips for Getting Outside

When we learn about all the benefits of getting outside, it can motivate us to do so. Still, we have work obligations, time pressures, and all sorts of online distractions and temptations. It’s a challenge for many of us. So, here are ten tips for getting outside more:

1. Keep it simple. It doesn’t have to be trekking into the deep wilderness. Take advantage of your nearby nature and do simple activities like walking.

2. Make it a habit and create outdoor rituals, like morning coffee on the deck, mid-day walks, or evening chats on the patio.

3. Exercise outside sometimes, including walks, hikes, runs, bike rides, or other outdoor activities or sports. (See my article, “Exercise and Movement for Health, Wellbeing, and Great Work.”)

4. Limit screen time, since it keeps us from enjoying the great outdoors. Don’t check your phone first thing in the morning. Check those daily screen time stats regularly. And be sure to unplug sometimes when out there walking or running so you can listen to the birdsong and be present where you are.

5. Experience nature with a friend. This comes with several benefits: deepening our social relationships (a primary contributor to our happiness), exercise, and all the advantages of nature.

6. Try gardening. It has many positive health benefits, according to a large body of research. Gardening, with its digging, planting, raking, carrying, squatting, kneeling, and more, entails functional movement that incorporates whole-body exercise, including movements similar to squats and lunges. According to the research, gardening can:

  • lower levels of stress and anxiety
  • improve our cognitive function and mood
  • reduce our body mass index
  • provide helpful structure to our days or weekends
  • increase our psychological wellbeing, quality of life, and sense of life satisfaction
  • enhance self-esteem and creativity
  • reduce the effects of dementia

What’s more, it’s gratifying to plant, tend, harvest, eat, and share home-grown food. It’s healthy and good for the environment as well. Gardening is also a great activity for practicing mindfulness.

7. Visit city parks, nature reserves, and national parks. They’re there for a reason. They can help bring calm, gratitude, or awe back into our lives.

8. Go camping, boating, climbing, or trekking. These are great ways to bring fun and adventure back into our lives.

9. Try forest bathing (spending time in a forest environment). The Japanese call it Shinrin-yoku. Studies show that it can help boost our energy and immune system as well as help us sleep better and recover more quickly when we get sick.

10. Go wild sometimes, i.e., do go to the forests, jungles, prairies, mountains, lakes, seas, or oceans sometimes. As writer Linda Åkeson McGurk points out, the wilder it is, the more restorative it’s likely to be.


What about Office Workers?

Thankfully, office workers aren’t doomed to nature deprivation. They’re wise to take breaks (including lunch) outdoors and have walking meetings whenever possible. It helps to have a supportive workplace. (3) For example, managers wanting to support the health, wellbeing, and productivity of their team can:

  • provide a space for employees to relax and get away from the office (e.g., an outdoor area with comfortable seating)
  • give workers flexible hours
  • offer wellness programs
  • have bicycles on the workplace grounds, if applicable, and/or provide incentives for commuting by bicycle
  • employ outdoor team-building activities
  • incorporate nature in company meetings and retreats

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


What the Nordic Countries Taught Me About This

When I moved to Sweden many years ago, the temperature dropped to minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 30 degrees Celsius) that first winter. A bit colder, and we could have reached the place where Fahrenheit and Celsius converge (minus 40 Fahrenheit equals minus 40 Celsius). For this man who grew up in southern California, it was a shock. But not as big of a shock as seeing all the Swedes get out into that bone-chilling cold. There’s a famous saying in Swedish:

Det finns inget dåligt väder, bara dåliga kläder.
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.”

Enter what the Swedes and Norwegians call friluftsliv (which we can translate as “free-air life,” “fresh-air life,” or “open-air life”). Linda Åkeson McGurk wrote a book about it: The Open-Air Life: Discover the Nordic Art of Friluftsliv and Embrace Nature Every Day.

Friluftsliv is about connecting with nature in simple ways. It’s a lifestyle in the Nordic countries that’s been passed down across generations, that’s taught in schools, and that’s used as preventive care for mental health (nature therapy), often for people with burnout.

When in the Nordics, you can see it all around you, from people enjoying time in their summer cottages for weeks at a time, to grilling hot dogs outside in the middle of winter (grillkorv), to baby strollers placed outside on the porch of daycare centers and preschools in the middle of winter, with the children swaddled in cozy blankets and breathing fresh air. It’s also a part of the work culture, with gå och prata möten (“walk and talk meetings”). There’s also a conservation aspect: the more connected we are to nature, the more likely we’ll be good stewards of natural places and resources.

During that first winter in Sweden, my inclination was to hunker down by the fireplace. Eventually, I learned a better approach. In Sweden, you just pile on with about seven layers of clothing, including snow pants and great winter gloves, boots, and hats, and you get out there in that magical winter. And in the dark rains of November. Rain or snow, you just get out. It makes a big difference. Friluftsliv.

What are your favorite ways to get outdoors?
How can you build more of them into your routines?


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Related Books and Podcasts

  • Book: Linda Åkeson McGurk, The Open-Air Life: Discover the Nordic Art of Friluftsliv and Embrace Nature Every Day (TarcherPerigee, 2022)
  • Book: Linda Åkeson McGurk, There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids (Touchstone, 2018)
  • Richard Louv, Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life (Algonquin Books, 2016)
  • Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin Books, 2008)
  • Podcast: “We Know Nature Is Good for Us. Here’s How to Make Time for It, Scandinavian Style,” Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris podcast interview with Linda Åkeson McGurk, August 28, 2023.


