Road

In my last post, I talked about how research has linked having a greater sense of purpose in life to better cognitive functioning and mental health. I also promised to reveal the meaning of life in an upcoming post.

OK, so that last part might have been overstating the case a little. But the basic idea is that psychologists have found some activities and states of mind are associated with having more meaning and purpose in life – and that’s what I want to talk about today.

It’s worth keeping in mind that building purpose in life is a personal and individual process. Nevertheless, recent research has hinted at several things that promote a sense of meaning and purpose. These include:

  • Volunteering: In young adults, volunteering more often is associated with having more purpose in life. Importantly, motivations for volunteering matter: people who volunteer because they either derive pleasure from helping others or feel obligated to help others tend to derive more meaning from the experience.
  • Daydreaming: Psychologists distinguish between different kinds of daydreaming, with positive-constructive daydreaming being daydreaming that involves creativity, wishful thinking, etc. Positive-constructive daydreaming appears to be associated with personal growth, including greater purpose in life.
  • Having a sense of belonging: In general, having strong ties to your community and a feeling of social connectedness can only help make life more meaningful. But having a sense that you belong is especially correlated with finding meaning in life, apparently more so than having a sense of social support or social value.
  • Thinking about the past or future: Living in the present is good and all, but best not to overdo it. Thinking about the past and the future, especially in specific terms, leads to a greater sense of meaning in life. No wonder, then, that some have proposed reminiscence therapy as a way of building meaning in life.
  • Reflecting on purpose in life: Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best. If you want more purpose in your life, maybe reflect on what gives you purpose in your life! College students who discuss their purpose, values and goals in life report being more goal directed and satisfied with life.

One thing you might notice looking at the above list is that while volunteering is a concrete activity, many of the things associated with finding purpose in life have more to do with contemplation – in particular, daydreaming, thinking about the past and future, and reflecting on purpose in life.

It may be, then, that having meaning in life has less to do with what you do and more to do with how you do it. We can find meaning through any number of activities and situations, but we have to do some mental work to find the right fit and make things come together.

What gives you purpose in life? Please share in the comments!

Image: Flickr/Andi Campbell Jones under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0