We all want to feel like we’re living a meaningful life, and the benefits are more than just psychological. In fact, studies show that people who have found meaning tend to live longer, spend less time in the hospital, and are less likely to have strokes or develop Alzheimer’s disease. But how should we approach the quest to make life meaningful? While part of it hinges on your personal values and unique goals, the good news is that there are some scientifically proven ways to make virtually any life more satisfying. Here are nine of the best tips, drawn from recent research on what generates meaning.
1. Cultivate self-esteem
Study participants who report having meaningful lives almost always score highly on measures of positive self-worth. So, if you are constantly plagued by a critical inner voice, trying to develop more self-esteem is an essential step on the road to meaningfulness. Ask yourself where your low levels of confidence come from—common examples include your family of origin, childhood experiences (like bullying), and difficult or abusive romantic relationships. Once you know where your negative self-talk comes from, it’s easier to work to reject it. However, don’t be afraid to enlist the help of a therapist if you’re struggling to boost your confidence on your own.
2. Face challenges
Although many people daydream about an easier life, the truth is that a little adversity is necessary if you’re going to experience your time as meaningful. Consequently, it’s worth doing some of the things that scare you! New experiences also help to generate meaning. As a bonus, repeatedly coping with new challenges helps you hone your resilience, which makes you more capable of successfully dealing with problems you encounter.
3. Find a purpose…
All research on meaningfulness shows the significance of feeling like you have a purpose. While many people find that purpose in the workplace, it need not be located there—for you, it might come as part of caring for a family, volunteering free time to help those in need, or pursuing a creative hobby for pleasure. If you’re feeling clueless about your purpose, don’t worry—studies indicate that it’s often not until later life that people find their purpose.
Try this exercise: write down 5-10 things that make you feel happiest and most satisfied. Is there any way to turn one or more of these passions into a career? If not, how could you make more space for these passions in your recreational time?
4. …but be careful about your goals
One of the most important warnings from research on meaningfulness is that not just any goal will help you attain a happy life. In particular, people who make social commitments (e.g. to stay close to family and friends) are typically more satisfied, as are those who become involved in good causes (such as political activism or charity work). Meanwhile, people who focus solely on obtaining expensive new items or promotions tend to be less happy—even if they derive enjoyment from meeting those goals at the moment.
5. Imagine yourself as a very old person
To find out what type of purpose might truly promote your well-being in the long term, try imagining yourself in very old age—this is a tip offered by the company Happify, whose employees work on ways to apply the latest science to the search for happiness. Find a quiet place to reflect, and try to picture yourself in your 90s. What’s around you? What brings you feelings of pride, satisfaction, and happiness? What changes could you make today to make your lifestyle more in line with the vision of what matters to you near the end of your life?
6. Stay curious
Another consistent finding is that curious people have more meaningful lives. While most of us were very curious as children, that can wane as we enter adulthood. Try to do things that help you connect with that curious part of yourself—read absorbing novels, learn about new scientific developments, be playful, and make the effort to appreciate the world around you. For example, you might try committing to a weekly hour of going out just to take photographs of things that catch your eye.
7. Make the best of what’s available
Of course, not everyone is lucky enough to be able to follow their purpose the moment they discover it. If you’re still working towards a life that revolves around your purpose, try to find small things you can do to improve every day. One study found that you can make even a challenging or dull job into something meaningful—for example, a group of hospital janitors found meaning by brainstorming ways to connect with patients and finding little ways to lift their moods.
8. Keep a journal
There is evidence to suggest that writing a consistent narrative about your life can help you to find meaning. The most obvious way to approach this task is by keeping a daily or weekly journal. Telling your story promotes self-knowledge and helps you to make sense of your experiences—that’s why many therapists try to help you create and own a coherent narrative about your life.
Finally, work by scientists at the University of Sydney showed that people who meditated daily for over two years reliably scored as happier than people who never meditated. Meditation and mindfulness exercises are linked to feelings of peace, gratitude, and increased mental clarity—all components that can help you find a life purpose and appreciate the beauty of the present moment.