What does it mean to add joy and meaning to life? How can we manifest and infuse such an abstract concept into our days? And is it possible that, each time we ask ourselves these questions, the answer changes a little bit…?
I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes life rich and meaningful lately—beyond Pinterest board interpretations of “the good life”, which, in my corner of the internet, include minimal but festive interiors, fancy cutting board platters (gotta learn to assemble one of those), and exotic vacations. All the stuff I pin with “Sigh, someday” energy as the real world stacks up around me.
We know that you can’t pin your way to a more fulfilled life without taking action on the things you want, but what about just… feeling more engaged and present? What about loving life now, before you achieve your Pinterest-fueled dreams?
Because, as we’ve all been told, it’s the journey, the every single day, that adds up to become the summary of our lives. There is no far-off dazzling point that we can reach in order to suddenly feel accomplished, fulfilled, and fully joyful for the rest of our days. Yet it’s this plateau that so many of us daydream about, rendering our current lives unsatisfactory.
This is how lives become filled with regret, and how we miss out on the real magic of being here on earth.
What if we could soak it all in, right now, and love life as it’s happening? What if life could feel more meaningful, from your first sip of tea or coffee in the morning to the last thought you have before you fall asleep at night?
I believe there are some effective and universal ways to do this.
No doubt this topic is deeply personal and varies for each of us—and we can’t help but get a little bit existential while exploring it. But we know one thing: Increasing the sense of “meaning” in your life isn’t necessarily about being productive or having material things.
It has more to do with the driving forces behind human nature. The base level things that, if we focus on them consistently, can help lift us out of ruts, free us from stagnant energy, and allow us to sink our teeth into life in a way that might even feel foreign now, especially considering our collective addiction to quick hits of instant gratification.
So, what are these things?
According to some late night coffee-fueled research and a few online courses I’ve been taking, it seems to boil down to cultivating personal relationships (with oneself and others), as well as continuously evolving throughout your life.
One of the most interesting things I’ve learned during the first week of The Science of Well-Being, a Yale course taught by Professor Laurie Santos that’s currently being offered for free, is that human happiness and contentedness usually boils down to reaching beyond our current selves.
Essentially, expanding beyond one’s current state in any number of ways, from learning new skills to discovering new places and meeting new people. Depending on your personality type, this may vary. But this tendency to keep growing and expanding has the power to fill us with purpose and excitement in a way that fleeting moments of ego-stroking cannot.
Shifting from our hashtag-fueled world of “doing it for the ‘gram” to engaging in meaningful behavior regularly is a challenge. But I’ve listed out some ways we can approach this below. I hope you’ll try some of them out and let me know what you think! I’ll be doing the same. Let’s compare notes later? 😉
Work on projects that challenge you
I’m a multi-passionate person with a lot of creative hobbies. But I often find myself sitting down to work on something that I know I’ll be “good” at. While I love the idea of tackling something entirely new, the idea that I will suck at it for a while is usually off-putting enough that I reach for a go-to creative outlet instead.
When I was first learning how to edit videos, I resisted learning new techniques and just kept creating similar edits.
I learned how to write in basic Japanese and then stayed stuck there until pushing myself to learn more complex sentence structures.
When I first learned how to make clothes, I resisted learning more technical details like pockets and zippers.
I didn’t like the feeling of not being good at something, struggling, not completing it to my satisfaction within a day. However, I learned that the feeling of sticking with it, doing the necessary research, and screwing up a few times on your way to figuring it out is a feeling unlike any other.
Gradually building skills and seeing yourself improve is so reaffirming as a creative person, and it often provides the confidence you need to keep going to that next level. If we only do what we’re good at, we become bored and dissatisfied with the creative process.
That doesn’t mean we need to try and learn something new every single day, nor that we shouldn’t sometimes return to calming, whimsical basics. But if you’re stuck in a rut, why not throw yourself a curve ball?
I bet you’ll surprise yourself and rise to the challenge.
Approach simple activities with ceremony & joy
Even the most mundane things about your day can be made more special by consciously infusing them with ceremony.
This doesn’t mean creating an actual ceremony when you do something (I mean, it could!), but rather, being so present and intentional with your actions that it feels like a ceremony.
Here are some ideas that come to mind, but take this concept and run with it! Whatever makes sense for your lifestyle:
- Turning your shower routine into a delicious self-care ritual, starting with dry body brushing, utilizing luxe body scrubs, and finishing with a skincare routine and a few minutes of lounging around in your robe.
- Blending a delicious floral tea from scratch and sipping it while you flip through a magazine you love—which would otherwise end up in the dreaded paper pile, waiting to be perused.
