How to Discover Your Purpose

Article Summary: 

Many people struggle with finding their purpose. It can be intimidating and confusing. Where to begin? This article clarifies what purpose is and how to discover it.

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Why are you here? (On the planet, that is.) What’s your purpose?

Do you know? Have you thought much about it? Are you living your purpose?

Note that we’re asking here about your purpose in life, not the purpose or meaning of life generally. Asking about your purpose is a practical matter, not a philosophical one.

Many people struggle with purpose. According to a New York Times article, only about a quarter of Americans have a clear sense of purpose. In a Harvard Business Review article, Nick Craig and Scott Snook noted, “we’ve found that fewer than 20 percent of leaders have a strong sense of their own individual purpose. Even fewer can distill their purpose into a concrete statement.” According to an Edward Jones report, 31 percent of new retirees say they’ve struggled to find a sense of purpose in retirement.

A lack of purpose is behind much of the pain and suffering in the world today, including many of our mental health challenges. We can have many good things in our life, including a nice family, a good career, and friends and experiences to enjoy, but we can still feel like something is missing. Often, it’s purpose that’s missing. Lack of purpose is also one of the drivers of the “Great Resignation” and a big driver of disengagement at work.

“The drive to be more purposeful explains much of the momentum behind the massive exodus from mainstream corporate life.” -Aaron Hurst

 

What Is Purpose?

Part of the problem is confusion about what purpose is (and isn’t). Purpose often gets conflated with things like passion, meaning, and calling. (See my article, “The Most Common Myths about Purpose.”)

Our purpose is why we’re here, our reason for being. William Damon, a Stanford University professor and author of The Path to Purpose, defines purpose 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.” Note that purpose takes us beyond ourselves, to something greater.

Author Richard Leider distinguishes between two kinds of purpose:

  1. “BIG P” Purpose (a noble cause or something we can dedicate our life to).
  2. “little p” purpose (the day-to-day choices of how we can contribute to others). Note that “little p” actions are just as worthy, and they can compound over time into something powerful.

 

Purpose vs. Passion

Purpose and passion are connected but not equivalent. While purpose is why we’re here, a passion is a compelling or powerful feeling. Our passions are those things that consume us with palpable emotions, the things we love so much that we’re willing to suffer for them. Those are important, but they don’t usually take us all the way to knowing our reason for being.

 

Purpose vs. Meaning

While purpose and meaning are related, they’re not the same. Meaning is a broader concept. According to Dr. Michael Steger of Colorado State University, “Meaning in life refers to the feeling that people have that their lives and experience make sense and matter.” He notes that “Purpose is one facet of a meaningful life.” According to Steger and his fellow researcher, Frank Martela from Aalto University, there are three general facets associated with meaning in life: purpose, coherence, and significance. See the image below.

Image source: Derek Hagen, Money Health Solutions, LLC, “Money and Meaning,” https://www.moneyhealthsolutions.com/post/money-and-meaning Used with permission.
“…when people say that their lives have meaning, it’s because three conditions have been satisfied: they evaluate their lives as significant and worthwhile—as part of something bigger; they believe their lives make sense; and they feel their lives are driven by a sense of purpose.” – Emily Esfahani Smith, The Power of Meaning

 

Purpose vs. Calling

There’s also confusion about the difference between purpose and calling. While purpose is why we’re here, a calling has been defined as “a strong urge toward a particular way of life or career” (Oxford Dictionary), and also as “a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action, especially when accompanied by conviction of divine influence” (Merriam-Webster). So, if we have a clear purpose, it can flow naturally into a calling as a way to express it in the world.

“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 caller is God.” -Dave Wondra

 

The Benefits of Purpose

There are many benefits to knowing and living our purpose. It can be incredible powerful, flowing through everything we do and how we show up in the world. When we know and live our purpose, it gives us the following:

  • direction
  • coherence
  • energy
  • agency
  • hope
  • health (mental and physical)*
  • connection with others
  • community
  • enjoyment of life
  • happiness
  • fulfillment
  • gratitude

When we have a clear sense of purpose, we can reduce our anxiety and stress (which are fueled by uncertainty and aimlessness) and also focus our efforts in the right areas, boosting our performance, earnings, and impact. Our purpose can also help us clarify which goals to pursue and make us more likely to accomplish those goals.

