A Well-Lived Life of Purpose

Finding meaningful ways to contribute offers many people their best life
May 17, 2021 Updated: May 17, 2021

Most of the people I know and work with want a life of meaning and purpose. Just getting by is not sufficient.

But this isn’t taught in schools, and most of us feel unsure of how to move toward this meaningful life.

This article won’t be a complete answer to living a life of purpose, but it will try to help you move in that direction.

Commitment

The first thing you might consider is committing yourself to finding a life of purpose. How important is that to you? Are you willing to move into uncertainty for this, or are comfort and safety more important to you at the moment?

To commit, you have to commit in the gut. To tell yourself that this is important enough to devote yourself to, to dedicate time to, to practice pushing through the discomfort and uncertainty that will inevitably arise. Commit to yourself clearly by putting it on paper. Then share your commitment with others.

Exploration

If you don’t already have a good sense of what your purpose may be, the second thing to consider is embarking on an adventure of exploring your purpose. It’s not as simple as asking, “What would I like to do?” or doing a web search for the answer. You have to explore it, and bringing a sense of adventure might be just the right approach.

Here’s how I usually recommend exploring purpose:

  1. Make a list of things you think might be meaningful to you—helping children in need, helping people reduce stress, traveling to help communities in need, and so forth. Put anything on the list that’s even remotely possible or interesting, don’t limit yourself here. Hint: I’ve found that the most meaningful things are when you’re helping other people with something you care about.
  2. Ask yourself which three to five of these potential purposes would be most meaningful. If one really stands out—maybe it’s the thing you’ve been wanting to do for years—then that’s where to start. But maybe you’re not sure, so pick three to five. This is your short list.
  3. Of those, let your gut choose the top one. If you absolutely don’t know, either choose randomly or ask a friend. This isn’t your final answer, but just the one you’re going to start with.
  4. Choose a two-week version of this top possibility. For example, if you want to help people with stress, could you help one person over video calls and email for two weeks? This is the mini-version of your possible purpose. Explore this for two weeks, really pouring yourself into it.
  5. If this really resonates, make a one-month version of it and continue to explore. If it doesn’t, pick the next thing on your short list. Do a two-week version of that. Repeat until you find something to explore for a month or longer.

This is the iterative method of purpose exploration. You try a mini-version of something for a couple weeks. Maybe longer. And keep doing this until you hit on something.

Notice if you feel like avoiding this process, or a part of the process. This is your uncertainty showing up as fear. That’s completely OK, but you might ask whether you’d like to get support with that uncertainty, so you don’t have to be stopped.

This is where friends and loved ones can come in, or supportive communities of like-minded people.

A Well-Lived Life

There are an infinite number of possibilities for what a well-lived life can be for each person. You might meditate on a mountain for years, or enjoy the simple things. You might enjoy time with loved ones, or explore culinary pleasures. You might read all day, or listen to music. You might get your work done, and come home satisfied from a job well done.

For me, one of the biggest components of a well-lived life—other than loved ones and a profound appreciation of life—is doing something that feels meaningful. And that has usually been helping others with something that’s meaningful to them.

If you can serve others, make their lives better in some small way (or a big way), it feels incredibly meaningful. Much more than simply traveling or building up wealth or enjoying good food or having fun. Those are all great, but they don’t feel as meaningful to me.

If you can hit on something like that, that feels meaningful, then a well-lived life becomes simple.

Take care of yourself.

Find profound appreciation for the joy of life.

And serve others in a meaningful way.

It’s simple, but not always easy. And that makes it even richer.

Leo Babauta is the author of six books, the writer of Zen Habits, a blog with over 2 million subscribers, and the creator of several online programs to help you master your habits. Visit ZenHabits.net