- Sitting outside in the mornings to listen to the birds chirp and the sounds of your neighborhood coming to life.
- Closing your laptop at a certain time each day and taking out your paints for some creative time—with a glass of wine or healthy juice.
- Drinking your water from a beautiful bottle that makes you smile while reminding you to keep drinking it all day long.
In all of these activities, be present to every sensory moment. Let gratitude radiate from your heart. Acknowledge yourself for showing yourself compassion and doing something soothing.
The idea is that no matter what else is going on, you commit to your ritual. Even if you’re having a busy week, you don’t push these small acts of self-love to a once-monthly “self-care day” and then forget to spend time with your self otherwise.
At first it might feel as though you’re forcing yourself to do these things and the urge to get back to “real life” will keep knocking at the door. But if you’re determined to honor these small ceremonies, you can solidify them into habits. Soon you’ll simply be someone who treats even small moments like special gifts.
Relearn how to focus on one thing at a time
This is, perhaps, the greatest challenge of our lifetime. Especially us millennials. We are the distracted generation. We were the first generation to grow up with personal computers. We graduated into a world where hustling and multi-tasking were go-to buzzwords, only to learn that this was, in fact, ruining our chances at success.
We now have more apps and gadgets than we could possibly manage. Too many options everywhere we look, from streaming video to millions of online shopping sites. We have 100 tabs open both in our browsers and our brains.
While writing this, I got up and went to make tea, came back and watched a behind-the-scenes video on The Watcher Patreon channel, and checked my email. Yes, while writing this section of the blog post.
Sticking to your current task is boring. Staying distracted on social media is interesting. We’ve trained our brains to crave something new every few seconds. It’s absolutely wild.
After learning about the concept of resistance and the so-called “lizard brain” years ago, I began to see my constant state of distraction as a defense mechanism against the “danger” of taking focused action. Resistance creeps in when a prehistoric part of the brain called the amygdala wants to keep us from harm. This “harm” doesn’t even have to be life or death, however. It can be virtually anything that might alter our current reality, from publishing a blog post (recognition, hateful comments, exposing too much about oneself) to hitting 6-figures (inspiring resentment, messing up finances, paying more taxes).
The good news is, you’re not alone. We’re all in the same boat because we live in a world where virtually everything around us has been designed, refined, and streamlined to distract the hell out of us. To stay completely focused is no small task.
As Ramit Sethi says in his post about distraction on GrowthLab, “This is hard stuff. I’m pretty good at discipline and focus and I need help all the time. This is a real thing, not just some millennial complaint. It’s not just you, it’s a new normal.” (Some good info here by the way.)
So how do we break this cycle?
Start by setting a timer for 5 minutes and focusing on one single thing the entire time. It could be reading, meditating, hand-sewing, or whatever you want. Once you’ve mastered 5 minutes, go for 10, then 15. When you catch yourself getting distracted, acknowledge it and reel your attention back in.
You can also create optimal circumstances for focusing on specific things. For example, when I’m reading by my computer, I’m distracted by my inbox and just being near my PC. So I take my book outside with a cup of tea and put my feet up for a while. I also highlight important notes as I read, which keeps me engaged in the process.
It’s still difficult and I might find my mind wandering while I read, but then I snap myself out of it and re-read anything I was half-aware of. With time, we can strengthen our brains and give ourselves the gift of being more present.
Support causes that call to your heart
One of the most meaningful things we can do in this life is support the people around us. When we support others, we fill our own cup in many ways. Living generously will leave your heart feeling full, and you will bring more abundance into your own life.
Quantum physics proves that the whole “what goes around, comes around” concept isn’t just a superstition. Karma is very real. The quantum universe shifts to meet you energetically (check out the book “Happy Pocket Full of Money” for details on how this works—it’s absolutely fascinating). The universe will always deliver more of what you focus on. So if you’re focused on helping others and being a source of generosity, you will see generosity in your own life.
Of course, getting your share from the universe isn’t the primary reason for giving. Supporting other people helps you live meaningfully because your resources don’t stop with you. They flow through you to be of service to those around you. You inspire others to give. You make someone’s life a little easier. And making a difference in even one life is a special, meaningful act.
Perhaps you drop off groceries for elderly neighbors or check in on them regularly. Perhaps you set up monthly donations to organizations that support marginalized communities. Perhaps you volunteer your time at an animal shelter or community garden!
There’s no wrong way to give, except for one: Beware of positioning yourself as the “savior” to any community you’re not a part of, whether consciously or unconsciously. When it comes to serving communities other than our own, the best thing we can do is put our money directly into the hands of those qualified to facilitate change and empowerment.
