How do I know what is meaningful to me? exerpt from - "Journeywell: A Guide to Quality Aging" author Trish Herbert, PhD Psychology/Gerontology,

Small p- purpose vs. Large P-Purpose

How do I know what is meaningful to me? Ask yourself these questions:

If you were asked by a child to tell about the most important thing you have learned in your life, what would you say?

What was the best period of your life? Why? What do you think was the best thing you ever did for someone else? When you think of your parents or grandparents, what do you wish that you had asked them? What projects have given you the most pleasure? What can you do for a three-hour stint and enjoy so much that you don’t even notice time? At what have you worked hardest (social causes, career, friendships, marriage, parenting)? What are you proudest of?

Think of a person whom you greatly admire? A person of great integrity? Give an example of how you saw this person demonstrate this way of being?

Reflect on your answers. Continually ask yourself, What is truly important to me, and how can I get more of it? What can I do to be the person I want to be?

Most people's souls are hungry for purpose, for meaning, for knowing that somehow they have made and are making a difference to someone or something. Vitality depends, in part, on the supply of meaning in your life. A sense of purpose does not mean you have to save the world or think in lofty terms about meaningfulness. Being kind and caring to one other person is purpose. Realize that it takes many people doing small things to make up a much greater force of caring. You don’t have to think in terms of a capital P-Purpose … small little purposes do just fine.


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It’s important to know that you have a reason for being here, a reason to get up in the morning. People who have a goal, a project, or exude purposefulness know they are living their lives fully. Those of us who continue to grow and learn about subjects that interest us, appreciate art or music, tend our gardens, care for our cat or dog, help out our bodies by diligently caring for them, attend to someone who could use our help, or even give a kind glance to a person who just might be in need of it, are also exhibiting having a reason for being here. What we do and who we are matters.

Show up for life. Reflect on some peak moments in your life. Life can be transformed, changed completely, in a moment — a moment that forces you to view things differently. Did someone ever say something to you that was transformative? Your peak moments may be those precious times when you know that "life doesn't get any better than this," when you stand in awe of nature or a work of art, when you know that you've truly connected with another person, when you have achieved a personal victory, or when you have completed a job "well done." Some of these moments just happen. You increase the chances of having more of these moments by putting yourself in situations where they more easily occur. "Follow your bliss," says Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth. Follow your bliss speaks to taking action versus simply appreciating little bursts of grace that just happen. Following your bliss requires you to pursue actively those things that give you great pleasure. Once you recognize what it is that makes you feel vibrantly alive, you can use this awareness as a source of guidance in your life. Perhaps you need to seek out more time in nature. Maybe it is when you give love that does not require reciprocity, or become aware of a mysterious sense of knowing that you are much more than just yourself and are connected somehow to everyone, everything … a cosmic awareness. Such moments may be sustained or fleeting but they allow you to witness what bliss is for you, to understand yourself a little better. They can help you direct your journey. What do you need to do more of to feel this aliveness?

Appreciate the ordinary. Developmentally, we appear to move from the simple awe and curiosity of a child to not even having the time to appreciate the ordinary as a middle-aged "fast track" person. Thankfully, we seem to return to this appreciation of simplicity again. This late life appreciation is much more sophisticated and hopeful than a child’s. We now choose to attribute meaning to the simple things with a deeper perception of their enormous value.

Gentler values like being kind and caring beyond ourselves equates with basic healthy well-being. We know that doing good things for others makes us feel good. Now research is backing this up. I liked the direct response of one 86-year-old woman contemplating what gives her life meaning. She said, “I try to take care of myself, keep myself alive, and tend to the little flock of people I care about.” On further inquiry I found she did just that. She exercised, took meals to a cousin, drove different friends to the doctor and to the store, checked up on some friends by phone … kept herself busy tending to her flock. She thanked me several times after the workshop, saying she always felt that the mere question, “What gives your life meaning?” was a little intimidating. Now she appreciated figuring out a response that meant something to her.

It is therapeutic to come up with an answer for yourself, for those other times when you wonder. We can do our little bit every day to move beyond focusing on ourselves and become part of the gentle but forceful critical mass tipping the scale towards enduring good.

Think baby-steps—little p, not giant P –Purpose.