“When we are clear about our purpose, or at least working toward it, our lives come together in powerful ways.” -Christopher Gergen & Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives

We can also feel a strong relational and spiritual connection, a sense that we’re linked with others, part of the larger scheme of things, and in tune with nature, life, and God.

Finally, those who have lived purposefully tend to experience fewer regrets in life, helping them face and accept death with equanimity.

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.

 

How to Discover Our Purpose

So how to discover our purpose? Here are things we can do to help us discover our purpose:

  1. reflect on what kinds of people or groups we feel called to serve and what kinds of issues we feel called to address
  2. notice what energizes us (and what drains us) and what brings us joy
  3. observe what we’re doing when we’re making a difference in someone’s life and loving the process of doing it
  4. reflect on when we’ve felt the most fulfilled, noting what we were doing (and with whom and where and how), then finding patterns across those experiences
  5. ask what we have a fierce commitment to and what we’re willing to sacrifice for because it’s so viscerally important to us (e.g., family, friends, work, colleagues, community, cause), then reflect on how it might inform our reason for being
  6. notice what kinds of pain and suffering (yours or others’) affects us most (what Umair Haque calls our “zone of heartbreak”) and consider ways to turn that hurt into healing or growth
  7. develop our self-awareness, our ability to see ourselves clearly and understand our feelings, motives, desires, and character
  8. mine our story (our personal history), write it down, tell it to others, and find the themes that animate our lives, including what we loved doing when we were young and the meaning we’ve derived from the pivotal moments and adversity we’ve faced
“Purpose often arises from curiosity about your own life. What obstacles have you encountered? What strengths helped you to overcome them? How did other people help you? How did your strengths help make life better for others?” -Jeremy Adam Smith, Greater Good Science Center
  1. read books and articles that feel meaningful to you (researchers have found links between reading things like fiction, poetry, and the Bible and having a stronger sense of purpose)
  2. take a holistic view of our life—thinking about our family, relationships, work, learning, community, beliefs, impact, and more—and noting what’s most important
  3. discover our strengths—the things we’re good at
  4. get clarity on our passions—what we love to do and what consumes us with palpable emotion
  5. pay attention to what we’re doing when we love our work
  6. clarify our personal values and consider instances in which we’ve honored or upheld them and what that suggests about our purpose
  7. try different things (experiences, projects, jobs, careers) and gauge whether they feel meaningful or not
  8. engage more often in “discover mode” (learning about who we are and what we can do in the world) and less in “climbing mode” (focusing so much on advancing up the ladder of success)
  9. take time each evening to reflect on the day that just passed and note the activities or situations that felt most purposeful
  10. think about our “ideal self” (the person we want to be, versus the person we are now) and what that person would be doing—and with and for whom
  11. connect the dots between the needs we see in the world and our strengths, passions, and values
  12. ask those who know us best to share the themes that make us who we are
  13. work with a mentor, coach, or small group to help us uncover our purpose
  14. ask ourselves what our older self or a wise mentor would advise us to focus more on
  15. preserve enough white space and margin in our lives so that clarity can emerge
  16. sit and get quiet with solitude and sanctuary so we’re better able to hear our inner voice
  17. engage in an iterative process of action and reflection, of trying things and then reflecting on their meaning and significance
  18. ask ourselves repeatedly what our purpose is (why we get up in the morning) and listen to what comes up
  19. engage in spiritual seeking, such as prayer, worship, contemplation, yoga, or pilgrimage, in the process seeking clarity about why we’re here
  20. project forward to the end of our lives and consider what we want our legacy to be, what we’d want said about us in a eulogy, or what we’d want to do differently if we had another chance at life (the deathbed test)
  21. consider what life is asking of us now and see if meaningful ideas emerge
  22. connect with experiences of awe, since they can help us feel connected to things larger than ourselves
  23. maintain a sense of gratitude (researchers have found connections between gratitude and our propensity to contribute to others, a key aspect of purpose)
  24. keep serving others (researchers have found connections between things like volunteering or donating to charities and having a greater sense of purpose)

In the process of uncovering our purpose, it’s important to slough off the layers of expectations put upon us by others, including parents, peers, teachers, coaches, colleagues, or society. We need to stop caring so much about what other people think and lean into being ourselves more openly and fully.

