Finding Purpose and Meaning in Life


We are all creatures of repetition and habit, and this can leave us feeling stuck. There are many ways to feel stuck. We can feel stuck in a job, or stuck in a marriage or a relationship; we can feel stuck in an obligation, chained to what we feel we are expected to do and must do; we can feel stuck in our aging bodies, stuck in the foods we eat, or stuck in tired routines that leave us unfulfilled; we can also feel stuck in our own head, replaying countless old hurts or lost sweet memories; we can get stuck in painful thoughts and emotions, illness and disability, and on our limitations or unmet needs. The pain of life may be too much to bear, so we retreat into the comfort of old patterns. But beware, feeling stuck or trapped can be a red flag, signally you are off course.

Matthew McKay, Ph. D., in his book Your Life On Purpose, has noticed this reoccurring problem: Everyone wants to live rich and meaningful lives, but we get mired in setting goals and directions that are disconnected from our core values; people are working hard, but often at things that don’t really matter to them. Meanwhile, the things they truly care about are left unattended. When activities do not support our deepest values, we feel lost, adrift, rudderless.

To reclaim our engagement in life, we must find what matters. Matthew McKay’s book looks at three broad categories of life where we can benefit from being guided by our values: self-growth, rendering service in our relationships, and life purpose.

Knowing your values is an important place to start; knowing what matters to you is critical to creating a life of meaning and vitality. It’s our compass; but a compass is a direction, not a goal. When we reach a goal, that journey is complete; with values, we set a course on a never-ending journey; you’ll never be done with them as long as you’re alive. For example, learning to play the guitar is a goal; having a life in which you create beautiful music is a valued direction. You travel in a valued direction by means of individual goals; your core value is what links all of the goals together and gives them purpose.

There is no single value that everyone’s life should be about. The universe of possible valued directions is vast, and limited only by your imagination and your knowledge of what is important to you. So how do you recognize your core values? When you have a feeling of rightness, it will help you know what you most value. The “rightness” we’re speaking of isn’t your moral rightness, it’s your intuition, an inner voice, a basic wisdom that everyone can tap into; it speaks to  your life direction. It’s the choices you feel good about; those gut feelings of alignment which can help you identify life directions that are uniquely your own.  Think in terms of these examples regarding what you value in life direction; write them down.

Knowing what matters is a critical first step, but the most important step is doing what matters. Many people get stuck when they try to turn good intentions into action. We get stuck because every step can be painful and costly; doing what matters is hard for this reason; in fact, it often requires us to deal with thoughts and feelings we’d much rather avoid– fears of insecurity, failure, hopelessness, and disappointment.  But here is the deal: Living your life by acting upon your values – and accepting the costs – is how you create a life worth living.

Willingness is the ultimate key to success. Willingness means accepting everything that happens when we set off in a value direction. It’s a commitment to keep going despite problems and emotions we’d rather avoid. Willingness will carry you through the pain, and take you to be what you want to be in your life.

Dr. Matthew McKay describes three broad areas of life where you can benefit from being guided by your core values. They are:

1)    Self- growth. Your self-growth will involve you and your relationship with yourself – your mind, your body, and your soul. Write down which of the following areas would be important to you to pursue?  A) Physical self-care and health  B) Spirituality  C) Creativity D) Work and career E) Personal growth  and education  F) Self-kindness and compassion  G) Leisure and play

2)    Service to others. Service is fundamentally an act of giving of oneself with no strings attached. It entails a shift in consciousness – a recognition that we are part of something larger than ourselves; that our actions can make a difference in the lives of others. Being of service to people does more than connect us with one another – in a way, it allows us to share and express our self-growth values with others. To locate your service epicenter, focus on your talents (things you are particularly good at), your values (things that tug at your heart), and that about which you are passionate. Whenever you share your talents and passions with others, your life expands and you gain the renewed sense of purpose and meaning that comes from being part of something larger than yourself.

3)    Living your life purpose. Your life purpose probably isn’t what you do to make money, nor is it likely to be entirely contained in such roles as parent, spouse, or civic leader. Rather, life purpose runs like a thread or theme through the many roles you play, the things you do, and the relationships about which you care the most. What are you naturally drawn toward?  What types of problems are you passionate about finding a solution? What compels you to take action – to work toward something over and over again? What do you enjoy learning? What single sentence expresses an ideal or vision of what matters most to you? When you look back over your life, what past actions and experiences make you feel good about yourself? The more mindful you are of your life purpose, the more opportunities you have to take actions that are guided by this core sense of what matters, the greater  the impact will be on your life and the lives of those you care about.

Only you can create the life you want; only you can make it happen; only you have a say in what you do with your time and energy. You can choose to live your life as if it were happening to you, or you can create a life worthy of your time.

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