As I opened my front door on a recent May morning, I was greeted by the welcoming sight of two small, dark eyes and a tiny head. She was up above me, by the light on our porch, sitting in her nest, devotedly protecting and warming her eggs. I had seen a flurry of activity over the past month — a scuttering of wings back and forth, day after day, as she built this nest, an architectural feat balancing on the tip of the lamp post.
I have observed this activity for at least five years now, each spring delighting in this bird returning (is it the same one?) to build her nest and care for her eggs. Each year I am fortunate enough to see the young baby birds poke their heads out of the nest once hatched, and one time I watched as one was on the ground, learning to fly. Each spring day when I walk out my door now, I marvel at the dedication of this mother bird as she sits on her eggs, hour after hour, day after day, because some instinct of life is guiding her to do so.
This steady cycle of nature, of the continuing of the life cycle, is especially comforting to me at this time of immense change, uncertainty, and tremendous loss for so many. It made me pause to think about what it is that I might tend to each day, what am I being guided to do that aligns with some deeper blueprint of what matters most. I find myself asking: What deep values are we driven by, what will we nurture, guard fiercely, and return to year after year no matter the circumstances? What deeper purpose allows us to show up day after day, even though there is much uncertainty, and there is much that we can’t control?
Research on factors associated with well-being suggests that the ability to find purpose in life’s experiences may be an important contributor to one’s health, longevity, and resilience. In the face of adverse circumstances, people who report having greater life’s purpose are able to reframe stressful situations in more helpful ways that allow them to better handle life’s challenges. One study showed that people with higher reported life purpose demonstrated better emotional recovery when presented with negative emotional stimuli. The authors of the study suggest that life purpose may help individuals to avoid negative ruminations by refocusing on what is important to them. Studies have also suggested that having a life’s purpose can be protective to one’s health, such as having less likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and playing a role in maintaining healthy physical function in older adults.
I’ve been noticing during these months of quarantine and physical distancing that finding and focusing on what is important to me has been immensely helpful in getting through— and the things that I most care about turn out to be the things that have always been there (for example., my love for family; my desire to find ways of helping people). From my experience in my own life and working with others, one’s purpose need not be grandiose, and meaning can be discovered in simple, daily actions.
Three Steps for Finding Meaning and Purpose in Daily Life
Reflect on what is most important to you and find a way to express that today. What values do you most want to live by? What personal qualities have been most important to you in your life, (e.g., your perseverance, your creativity, your compassion for others, your commitment to something you care about). What qualities do you most admire in others? Choose one thing to focus on today — for example, being kind to others — and as you go through your day, find one way you can express that quality (e.g., perhaps being more conscious and intentional today about how you speak to others, or expressing appreciation to someone today whom you might not otherwise have).
Find purpose in something ordinary. We go through the motions of our day and often miss opportunities to find purpose in things that we do so routinely. But if we pause to acknowledge these moments and recognize them in a new way, there is an opportunity to connect to something deeper. Some examples might be walking a dog, cooking a meal for the family, helping a child with homework, or flossing one’s teeth (experiencing these as opportunities to take care of others that we love, or simple acts of taking care of ourselves).
Find meaning in something small. See if you might find purpose or meaning in something small today. We can sometimes fall into all or nothing thinking, telling ourselves that if we don’t do something big, it doesn’t count. But the fabric of our lives is made up of little moments, and little moments add up. One of my meditation teachers encourages people to take just three mindful bites of a meal. It can be that simple. When I remember to take three mindful bites of my food, I not only connect in with the wonderful flavors and nourishment I am giving my body, but I also think about the enormous efforts of people all over the world who helped to grow , pick, package and deliver this food. There is suddenly a sense of connection, gratitude and appreciation. Notice what happens today as you bring intention and awareness to one small thing you choose to do. Or, engage in something small that you find meaningful (tending a garden, reading an article that allows you to expand your viewpoint, calling someone you care about) and take a few moments to notice how you feel during and afterwards. Notice any aspects of this experience that might have felt important in some small way. Notice what deeper values they might connect to (e.g., caring for the earth, expanding your knowledge, sharing connection with others). This second part, the noticing, is an essential part of the meaning making, as it is otherwise all too easy for this moment to slip away unacknowledged.