Sidebar: If you’re a well-meaning white person who, like me, had never questioned the efficacy of white-centric charity in developing nations, check out No White Saviors, an eye-opening campaign and education platform. These ladies are working to unpack and explain the harm done by majority-white groups who center themselves as heroes at the expense of those they seek to help. They are also currently raising money for a revolutionary library & cafe in Uganda, which is a great way to kick off your support.
Enjoy things from beginning to end
I saw this tip in an email for Getaway, a boutique travel experience company that puts you in a tiny cabin for a weekend, sans-tech, and it really struck a chord with me. Their advice? Listen to a whole album from beginning to end without skipping around.
I’ve been in the habit of skipping through things for most of my life. I have ADD and OCD, so if something isn’t quite right, I just bounce to the next thing. This includes songs, pages in books, creative projects, household tasks, you name it. Not long ago I saw someone advocating for skipping around online. The idea was, if you don’t like something, you’re not obligated to stick with it.
You can put down books you aren’t feeling. You can end friendships that aren’t working. And I can see the value in that for people who feel “stuck” in life, for sure.
But I feel stuck in my skipping habit sometimes. I feel that my tendency to skip around and look for the next hit of dopamine is slowly dissolving my ability to experience things fully. So, this advice about listening to a whole album, which I don’t think I have done since high school, was really appealing to me.
My boyfriend bought me a vinyl record player for Christmas and I got just a few records to play (I plan on getting more as soon as we have more space, trust me). Something I love about vinyl is that you can’t click a button and skip to the next song. The record plays from start to finish. Visually, you can’t tell where one song ends and one begins, so it just plays.
I absolutely love it. I’ve been listening to jazz albums, lofi beats, and vintage Sailor Moon background music remixed into vaporwave tracks. Its steady consistency is a soothing layer of audio bliss that softens my busy day.
With other tasks, I’m also trying to see them through and not give up. Even if I’m painting or sketching something and it’s not coming out quite right, I challenge myself to turn it around. I’ll take it in a new direction. It feels much better to put your paint brush down after doing your best than it does after pouting like a child because things weren’t working out.
Overtime, learning that I have the capacity to see things through, big and small, makes my days feel more meaningful.
Make things for the sake of creating
I talk about creativity a lot on my blog because it is one of the most important things in my life. Usually when I’m feeling stuck or “blah”, it’s because I’ve gone too long without creating something. And usually if I’ve gone too long without creating, it’s because I made things too complicated or too wrought with conditions in my mind.
The muse does not favor conditions. She comes and goes as she pleases. If I spend too much time thinking “how can I make this ~cool~?” or “how can I turn this into something I can sell?” rather than focusing on the joy of creating, she shakes her head and leaves.
Creating with no exterior motives other than creating, however, makes my day a good one. Or, at the very least, makes the day feel well-spent. I know that creativity takes patience, bravery, and a bit of your very soul. And each time I sit down and make something, I feel my truest self being activated.
Because being creative is one of the nonnegotiable values I live by, I know that I’ll feel sort of off if I don’t exercise my creative impulses regularly. Perhaps you’re similar?
Throughout my life I’ve done professional creative work alongside my just-for-fun projects. This blog is the latter. It’s a sacred space that’s been my outlet for over a decade. But I also went to fashion school and learned that my creativity could be channeled into a business. After graduating, it felt difficult to just make clothes (and other things) without thinking about money.
I’ve started countless Etsy shops around my passions, aiming to sell my designs, DIY supplies, and other things that inspired me. I ended up closing them all, taking a 3-6 month break from that particular outlet each time, before coming back home to it later. I’ve learned this lesson many times.
Naturally, this isn’t to say I won’t try again (see point one about challenging yourself) or that you shouldn’t try to monetize your passions. I fully believe in monetizing talents and embracing professional artistry! But your creativity doesn’t always need to feed into an end goal apart from enjoying the creative process and expressing yourself.
If you’re someone who can’t do a DIY project without suddenly coming up with a business idea, try to reel it back in and focus on how much fun it is to simply make something.
Remove things from your life that are draining
I love a #KonMari moment, and I’ve had many of them this year. I’ve decluttered my apartment several times in varying levels of intensity since I moved here last May, and now that I’m gearing up to move again, I’m committed to thinning out the amount of items that get loaded into the moving van.
I can look around my room right now and identify things that spark joy, as well as things that drain me. A dress I’ve been meaning to repair forever but probably wouldn’t wear even if it were fixed? Draining. A few dishes I bought on Etsy that looked a lot better in the listing? Draining. A basket full of beauty products I spent a pretty penny on but never use? Draaaaining.