“Purpose reveals itself when we stop being afraid and start being ourselves.” -Richard Leider, “An Incomplete Manifesto for Purpose”

 

The Universal Purpose

It’s worth noting that discovering purpose is one of the most challenging personal development practices for many people. It can take time to unfold, like a fine wine.

So, what to do in the meantime? Should we sit on the sidelines and await clarity via revelation? Or “monk out” in a remote mountain cave?

Absolutely not. We must stay engaged with the world. Purpose isn’t about navel-gazing. It’s about knowing our reason for being and bringing it to the world via helping others.

Richard Leider suggests that, beyond our individual purpose, there’s also a universal purpose that animates us all:

“The universal purpose is to grow and give.” -Richard Leider

So, if we’re not yet clear on our personal purpose, we can keep growing and giving. When we do that, good things are bound to happen.

“If there’s just one habit you can create to help you find your purpose, it would be helping others.” -Amy Morin

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.

 

 

Examples of Personal Purpose Statements

Sometimes it’s helpful to see examples of purpose statements for inspiration and context. My own purpose is “to help people lead good lives.” For me, that means helping people lead lives of integrity, service, and purpose—and re-connecting them with what truly matters. I’m most keen on helping people develop their own conception of the good life and then bring it to life.

Here are some other purpose statements:

  • “To love God and serve others.” –Bob Vanourek (my father and co-author)
  • “To inspire and empower people to live their highest vision in the context of love and joy.” -Jack Canfield
  • “To wake you up and have you find that you are home.” -Nick Craig
  • “To help others unlock the power of purpose.” -Richard Leider “Big P” purpose
  • “To make a difference in one person’s life every single day.” -Richard Leider “little p” purpose
  • “To be a teacher. And to be known for inspiring my students to be more than they thought they could be.” -Oprah Winfrey

 

Conclusion

In the end, purpose is something we should be doing and not just thinking about. We should be infusing more and more of our home and work life with purpose.

The key is not knowing our purpose but living it. That also means focusing on things that are purposeful and avoiding things that aren’t as purposeful. It takes insight, persistence, and flexibility to figure out how to translate our purpose into effective action in the world.

Discovering our purpose doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to quit our job, change our career, or otherwise alter our lives dramatically. Often, we can creatively find ways to infuse our life and work with more purpose right where we are. (See, for example, Yale School of Management Professor Amy Wrzesniewski’s brilliant work on “job crafting.”) Other times, big changes may be warranted.

Discovering our purpose and living it is the work of a lifetime, and it’s incredibly rich and rewarding—especially when we connect it with our core values, vision of the good life, strengths, and passions. Wishing you well with it, and please let me know if I can help.

Gregg Vanourek and his dog

 

 

 

 

 

Gregg Vanourek

“You may be moved in a direction
You do not understand,
Away from the safe, the familiar,
Towards a vision that is blurry,
Yet still pounds against
The doors of your dreams,
Screams for recognition,
Petitions for understanding,
Whispers for acceptance.
Out towards distant possibilities,
You are propelled by a fire,
You will never fully comprehend,
But cannot extinguish.”
-Susan Rogers Norton, “Destiny”

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Do you know your purpose?
  2. Are you living it?
  3. What more will you do to clarify your purpose and build your life around it?

 

Related Tools for You

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Sources on Purpose

  • Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
  • Richard Leider, The Power of Purpose
  • Emily Esfahani Smith, The Power of Meaning
  • Hill PL, Turiano NA, Mroczek DK, Burrow AL. The value of a purposeful life: Sense of purpose predicts greater income and net worth. Journal of Research in Personality.
  • Khullar D. Finding Purpose for a Good Life. But Also a Healthy One. The New York Times. The Upshot. Jan. 1, 2018.
  • Morin, A, 7 Tips for Finding Your Purpose in Life. VeryWell Mind. July 12, 2020.
  • Musich S, Wang SS, Kraemer S, Hawkins K, Wicker E. Purpose in Life and Positive Health Outcomes Among Older Adults. Popul Health Manag.
  • Schippers MC, Ziegler N. Life Crafting as a Way to Find Purpose and Meaning in Life. Front Psychol.,
  • Smith, Jeremy Adam. “How to Find Your Purpose in Life,” Greater Good Science Center, January 10, 2018.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Purpose

