How To Lead A Mindful Life

How to lead a mindful, meaningful life

Happiness is elusive, but living a life of meaning can boost our resilience, wellbeing and ultimately lead to a happier life.

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Many people believe the purpose of life is to be happy. This is understandable, but the problem with this theory lies in the reality that we simply can’t be happy all the time. Suffering is an unavoidable part of life, regardless of wealth, success or social status. Happiness can be taken from us in a split second through mistake, accident, diagnosis or even something as seemingly insignificant as taking the wrong route home. Actively pursuing happiness is an admirable pursuit, but the elusive nature of this goal can lead to more unhappiness.

Research has shown that the key to a happy life is our ability to cultivate meaning and a sense of purpose. Happiness comes and goes, but meaning and purpose anchor us through difficult times. Finding your life’s purpose can lead to a more fulfilling and satisfying existence.

According to author and researcher Emily Esfahani Smith, we should actively seek to create a life that matters. “To be psychologically and spiritually healthy, we need to believe that our lives matter,” she says. “We all need to discover ways to feel connected to something larger than ourselves — to feel that our lives make sense and that we have a purpose.”

Psychological researcher Michael F Steger also believes that meaning comes from connecting and contributing to something beyond ourselves. Steger states that humans have a strong desire to understand our experiences and how we fit into the world around us. Having a role to play in society makes us feel grounded and connected to the world and our communities; it reaffirms the feeling that our lives make sense and “matter”. Isolation, on the other hand, can cause these beliefs to weaken, leaving us feeling inadequate, alone and ultimately less happy.

The work of renowned psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl details the importance of meaning and mindset during pain and hardship: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” It is extremely difficult to remain happy when one endures immense suffering, but individuals with a clear purpose and strong sense of self can recover more quickly and move forward with their lives.

Frankl demonstrates such meaningful resilience in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, which recounts his imprisonment in Auschwitz concentration camp. Through his personal experience and by witnessing his fellow prisoners endure the greatest suffering imaginable, Frankl proposes that by finding meaning, even in the most insignificant moments or smallest tasks, one has a better chance of survival. Frankl reflects: “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose. In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”

The search for meaning

People often think that the search for meaning is an esoteric pursuit, that we need to travel to a foreign destination, undertake a pilgrimage or seek guidance from a spiritual leader to find it. According to Smith, the key to finding meaning is to cultivate a culture of it in everyday life.

“There are untapped sources of meaning all around us — right here, right now. We can find belonging in a brief connection with a barista or a newspaper vendor. We can find purpose by helping a colleague at work or our children with their assignments. We can reflect on a pivotal experience from our life to understand more deeply who we are. We can look up at a starry night sky and feel awe and transcendence” she says.

Meaning and purpose in everyday life

In addition to cultivating a sense of belonging and working towards a purpose, Smith points to storytelling and mystery as important elements of a fulfilled life.

Storytelling allows us to leave a legacy, to share moments that define us or assisted in the evolution of our character. The best stories are the ones that changed the trajectory of our lives or highlight an important insight or lesson learnt.

The stories we tell ourselves become the realities we live. A life of adversity, for example, can cause great suffering, but it can also teach strength and resilience and provide deep insights.

Take time for self-reflection and to consider the significant moments of your life, both good and bad. How has a challenge, illness or difficult moment made you stronger? What did you learn from this time? What insights or new skills did you gain? Who are some of the people you met along the way?

We are authors of our own story, and if the story you tell yourself is one you don’t like, such as “I am not good enough” or “I am a failure”, then it’s time to flip the script. You have the opportunity, at any stage of your life, to rewrite your story.

Seek out new experiences

Seeking out mystery involves attempting new experiences and stepping outside your comfort zone. Existing within the constraints of your comfort zones limits your opportunities for growth. Discomfort is inevitable when you push your boundaries, so accept a moment of unease as an essential part of your development.

New experiences can create social and professional connections, build confidence and provide you with new, exciting chapters in your life’s story.

Find your why

Your core values are the fundamental beliefs that influence your behaviour and ultimately how you live your life. When your actions align with these values, you create a life that is congruent and meaningful. A deep understanding of your core values can help you to set and achieve heart-centred goals that are intrinsically meaningful and personally significant.