Postscript: Inspirations on Nature

  • “In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” -Aristotle, ancient Greek philosopher
  • “They will forget the rush and strain of all the other weeks of the year, and for a short time at least, the days will be good for their bodies and good for their souls. Once more they will lay hold of the perspective that comes to those who every morning and every night can lift their eyes up to Mother Nature.” -Theodore Roosevelt, former U.S. president, naturalist, and conservationist
  • “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” -Henry David Thoreau, American naturalist, essayist, poet, and philosopher
  • “Nature itself is the best physician.” -Hippocrates
  • “If you wish to know the divine, feel the wind on your face and the warm sun on your hand.” -Buddha
  • “It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive, and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature.” -Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist
  • “The earth has music for those who listen.” -William Shakespeare, English poet, playwright, and actor
  • “We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” -Henry David Thoreau, Walden
  • “I have just come from four days rest in Yosemite… Lying out at night under those giant sequoias was lying in a temple built by no hand of man, a temple grander than any human architect could by any possibility build….” -Theodore Roosevelt, former U.S. president, naturalist, and conservationist


Appendix: Research on the Benefits of Nature

A study of 19,806 people by University of Exeter environmental psychologist Mathew White and his colleagues found that people who spent two hours a week in green spaces (e.g., local parks or other natural environments) were substantially more likely to report good health and psychological wellbeing than those who don’t. This finding held true whether the visits to green spaces were all at once or spread out over multiple visits. Source: White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J. et al. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Sci Rep 9, 7730 (2019).

“Walk in nature and feel the healing power of the trees.”
-Anthony William

In a Japanese experiment, researchers measured the heart rate and blood pressure of people who were assigned to either walk in a forest or an urban center. The walks were of equal length and difficulty. Those who walked in forests had significantly lower heart rates and reported better moods and less anxiety than the others. Finnish researchers found that city dwellers who walked for as little as 20 minutes through a city park or woodland reported significantly more stress relief than people who walked in a city center.

Dr. Gregory Bratman and his Stanford University colleagues conducted a 2015 study in which 60 participants were randomly assigned to walk for 50 minutes in either a natural setting of oak woodlands or in an urban setting along a four-lane road. The people who walked in nature experienced less anxiety, rumination, and negative affect (likelihood of experiencing negative emotions), plus more positive emotions and better performance on memory tasks. Dr. Bratman and his colleagues noted evidence from a review of the research that contact with nature is associated with increases in happiness, subjective wellbeing, positive social interactions, and a sense of meaning and purpose in life—as well as decreases in mental distress. Source: Gregory N. Bratman et al., Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective. Sci. Adv. 5, (2019).

According to a meta-analysis from Dr. Alison Pritchard at the University of Derby in England and her colleagues, people who feel more connected to nature have greater “eudaimonic wellbeing” (experiences associated with living a life of full flourishing, growth, authenticity, meaning, and excellence). Source: Pritchard, A., Richardson, M., Sheffield, D. et al. The Relationship Between Nature Connectedness and Eudaimonic Well-Being: A Meta-analysis. J Happiness Stud 21, (2020).

Peter Aspinall and his colleagues at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland studied participants while they walked through an urban green space. Mobile electroencephalogram (EEG) monitors showed lowered engagement, arousal, and frustration while in the green space and higher engagement levels when departing from the green space.

Roger Ulrich and his Texas A&M University colleagues conducted an experiment in which participants viewed a stressful movie and then either videos of natural scenes or videos of urban settings. The people who viewed natural scenes demonstrated a much quicker and more complete recovery from their stress. In a study of gallbladder surgery patients, with half of the patients given a view of trees and half given a view of a wall, the patients with the view of the trees tolerated pain better and spent less time in the hospital. Nurses also reported that they had fewer negative effects from the surgery.

Juyoung Lee, Dacher Keltner, and other University of California, Berkeley researchers showed participants nature scenes, independently rated for their levels of beauty, and then observed their behavior in two games, one measuring generosity and another measuring trust. Those who viewed the more beautiful nature scenes experienced greater positive emotions and acted with greater generosity and trust in the games than the others.

Penn State University sound researcher Joshua Smyth has found that when people hear songbirds, the tension in their nervous system falls. The opposite occurs when they hear cars and airplanes. Another study compared participants who listened to nature sounds (e.g., waves crashing and crickets chirping) to those who listened to urban sounds (e.g., traffic and the noises of a busy café). Those who listened to nature sounds performed better on demanding cognitive tests. Source: Van Hedger, S.C., Nusbaum, H.C., Clohisy, L. et al. Of cricket chirps and car horns: The effect of nature sounds on cognitive performance. Psychon Bull Rev 26, (2019).

According to a 2015 study of 2,000 people in the United Kingdom, more exposure to nature was associated with more community cohesion and substantially lower crime rates. Source: Netta Weinstein et al., Seeing Community for the Trees: The Links among Contact with Natural Environments, Community Cohesion, and Crime, BioScience, Volume 65, Issue 12, 01 December 2015.

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
-William Shakespeare, English poet, playwright, and actor

The benefits of nature aren’t limited to green spaces. They also come from blue spaces, including marine and freshwater environments.

(1) According to researchers, concentrations of air pollutants are much higher indoors than outdoors, and there’s a risk of respiratory problems because of that. Being outside can also help reduce the chances of contracting airborne viruses like the flu and covid-19.

(2) When study participants viewed nature scenes, it activated the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love, according to fMRI scans.

(3) More and more organizations are paying attention to and investing in this. We’ve even seen an increase in “forest schools” in many countries. Forest schools are found in Denmark, Sweden, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, China, and Japan, among other countries.

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!