  • “If we lack purpose, we lose connection with our true nature and become externally driven, generating discontent or even angst. Because purpose can be so elusive, we often duck the big question and look for ways to bury that discontent, most often through ‘busyness,’ distraction, or worse…. What does life want from us? In the end, the task is not finding our purpose but uncovering it—not propelling ourselves toward a more successful life, but rather getting out of the way of the good life that wants to live through us.” -Christopher Gergen & Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives
  • “Purpose is that deepest dimension within us—our central core. It is the quality we choose to shape our lives around. Purpose is already within us waiting to be discovered.” -Richard Leider
  • “I believe that we are put on this earth to live our soul’s purpose. To me, that means using our unique gifts and talents to make a positive impact in the world and help create the world we want to see…. We are all born with an inner compass that tells us whether or not we’re on the right path to finding our true purpose. That compass is our JOY.” -Jack Canfield
  • “Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain, but rather to see a meaning in his life…. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment.” -Victor Frankl
  • “Purpose is adaptive, in an evolutionary sense. It helps both individuals and the species to survive.” -Jeremy Adam Smith, Greater Good Science Center
  • “Purpose is the recognition of the presence of the sacred within us and the choice of work that is consistent with that presence. Purpose defines our contribution to life. It may find expression through family, community, relationship, work, and spiritual activities.” -Richard Leider, The Power of Purpose
  • “You have to build meaning into your life, and you build it through your commitments—whether to your religion, to an ethical order as you conceive it, to your life’s work, to loved ones, to your fellow humans.” -John W. Gardner
  • “Purpose is a universal need, not a luxury for those with financial wealth…. Money often conflicts with finding purpose, as it creates a false substitute for defining success…. You can find purpose in any job. It is all in how you approach it.” -Aaron Hurst
  • “The most fortunate people on earth are those who have found a calling that’s bigger than they are—that moves them and fills their lives with constant passion, aliveness, and growth.” -Richard Leider
  • “The difference between success and failure—between a life of fulfillment and a life of frustration—is how well you manage the challenge of making meaning in your life…. Learning to make meaning from our life stories may be the most indispensable but least understood skill of our time.” -Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions
  • “If you can find a way to use your signature strengths at work often, and you also see your work as contributing to the greater good, you have a calling.” -Martin Seligman
  • “People don’t choose their calling, it chooses them.” -Richard Leider
  • “You might do a hundred other things, but if you fail to do the one thing for which you were sent it will be as if you had done nothing.” -Rumi

* Researchers have linked purpose to better sleep, fewer heart attacks and strokes, longer life span, and a lower risk of dementia and premature death.

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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!

What Leads to Happiness?

What leads to happiness? We all want to be happy—and for those we care about to be happy.

Here’s the problem: we’re unclear and often badly mistaken about what will bring us happiness.

We’re inundated with messages from family, friends, ads, and social media about what will make us happy. Most of these messages are wrong.

The result:

What we think will make us happy is different from what actually makes us happy.

 

What Is Happiness?

To understand what’s going on here, we should back up and clarify what we’re talking about. What is happiness?

Turns out it’s not so simple to define. Why? It’s complex, and there are many related factors: wellbeing (a good condition of existence with health, happiness, and prosperity), life satisfaction (how we feel about our lives overall and our future), pleasure, and more.

There are even different types of happiness:

  • Hedonic happiness: happiness achieved through experiences of pleasure and enjoyment
  • Eudaimonic happiness: happiness through virtuous action, habits of moral excellence, and a full flourishing of self in the world.

My favorite definition of happiness (because it’s so comprehensive) comes from University of California, Riverside psychologist and happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky:

Happiness: “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

Don’t stop there, though. Decide for yourself what happiness is for you. And then turn your attention to the next step: what leads to it?

 

Determinants of Happiness: What Leads to Happiness

The question of what leads to happiness presumes that we have agency over it. That’s actually the source of some debate.

Enter “happiness set-point theory,” the notion that our happiness level is determined primarily by our genes and personality traits. According to this theory, our happiness remains relatively constant throughout our lives. We inevitably return to a relatively stable “happiness set point,” regardless of circumstances. (Note also the related notion of hedonic adaptation, in which we become rapidly accustomed to changes in our circumstances and then settle into that new baseline as if nothing had occurred.)