Working and living according to your values can also help you to seek out relationships that are compatible and based on mutual respect. Reflect on your values and your passions to determine the tasks and activities you find meaningful and will bring purpose to your life.

Master your mindset

Finding your life’s purpose often involves a period of inner work and reflection. It is important to approach personal development with the belief that you can grow and evolve if you put in the time and effort. If you acknowledge your strengths, focus on them daily and visualise achieving your goals, you can maintain an optimistic mindset.

A motivated and optimistic mindset is a powerful tool in times of adversity and can help you to face life’s challenges. When suffering from loss or recovering from a negative experience, you can hold onto the knowledge that nothing is permanent and this too will pass. An intrinsic belief that things will get better coupled with the confidence that we possess the ability to improve our situation can be enough to move forward. As Viktor Frankl reminds us, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Find your tribe

Possessing a sense of community, belonging and connectedness to others is a key determinant of happiness. It is essential that the people you rely on and surround yourself with are true friends. This means they accept you as you are, support you through challenges and encourage you to pursue your dreams.

Consider whether the people in your existing social network offer you genuine support and friendship and are there for you in times of stress, grief or failure? If the answer is no, it is time to actively seek new connections.

You may naturally form connections when attempting new experiences, but new connections are also possible during your regular daily activities. Strike up a conversation with someone you have never stopped to chat to before at the gym, the park or the office. Talk to the person behind you in the line at the coffee shop instead of scrolling on your phone. Be open, be present, choose integrity and show up as your authentic self.

Live mindfully

Mindfulness and other contemplative practices such as meditation contribute to greater wellbeing by enhancing personal insight and cultivating deeper appreciation of ourselves and others. From a scientific perspective, mindfulness strengthens parts of the brain associated with the regulation of emotions, happiness and perspective-taking.

Sometimes, finding meaning in life is as simple as being fully involved in living. If you are present for your life’s journey, you are more able to fully embrace it and find purpose and belonging in simple, everyday activities. Listen when you connect and converse with people, practise gratitude for what you already have and act with intention.

Don’t give up your day job

Finding your purpose won’t necessarily translate to resigning from your day job and getting paid to follow your passion. Your life’s purpose might not be tied to your work at all. It may help to reframe how you view the role of your paid work. Although the work you undertake in your paid employment may not be at the core of your life’s purpose, it has an integral role to play in sustaining the life you are choosing to live.

It is certainly possible to cultivate meaningfulness at work. Research shows people with a clear sense of self and an accurate understanding of both the nature of their work and the expectations of their organisation are more likely to find their work meaningful. A clear sense of self and purpose engages a person in their work and motivates their performance, helping to transcend their own immediate interests in order to achieve an outcome for their organisation and the people it serves.

What are the benefits?

Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits associated with a strong sense of purpose and meaning in life, including resilience, longevity and a greater sense of wellbeing. A 2004 study into the connection between wellbeing and biology showed that a strong sense of purpose is linked to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and lower overall levels of inflammation within the body. High levels of inflammation can lead to a range of disease states.

Other studies have shown that in ageing adults, a higher life’s purpose is associated with a reduced decline in physical function, a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease and more preventative behaviours. A 2019 study showed that the feeling that life is meaningful and filled with worthwhile activities may promote healthy ageing, sustain meaningful social relationships and optimal use of time and lead to better mental health in elderly people.

It’s time to write your story

Creating a life that matters is a lifelong pursuit that involves passion, perseverance and daily action. Meaning and purpose mean different things to different people, and finding yours will involve actively seeking new opportunities, pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone and making time for reflection.

Genetic, environmental, social and economic factors certainly influence our lives, but we still have a large degree of control over our happiness. Our mindset, thoughts, beliefs and the quality of our relationships influence our actions. What we do on a daily basis can affect how meaningful we find our lives to be.

You have the lead role in the story of your life. If you embrace that power and begin to live a life that matters, happiness will follow.

Emma Nuttall

Emma Nuttall

Emma Nuttall is a nutritionist (BHSc) and freelance writer. She combines evidence-based nutritional medicine with mindset strategies to support her clients in achieving their goals.

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