How to Find Purpose and Meaning in Challenging Times

When we take a moment to look inward, we can tap into something deeper that allows us to better cope with our current fears and challenges.

Joyseulay/ Shutterstock
Joyseulay/ Shutterstock

As we all search for ways to adapt to the challenges and added stress of our new normal, we can also take this opportunity to look at our situation through a new lens. Social distancing is challenging (and for many, like first responders and other essential workers, it’s not an option). But for the majority of us who are staying in, this time can present a new opportunity to look inward and connect with our sense of purpose and meaning in new ways. 

We asked our Thrive community to share with us the different ways they’re looking inward and finding inspiration during this time. Which of these tips will you try?

Do an end-of-day gratitude review

“Before I go to bed at night, I write down a few good things that went well in my day. According to positive psychology professor Dr. Martin Seligman, the end-of-day review works because it shifts your focus from the things that could go wrong to the things you take for granted that actually go right. It’s been allowing me to look inward each night and reframe my day.”

—Rahim Moosa, executive coach, Toronto, Canada 

Slow down your morning routine 

“I appreciate not having to rush in the morning. I take the time to do some meditation and breathing exercises when I wake up, and take the time to prepare snacks and meals during work breaks. On weekends, I am decluttering one room at a time using Microsteps, so it doesn’t become an overwhelming task. I realized how much joy and peace it gives me to accomplish these little steps every day.”

—Isabelle Bart, marketing director, Orange County, CA

Enjoy music

“This time of isolation has actually brought me closer to what I do on a daily basis as a conductor. I didn’t realize just how much non-musical activities have been distracting me in life — administration, politics, and just the business of living. As I dive more deeply into studying the music itself as well as the composers who wrote it, I find myself more and more refreshed, inspired, hopeful, and purposeful. I am truly grateful to be able to participate in such a fundamental form of emotional connection with others through music — even if it isn’t live and in-person at the moment.”

—Stephen P. Brown, conductor, UK and the US

Give back 

“I’m using this time to give back. The antidote to helplessness is helpfulness. I’m focusing on where I can help others in need. That’s either at home with my family, within my community, and if possible on a larger global scale.”

—Jannell MacAulay, Ph.D., USAF retiree, speaker, and consultant, Ogden Valley, UT

Bookend your day with gratitude

“I keep a card on my nightstand that reminds me to start each day with gratitude. Before I begin my workday, I do a half hour of yoga, and I wind down in the evening with a guided meditation, focusing on the areas where I feel out of balance. I’m also journaling daily, reading some awesome literature, and doing research. Starting and ending my day with gratitude is helping me tap into meaning and purpose right now.”

—Tammie Kip, author, Whitby, Ontario, Canada

Pick up an old passion project

“I started writing a book several years ago and was excited to end last year having a first full draft. But once the laborious and tedious revisions started, it became difficult to find the motivation to work on it each night after work. Now that we’re at home, I’ve decided to commit to working on my book every day. Some days I only work on it for 30 minutes, but some days I’ll spend hours on it. The commitment to doing something each day has helped me to make more progress than I was making before, and has helped add purpose to my time at home.”

—Jessica Grossmeier, Gilroy, CA

Try conscious breathing

“I find renewal in conscious breathing and appreciation. The noise of the news, the enormity of the moment, and the losses humanity faces are overwhelming. Stopping to breathe, and making a conscious choice to draw in air and life force, helps me tap into inspiration and spirituality.”

—Judith Lukomski, CEO, Dana Point, CA

Incorporate meditation into your day

“I’m using this time to expand my intuition and strengthen my body-mind-spirit connection. To do this, I’m maintaining my morning meditation and have added an evening meditation. Our small daily habits can give us strength and help us deal with challenges.”

—Bronwen Sciortino, author and speaker, Perth, Western Australia

Paint 

“As a child, I was fascinated by painting, but the passion took a step back as I grew up and got busy with my career. Still, I feel that colors are a great way to bring positivity, brightness, and happiness to our lives. When I hold my brushes in my hand, they bring me joy, freedom, and creativity. Painting has helped me dive deep inside myself and know myself better.”

—V. Rashmi Rao, writer and digital marketer, Hyderabad, India

Try a breathing exercise between meetings

“I started a breathing practice in between my meetings. It’s called the 4-7-8 breath. It’s the perfect stress antidote, and it works wonders to reduce feelings of anxiety that might surface from intense back-to-back meetings.”

—Rahim Moosa, executive coach, Toronto, Canada 

Make time for things that bring you joy

“Somewhere amid COVID-19, I felt that I had become out of balance, and needed a reset. On a call with my meditation teacher, she asked me where my heart is. Those words hit like a ton of bricks, and inspired me to bring joy back into my life, even in this challenging time. I’ve decided to seek conditions that cause joy to arise — like petting my dog, FaceTiming with my grandkids, or cooking a favorite dish. It’s also inspired me to eliminate conditions that cause the suppression of joy. I turn off the news, avoid reading Facebook, and avoid toxic people.”