Many researchers have questioned this happiness set-point theory. Some have noted that it really speaks to a fixed range of potential happiness and wellbeing, not a single set point.

 

Sustainable Happiness Model

In their prominent article, researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon Sheldon, and David Schkade developed the “sustainable happiness model” (SHM), which posits that we have more agency over our happiness levels. They noted that happiness is “governed by three major factors: a genetically determined set point for happiness, happiness-relevant circumstantial factors, and happiness-relevant activities and practices.”

They went on to give preliminary estimates for the “approximate percentage of the variance that each of the three factors accounts for in cross-sectional well-being, as suggested by past research”:

  • genetics account for about 50% of the population variance in happiness
  • circumstances account for about 10%
  • activities and practices account for about 40%

This “happiness pie chart,” as it was dubbed, had important implications:

“Thus the key to happiness lies not in changing our genetic makeup (which is impossible) and not in changing our circumstances (i.e., seeking wealth or attractiveness or better colleagues, which is usually impractical), but in our daily intentional activities.” -Sonja Lyubomirsky

This was encouraging for those of us seeking to influence our happiness (which is, well, all of us).

 

Revisiting the Data

But then the plot thickened. Some researchers critiqued the paper. In response, two of the original researchers, Lyubormirsky and Sheldon, revisited the “happiness pie chart” in a response via a 2019 follow-up paper.

They stood by their main findings but recognized that the 40% estimate for activities may have been an overestimate and noted some important nuances. First, the three factors mentioned (genes, circumstances, and activities) aren’t isolated factors. Clearly, they influence each other. For example, our genes can influence our tendency to engage in certain activities, like exercise, that influence our happiness. And our circumstances and activities can influence whether genes are expressed, depending on the context of our lives.

Also, the percentages given were preliminary estimates—never meant to represent precise numbers for individuals but rather how much of the differences in happiness among people generally come from different sources. Individual results and factors will vary. “Like all pie charts,” Lyubomirsky noted, “ours was a gross oversimplification.”

But let’s not lose the forest for the trees. Here’s the bottom line:

“Although the pie chart part may have outlived its usefulness, we stand behind the central premise of the SHM, and the supportive research it spawned. Happiness can be successfully pursued, but it is not ‘easy.’” -Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky in their 2019 follow-up article

It shouldn’t surprise us that there are nuances, given the complexity of happiness and all its influences. So how does this speak to how we should live?

 

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Different Types of Lives

In his book, Authentic Happiness, influential psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman notes different types of lives we can aspire to:

  1. The pleasant life: the successful pursuit of positive feelings
  2. The good life: using our “signature strengths”—those character strengths (like courage, diligence, and teamwork, with each person having their own unique set) that are most essential to who we are—to obtain “abundant and authentic gratification,” which comes when we invoke our strengths and virtues, as when we achieve “flow.”
  3. The meaningful life: using our strengths to serve a larger purpose, such as raising our children, contributing to our community, or fighting for an important cause.

 

 

Most of Western society is organized around pursuing the pleasant life. But of the three, Seligman reports, pleasure is the most fleeting.

“For centuries, traditional wisdom has been that simply seeking pleasure for its own sake doesn’t really make you happy in the long run.” –Roy Baumeister, Professor of Psychology, Florida State University

Seligman notes that to live all three types of lives—pleasant, good, and meaningful—is to lead a “full life,” which he describes as “experiencing positive emotions about the past and future, savoring positive feelings from the pleasures, deriving abundant gratification from your signature strengths, and using these strengths in the service of something larger to obtain meaning.”

Helpful stuff. But we’re still back to the question: What leads to happiness (and a full life)?