And then, there’s the beautifully intricate teacup my little brother gave me for Christmas. Joy! The carefully arranged marker set I keep on my desk for quick bursts of creativity. Joy! Star-shaped faerie lights that hang around my desk. Joy!
I could go on and on. There’s a lot of stuff in here. But the point is, physical objects in your space can have a positive, negative, or neutral impact on your day. But too much of the latter two will leech your motivation and generate a sneaky kind of stress that hums like an almost-silent electric car going less than 20 mph. You don’t quite notice it, but you suffer from it.
When I am done with a fresh round of decluttering and the piles of donation bags are replaced with negative space, I feel that joy again. The joy of freedom. The joy of less stuff to dust and maintain. Space to breathe and appreciate what I do love.
For someone like me, who is far from a minimalist, the battle to keep my home clutter-free is never ending. But it’s also a process that helps me learn about myself and inform future consumption habits. I’ve learned that the more cluttered things are, the more distracted and irritated I am. I don’t really feel like myself, and I certainly find it hard to find “meaning” in my day when I’m stressed about my surroundings.
Decluttering feels like a fresh start, and I get a little bit better at this all the time. If your home is full to the brim and you’re exhausted just by looking at it, dedicate your next free weekend to overhauling your belongings and making some space. The psychological benefits will be immediately noticeable.
Isn’t it about time you re-watched Tidying Up with Marie Kondo anyway?
Do things you’ve been putting off
Have you ever put off a silly task like filling out a form or mending a button, only to complete it weeks later and realize it was completely painless? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve finally finished a task and thought to myself, “Why didn’t I just do this when it came up? Instead I stressed about it for a month.”
Sometimes clutter is mental, and it’s related to things you’re procrastinating on. It could be an apology you’ve been meaning to make, a repair around the house that you just can’t seem to get around to, or a dreaded piece of paperwork you need to process. Even if it’s a fun thing, like sending a care package to a loved one, it becomes a guilt-ridden to-do list item that feels heavier by the day when you don’t handle it.
This is another big challenge that so many people face. I am definitely not very “type A” organized, and I struggle with procrastination all the time. I think it’s a combination of not liking the restriction of deadlines or mandatory tasks and thinking I have all the “later” time in the world. Like clockwork, when I finally finish something I’ve been putting off, I am filled with bewilderment about why I’ve procrastinated yet again.
In order to inspire myself to take care of things in a timely manner, I try to envision the feeling of having finished. I try to imagine the relief and pride I’ll feel at the end of the day if I’ve handled all of these little tasks instead of putting them off.
If you’re like me and you tend to hoard to-do’s with the best of intentions, you may have to go through your list and just kiss some of them goodbye. You’re only human and you have a limited amount of energy, so don’t feel like you have to do everything. You might hire someone to take on certain tasks, simplify them, or cross them off your list entirely.
I’d love to hear your favorite tips for beating procrastination as well, so don’t forget to leave them down below.
Engage in a gratitude practice
This might be the most life-changing thing you can do. If you’ve read it a zillion times on self-improvement lists but you’ve never given it a shot, don’t skip it this time.
A gratitude practice can be designed to fit into your day however you please. It could be your own personalized kind of prayer, spoken to whatever higher power you believe in, at a certain time each day. It could be jotting down a few things you’re deeply grateful for while you sip your morning coffee. Or writing lengthy diary entries before you go to bed at night.
Gratitude can open up your heart and mind to optimism and joy in a way nothing else can. Recognizing your blessings, embracing them, and documenting them each day keeps you in a positive head space, even when little annoyances pop up (like traffic or stubbing your toe).
Being grateful is something my mom emphasizes constantly, and it used to bother me that I was unable to exude gratitude in order to turn around a bad day like she could. I may have even resisted the idea because I felt like seething was the only way to honor my feelings. Truthfully, though, once I put in the mental work to examine my blessings in the midst of my frustration, I saw how powerful this practice really is.
I journal occasionally and I note down both my heavier thoughts and what I’m grateful for. Sometimes it’s not very eloquent. Sometimes I just make lists. I pause to consider good things in my life on a regular basis, from the safety of a roof over my head to loving relationships.
It’s a bit harder when I’m having a tough day, but if I decide to see the good in my situation, I can elevate my mood and, quite frankly, not act like a spoiled brat who needs to have things a certain way. When my mind is focused on what’s good, I am not at the mercy of every little crappy thing that happens.
Last summer, my mentors recommended that I start a thought-flipping journal. This was a tipping point for me because it allowed me to stop feeling sorry for myself and take ownership of my perspective. I would reword defeating thoughts into powerful ones, infused with gratitude. In the beginning it felt like I was writing thoughts down all day, but soon I began to catch them in my mind.
