Cultivating more meaning in our lives is the primary way to fast-track feeling more connected to yourself, your purpose, and those around you. This is why we spend a lot of time in our lab researching, thinking about and emphasizing the importance of what we call “meaning-making.” In our experience, there’s not a person out there who would turn down gaining more meaning in their life. It’s something we all crave and yearn for.
So here are two of our favorite exercises that will help you notice, cultivate, and cherish meaning in your day-to-day life.
Exercise #1–Da Vinci Turbo Blast.
This exercise is modified from one in David Gelb’s book How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci. The original exercise was inspired by one of the seven areas of da Vinci’s genius identified by Gelb – insatiable curiosity – and we’ve modified it to cultivate curiosity around what brings you meaning.
This is how it works: you set aside 45-60 minutes to just sit, brainstorm, and write down in a journal (or word processing document, if you must) every answer that pops into your head – without judgment, without editing, and without retracing your steps until the time is up. In our version of the exercise, you let your mind run wild on the single question: “What brings me meaning in life?”
Jot down a word, phrase or short sentence for each idea you have. It might be a beautiful sunrise, your family heritage, the hardships you’ve overcome. Write down anything you can think of – no item is too small, too big, or too redundant. People, places and things, ideas, wishes, memories, relationships are all fair game. Just let it flow, without judgment or self-editing. The goal is to get to 100 answers, and/or keep at it for at least 45 minutes in order to thoroughly investigate the question. You will likely end up revisiting this list from time to time, so try to create it somewhere accessible and easy to find again.
Typically, what happens is you fly through the first couple dozen entries with no problem, and then hit a wall. Stick with it. This is where the magic happens, and after a few seconds or minutes of feeling blocked, your imagination will expand and you’ll break into new territory. Entirely new realms and subject areas will come to you. Be prepared to hit a few more stuck moments where you feel tapped out, and just wait it out. Inspiration will break through again. It’s really worth it to be patient and push past the points where you would normally quit or feel done.
After you finish, go back and look at the list. Jot down the themes that emerge from the page, and circle the items that trigger the biggest heart burst from you.
Ask yourself if you are surprised by anything. What made it on to your list that you’ve never given much thought to? What things did not make it on to the list that you would have expected to be there? And the biggest question of all—how do your actual priorities and allocation of time stack up against what you find the most meaningful? Are there areas of meaning that are totally absent from your life right now, such as playing a musical instrument, building something with your hands, or writing love letters?
It’s extraordinary to see what you come up with when you really give yourself time and permission. It’s also fascinating to come back to these insights into your soul after time has passed—and to compare the results against a more recent da Vinci-style brainstorming session.
Exercise #2—Buddy Up.
Accountability is a powerful way to create lasting change. It’s incredibly effective to have someone to share the journey with when you’re trying to create any new habits in life. Participants in our groups often report that it’s the accountability component that has the greatest impact on their learning and change after the group meetings are over. There is even research to show that we go farther, try harder, and sustain our changes better when we share a goal and receive support from others who are also trying accomplish the same thing.
So to help cultivate meaning in your life, invite a friend to join you in the challenge. Every day for 30 days, each of you will send a super-quick, bullet-point email to the other to say what the most meaningful parts of your day were – or perhaps the three moments that most profoundly touched your heart (you two are the boss of this experiment – assign whatever task resonates most with you). The point is that you’re strengthening the meaning in your life through attention and intention.
You’ve made the commitment to each other, so there is an external force holding you accountable for holding up your side of the deal. You will also get the added benefit of finding new material, inspiration and ideas from hearing about what moves someone else’s needle.
Another hidden benefit of this exercise is its power to bond people together. There’s something incredibly endearing about learning what makes someone else’s heart leap. You get to know someone in a whole new way. This is a poignant experience to share with someone you already know well like a family member or someone you barely know. I intentionally chose somebody I didn’t know very well to do this challenge with me when I was first experimenting with it, in the hope that we would become closer as a result – and it worked. Today, that friendship is still a source of great meaning for me.
To live a life filled with meaning and purpose is one of the greatest reasons for being for most all of humanity – if not the greatest. When we live with purpose and meaning, we experience abundance, joy, and contentment and want for nothing. It’s the ultimate state of being. Yet most of us think of these abstract concepts as things that we happen into through luck or external circumstances beyond our control. What most people don’t realize is that meaning is all around us – you only need to learn how to see it and prioritize it. And just as tiny raindrops build a stream, collectin the small moments of meaning is what fills our lives to the brim with purpose, meaning, and profound satisfaction.