—Cindi Gilbertie, Ed.D., educational psychologist, Indio, CA

Bring back an old hobby

“I’ve always wanted to find some free time to write. I remember as a teenager I would spend hours writing and completely immersing myself in different types of writing projects. As I reached adulthood, I found myself so busy with work, relationships, and motherhood, that it seemed almost impossible to find a time to isolate for a few hours and be alone just with my mind. Even with my kids at home, I feel like now is my chance to write again.”

—Desiree Arce, financial professional, Indiana

Let yourself rest

“As we all search for the silver lining in this situation, I find myself no longer setting the alarm or wearing a watch. I am enjoying the extra time for relaxation, rest, and sleep. I find that these are important healing factors as we build resilience in this challenging time.”

—Trish Tonaj, author, coach, and speaker, Toronto, Canada

Spend quality time with your kids

“I’m using this time to play and bond with my three-year-old son who is home with me because of his daycare closing. I’m also taking moments to sit in quiet, take deep breaths, and appreciate my environment. It’s amazing how these simple things are clearing my mental space and decreasing anxiety.”

—Brittney Smith, housing specialist, Montgomery, AL

Build little pauses into your day

“I do what I call ‘slow work,’ which means that I don’t sit down and work nonstop anymore. Instead, I go from 8:00 am to 10:00 pm, but I give myself purposeful breaks: a break to enjoy meals, a break for exercise, a break for thinking, and time to read the news. This makes me more productive because it allows me to be influenced and engaged with other things around me more often.”

—Ben Lamm, CEO of Hypergiant, Dallas, TX

Repeat an inspiring mantra

“When we are surrounded by so much negative information while we self-isolate, this is the best time to go inward and reflect on inspiration — and affirmations are a great way to allow you to process your emotions consciously. One activity you can do to find the calmness and inspiration is to sit down, close your eyes, take a deep breath in, clear your mind, and try to imagine positive outcomes of the affirmations as you repeat them in your mind.”

—Neeta Bhushan, educator, strategist, and author,  Los Angeles, CA

Try the “six-count belly breath”

“I use a six-count belly breath to keep myself centered and add meaning to my day. The practice has been shown to slow down your heart rate and calm your nervous system. Put one hand on your stomach and the other on your diaphragm. Picture your torso as a glass. When you breathe in through your nostrils, you fill that glass from the bottom to the top, from your stomach up to your shoulders. As you breathe out through your nostrils, empty the glass slowly from your shoulders down. Repeat the six-counts for a few minutes.”

—Natalie, writer, St. Paul, MN

Write down your dreams

“I’ve been diving deeper by spending more time with my dreams. I am dreaming more often and more intensely during this time, and I think this is a general trend. Before the world turned upside down, I had started running a class on how to engage with your own dreams. I am trying all of the exercises out on myself: journaling my dreams, sketching them, mulling them over, and sharing them with others. I’m a bit of a stoic, but my dreams have dropped me into a sense of how I’m really feeling, and the exercises and sharing have given me a chance to metabolize those feelings.”

—Dr. Leslie Ellis, author and teacher, Palm Desert, CA

Hang up “purpose pillars”

“I crafted an exercise called ‘purpose pillars,’ where at the start of the week, I place sticky notes on my wall with my core values, and underneath them add a couple of action points. The action points must be clear and doable, depending on my capacity for the week. I find that this exercise has really helped me trust my intuition better and regain focus for the week ahead. With everything happening around us, it’s become clear to me how important it is to manage our time and energy well. I’ve found that leading a life through my core values has allowed me to find greater purpose.”

—Trixie Angeles, research consultant and chief community builder, Makati, Philippines

Focus on a goal

“To tap into purpose during this time, I have focused my energy on getting a healthy body, which I always desired. I am doing breathing exercises, working out, and walking everyday. I am also prioritizing a nutritious diet and good sleep hygiene. Putting my health first has been the silver lining for me right now.”

—Aakriti Agarwal, coach and facilitator, Hyderabad, India

Carve out alone time 

“Since I’m on the autism spectrum, I’m having an opposite response to social distancing. I happened to be staying with my son’s family in Los Angeles when the shelter-in-place order went into effect, and my husband is sheltering in our home in Amsterdam. Being apart is a lot to process, and I’m finding it difficult to isolate with three other people, when I’m used to isolating alone. I crave at least eight hours a day of alone time, which I use to walk in nature, meditate, and write. So in this new normal, I’m having to claim space for self-care, which fortunately my family supports. And since April is Autism Awareness Month, I’m encouraging people who are isolating with a person on the spectrum to give him or her lots of space for regrouping and recharging. For people on the spectrum, the world is always somewhat turned upside-down, and during challenging times, space and understanding is even more important.”

—Grace de Rond, author and blogger, Los Angeles, CA and Amsterdam

Check in with yourself each week

“At the end of each week, I review my week as a whole and use my responses to determine how to spend my weekend. If I feel exhausted, I prioritize napping and extra rest. If I feel productive, I prioritize trying a new hobby or taking an online class. With this new practice, I am learning how to respond directly to how I’m feeling, which is something I haven’t put into practice before.”

—Alyssa Swantkoski, executive assistant, Denver, CO

Do you have an exercise or ritual that’s helping you tap into a sense of purpose right now? Share it with us in the comments! 

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