I would ask myself, “Is that what my higher self or ideal self would say?” If not, I would flip the thought without having to jot it down. I’ve slipped on this since I started and am going to take out my thought journal for the summer. We truly create our own realities with our minds (see that note on quantum physics above), so it’s worth paying attention to.
I highly recommend this method if you’re not sure how to start making that shift into gratitude. When you start to notice your thoughts on a regular basis, you’ll see how many of them keep you stuck and keep you from enjoying life to the fullest.
Make a concentrated effort to take better care of yourself
Sometimes the source of our blah-ness in life can stem from ignoring basic needs. It happens to even the most organized of people. Life can get hectic (more like when is it not?), and things like drinking enough water, getting fresh air, and moving your body can fall to the back burner.
It’s not like we don’t know what we should be doing to take care of ourselves, but doing it is another story. Modern life provides many subpar alternatives to sustenance and movement. It’s on us to make sure we’re not sacrificing our health for the sake of convenience.
Whether this means learning healthier recipes and cutting down on takeout to buying a compact exercise bike for your room, try to make one small shift in your routine starting this week.
I’ve read advice like this many times and felt hopeless. Too often, my default setting has been “off the wagon” when it comes to wellness. But when I examined my life, it was clear that my abnormal sleeping patterns and all-day writing marathons were stacking the odds against me. I wasn’t making it easy for myself to live a balanced, healthy life.
You can’t hang onto bad habits and just add in some healthy ones and expect things to change. Sometimes, you need to do a full lifestyle audit and overhaul. Even if the overhaul is bit-by-bit, one step at a time.
One of the things I never thought I would do is develop a regular yoga practice, which seems to come so naturally to other women. But ever since I found a relatable, beginner-level YouTube channel that I love, I’ve been doing yoga almost every morning.
Once I started doing yoga, I started instinctively hydrating more often, and since I was feeling stronger, I also did a circuit training workout challenge for a week. I was amazed at myself, and there was no way I was going to cram junk food into my mouth after being such a HIIT training badass (just kidding, I was a total beginner, but I felt like a badass). One good habit fed into another, and another.
Yep, I also fell off the wagon after that, but I got back on again. I have some days more healthy than others, but I’m not giving up on myself. And when I am committed to my own wellness, I feel a deep richness in daily life that I don’t feel when I am letting things go.
It’s not easy to snap yourself out of a rut, so you have to find your purpose for initiating change.
For me, it was a YouTube video where a calisthenics athlete discussed her journey from overweight to lean, mean headstand queen. She caused a domino to topple in my brain. She didn’t talk about bikini season or being “perfect”, just getting hooked on feeling stronger. That, I could relate to. I used to climb doorways and speed skate around in my figure skates as a kid. Being strong was always something I identified with! But I had forgotten that.
She mentioned holding up her own body weight for the first time, doing her very first headstand, realizing she could stretch further and hold more weight. That felt right to me. Those felt like healthy goals. Because “fit into this dress from when I was 25” was just getting me down.
After my first brush with the #fitlife, the thought of recapturing that feeling of whole-body wellness and increasing strength was enough to keep me hooked. Since then, I’ve been committed to taking better care of myself, and life feels very different.
Don’t give up on yourself. You are your most precious asset. All of your creativity, generosity, and genius can’t be gifted to the world if you’re not well enough to manifest those things. So keep searching, keep experimenting. Find the wellness “Why” that lights you up and keep showing up with it as often as you can.
And remember: Progress, not perfection!
Those are my favorite tips for living a more meaningful, joyful life. I am sure there are many more.
You’ll have noticed a recurring theme of expansion throughout this post, touching on different ways we can break the mold of our day-to-day. Newness not for the sake of newness, but for growth, knowledge, experience, and just digging our fingers into the soil of life.
Challenging ourselves is the key. It feels both invigorating and nerve-wracking to leave the comfort zone, but this is undoubtedly how we grow as people… and capture that elusive sense of “feeling alive”.
Feeling alive won’t always equate to feeling like you’re in a movie or like everything in life is perfect. It’s about accomplishment, sitting with emotions and truly processing them, making deep connections with other people, and tackling your goals with vigor and consistency.
Is this the key to happiness? I think so. I think being an active participant in your own story is one of the keys to that ever elusive happiness we are all chasing. And these are just some of the ways you can test that theory out.
What are some other ways you can add more joy and meaning to life? Drop a comment below and let’s chat!
Here’s to your beautiful, joyful, meaningful life. May it be full of health, accomplishment, creative endeavors, and chances to grow (among other things).
Lots and lots of love,