 

What Leads to Happiness? Actions that Boost Happiness

According to an ever-growing body of research, there are many things we can do to bring happiness to our lives—and to increase our sense of life satisfaction. Here are 20 effective ones:

  1. Regular exercise and physical activity: moving our bodies regularly, ideally with some vigor. Since our mind and body are connected, our physical activity can have powerful effects on our moods. Exercise has several spillover benefits:
    • helping us unplug from our devices
    • getting us outside more
    • helping us sleep better, which is essential for everything we do
    • releasing endorphins, which give us pleasure
    • reducing anxiety and stress
    • giving us feelings of mastery or motivation, and sometimes getting us into a state of flow
  1. Acts of kindness, caring, service, and generosity: caring for others can help us be happier and healthier, as long as we also engage in self-care and don’t overcommit, burn ourselves out, or care so much that we get lost in the problems or despair of others.
  2. Purpose and meaning: having a sense of why we’re here and what gives us a sense of deeper significance and connection with something larger than ourselves. This doesn’t have to be grand or complicated. It can begin with worthy activities: engaging in activities that feel meaningful and based on virtues like character and generosity. When we show up as a good person living purposefully—serving others, forgiving people, giving back, being grateful for what we have, and contributing to something larger than ourselves—we end up feeling happier and more fulfilled. It can be parenting or grandparenting—or volunteering, mentoring, or day-to-day acts of service. And it can entail meaningful work, community building, religious worship, or spiritual connection and growth.
  3. Relationships with others: connecting with others helps us feel love. It gives us a sense of meaning, self-worth, significance, and belonging. It also means we’re more likely to receive support when we need it most. And to provide it when others need it most. According to many researchers, strong social relationships are the most important contributor to enduring happiness for most people. Those who are happiest generally devote a great amount of time to their family and friends. They nurture and enjoy those relationships.
  4. Goals and Aspirations: having a deep commitment to lifelong goals and ambitions (like parents teaching children their values), ideally “self-concordant goals” (ones that are intrinsically interesting and congruent with our identity). This gives us things to work toward and look forward to. It’s highly motivating, especially with intrinsic aspirations, not extrinsic ones (where the motivation is to seek rewards or avoid punishments). Note: Goals should be challenging, but not too challenging (lest we get deflated for failing to achieve unrealistic goals).
  5. Authentic expression of self: being true to who we really are and avoiding the traps of wearing a mask, people pleasing, or caring too much about what others think.
  1. Anticipation: having something to look forward to (e.g., a vacation, date nights, wedding).
“We need the sweet pain of anticipation to tell us we are really alive.” -Albert Camus
  1. Gratitude: being thankful for what we have can have powerful effects on our quality of life, including improved wellbeing, life satisfaction, sense of connectedness, and health. Activities such as daily gratitude journaling or writing gratitude letters to those who’ve helped us can have surprisingly strong and lasting effects.
  2. Experiences: enjoying encounters and activities that are engaging and fun. Tip: consider spending money more on activities (e.g., live shows or social dinners), not so much on things (clothes or gadgets).
  3. Learning and developing: learning new things and boosting our skills and capacities engages our curiosity, challenges us, helps our brains make connections across domains, and gives us a sense of confidence and accomplishment.
  4. Meditation and mindfulness practices: activities that help us experience focused attention and achieve a heightened state of awareness can contribute significantly to our happiness and wellbeing. This includes stopping and noticing what’s going on around and within us. It helps us get in touch with our feelings and experience them (which is much better than avoiding or suppressing them, which can be toxic). And it helps us focus on the present instead of dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.
  5. Person-activity fit”: engaging in activities that feel enjoyable and natural to us, and that are aligned with our personality, goals, interests, and values. It also means not doing things out of guilt or due to outside pressures or expectations.
  6. Seeing the positive and reframing the negative: look for the good in things and practice optimism when imagining our future. According to researchers, humans have a negativity bias—over-focusing on negatives and underappreciating positives. It’s important to reframe things from setbacks or defeats to challenges or opportunities (e.g., for learning and growth).
  7. Journaling: Research has shown that writing about stressful experiences can help us create meaning from them. (The same can be true for talking through our feelings with others.)
  8. Resilience in the face of adversity: invoking our ability to withstand challenges and bounce back from difficult events, showing poise and strength in the process. Since suffering is part of life, we must learn how to deal with it—and ideally grow and learn in the process.
  9. Savoring: fully feeling and enjoying positive experiences, thereby extending them. Living in the present moment and appreciating what we have.
  10. Self-care: taking actions to preserve or improve our health and wellbeing, including during periods of stress. We neglect this at our peril, as it’s foundational to the other things.
  11. Strengths: knowing and doing the things that we’re good at, including knowledge, talents, and skills. Ideally, we design our lives and work around them, as opposed to harping on our weaknesses. And we work with others who have different strengths.
  12. Intentional and effective use of time: intentional planning and deployment of our time, such that our actual use of time approaches our ideal use of time. How much of our precious time are we wasting?
“Unless a person takes charge of them, both work and free time are likely to be disappointing.” -Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  1. Variety: mixing things up and breaking old patterns. Even with good things that we enjoy, we can fall into ruts and lose motivation. Our brains enjoy new stimuli. As the saying goes, “Variety is the spice of life.”
“…the pursuit of happiness requires selecting self-appropriate and eudaimonic-type activities (rather than chasing after positive emotions directly); investing sustained (rather than desultory) effort in those activities; and also, practicing them in a varied and changing manner (rather than doing them the same way each time). By such means, people can create for themselves a steady inflow of engaging, satisfying, connecting, and uplifting positive experiences, thereby increasing the likelihood that they remain in the upper range of their happiness potentials.” -Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky

Here’s the good news: there’s much we can do to boost our happiness and wellbeing. The point isn’t that we have to do all of these happiness-generating activities. Why not try some new ones? And why not design your days more intentionally?

In the end, our happiness is up to us. What leads to happiness for you?

 

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More Articles in this Happiness Series

Postscript: Relevant Theories

  • Eudaimonic Activity Model: suggests that engaging in growth-promoting (eudaimonic) goals and intentional behaviors helps people satisfy their basic psychological needs, which results in elevated happiness and wellbeing.
  • Hedonic Adaptation Prevention (HAP) Model: describes the different ways we tend to become rapidly accustomed to changes in our circumstances and settle into our happiness baseline as if nothing had occurred. (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2012)
  • Sustainable Happiness Model (SHM): a framework for research on how to boost and maintain happiness over time via intentional behaviors and other interventions.

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership 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 and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Problem of Going It Alone

One of the silver linings of this ruthless pandemic has been what it has reminded us about our longing for relationship, for connection, for human touch. What was suddenly stolen was dearly missed and now cherished. We see the problem of going it alone.

Close connection with family and friends and a sense of belonging are the most important building blocks of a life well lived. Yet today we have forces driving us apart.

One is a culture of excessive individualism and egocentric living, a sense that life is all about us. It’s the trap of being self-absorbed and caught up in our own stuff, without focusing on something larger than ourselves. If we’re fortunate enough to live a comfortable life with our needs met, one danger is that we can “cocoon” into our big homes with big yards with more stuff than we need and wall ourselves off into social isolation.

Here we encounter the emptiness of egocentric living. By contrast, we can pursue the meaningfulness of relational commitment, of being there for others and letting them be there for us.

Burnout and Overwork

Another problem is our culture of burnout and overwork. In his wonderful book, How Will Your Measure Your Life?, written with his colleagues James Allworth and Karen Dillon before he passed away, Clayton Christensen wrote:

“…there is much more to life than your career…. In my experience, high-achievers focus a great deal on becoming the person they want to be at work–and far too little on the person they want to be at home. Investing our time and energy in raising wonderful children or deepening our love with our spouse often doesn’t return clear evidence of success for many years. What this leads to is over-investing in our careers, and under-investing in our families–starving one of the most important parts of our life.”

 

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.

 

Happiness Is Social

There’s a mountain of research demonstrating the importance of relationships, belonging, and social connectedness to our happiness. Take the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a massive longitudinal study of hundreds of people for about 80 years now. Writing about the study in The Atlantic, Joshua Wolf Shenk reported, “The project is one of the longest-running—and probably the most exhaustive—longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history,” including interviews, questionnaires, medical exams, and psychological tests.

The subjects continue to be studied to this day. They’re evaluated at least every two years by questionnaires, information from their doctors, and interviews. Researchers gathered information about their mental and physical health, career enjoyment, retirement experience, and marital quality.

When asked what he’s learned from the study, psychiatrist and professor George Vaillant (a psychiatrist who led the study for decades) wrote: “Warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction.’… (We now have) “70 years of evidence that our relationships with other people… matter more than anything else in the world…. Happiness is love. Full stop.”

“All you need is love.”The Beatles

 

Sources of Happiness

In another study, researchers sought to identify the characteristics of the happiest 10 percent of people among us. What did they find? Wealth? Beauty? Fame? Fitness? No, the main distinguishing characteristic of the happiest 10 percent: the strength of their social relationships.

In their book, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener write: “…like food and air, we seem to need social relationships to thrive.”

According to summary findings on happiness from Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky and other researchers she’s studied (from her book, The How of Happiness), the happiest people:

  • Devote a great amount of time to their family and friends, nurturing and enjoying those relationships
  • Are comfortable expressing gratitude for all they have
  • Are often the first to offer helping hands to co-workers and others
  • Practice optimism when imagining their futures
  • Savor life and live in the present moment
  • Exercise regularly
  • Are deeply committed to lifelong goals and ambitions (e.g., teaching children their values)
  • Show poise and strength when coping with challenges

(Note how many of those activities involve relationships.)

According to researchers who evaluated data from the World Values Survey, which surveyed people in more than 150 countries about their life satisfaction, the top factors that account for about three-fourths of reported well-being are:

  • social support
  • generosity
  • trust
  • freedom
  • income per capita
  • healthy life expectancy

(Note how many of these factors are social. The link between life satisfaction and social connection has held up very well across time and place, according to the World Happiness Report 2015.)

“Here’s the most fundamental finding of happiness economics: the factors that most determine our happiness are social, not material…. social connectedness is the most important of all the variables which contribute to a sense of wellbeing in life. And that is true at any age…. We are each other’s safety nets.”Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve

Isolation and Going It Alone

Alas, the flip side is also true. Isolation can become a downward spiral, fostering discontent and shame, leading to further isolation. It turns out that going it alone through hard times and transitions, though an instinct for many, is a recipe for more hardship.

“Isolation is fatal…. The burden of going it alone is heavy and limiting—and potentially dangerous…. In fact, social isolation can take up to seven years off of your life. Isolation contributes to heart disease and depression; it influences your immune system and leads to faster aging and advanced health problems.”Richard Leider and Alan Webber, Life Reimagined

Truth be told, staying connected to others can be hard at times. It doesn’t help that we have so much political division and distrust, with so many people dismissing or dehumanizing others who have different views. Our age of political contempt, partisan warfare, and take-no-prisoners tribalism is surely not helping.

Vulnerability and Connection

Many of us also struggle with vulnerability, with asking for help. We fear feeling uncomfortable and a potential loss of social status if we admit that our lives are not Instagram-perfect. So we resort to superficial conversations that feel safer, neglecting the deeper territory of openness and self-disclosure through meaningful dialogue.

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.”Brene Brown, researcher, speaker, and author

What’s needed, though, is more of what design thinkers call “radical collaboration,” which can be thought of as collaborating much more than you normally would—proactively seeking mentors, coaches, friends, peer groups, and people to learn from and ask questions.

The problem of going it alone in times of trouble or transition is that it doesn’t work very well. A better approach: reach out and connect. Share. Listen. Help, and accept help. You and your family, friends, and colleagues will be glad you did.

 

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

Postscript: Quotes on the Importance of Relationships and Not Going It Alone

  • “In everyone’s life, at some time, an inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” –Stephen R. Covey, author, executive, and speaker
  • “Belonging begins with safety…. this is a place and a relationship where you feel safe enough to be the real you.” –Jonathan Fields, How to Live a Good Life
  • “Going it alone in times of hardship is never a good idea.” –Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve 
  • “Being in a state of in between means being in some state of loneliness. Being neither here nor there often feels like being nowhere. Which is why connecting with others is so central to getting through one of these times. Human beings like to share.” –Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions
  • “I came to understand that while many of us might default to measuring our lives by summary statistics, such as number of people presided over, number of awards, or dollars accumulated in a bank, and so on, the only metrics that will truly matter to my life are the individuals whom I have been able to help, one by one, to become better people.” –Clayton Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life?
  • “Well, what are you? What is it about you that you have always known as yourself? What are you conscious of in yourself: your kidneys, your liver, your blood vessels? No. However far you go in your memory it is always some external manifestation of yourself where you came across your identity: in the work of your hands, your family, in other people. And now, listen carefully. You in others—this is what you are, this is what your consciousness has breathed, and lived on, and enjoyed throughout your life, your soul, your immortality—your life in others.” -Boris Pasternak, Russian poet and novelist (Doctor Zhivago)

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership 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 and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!