Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

5 Paths to a Purposeful Practice

fiveThe secret to feeling great about your job – or even feeling great about not having a job – is available to you right now, at no cost.

It’s as easy as listening to music or saying hi to a neighbor.

“[T]he key to happiness is finding pleasure and purpose in everyday life,” says Professor Paul Dolan, who teaches at the London School of Economics and advises the British government on how to make its citizens happier. “It’s important to change what you do, not how you think.”

Dolan says when it comes to finding happiness, we tend to look in all the wrong places. We think more money, a promotion or a new car will do the trick. And while these things might bring a fleeting high, the thrill will eventually fade.

Not only that, they can actually backfire by adding stress to our already complicated lives (having to spend more time in the office, waiting in traffic jams).

“Most things we think will make us happy won’t,” says Dolan. “We’re really always happier if we are focusing on the person we are with and the thing we are doing right now.”

Fire and Rain

In his book, “Happiness by Design,’ Dolan says if we want to add deeper meaning to our lives – and with it, a greater sense of personal well-being – we should seek purpose, not pleasure. He lists five ways to do that:

  1. Spending five more minutes with someone you like
  2. Going outdoors
  3. Helping someone else
  4. Having a new experience
  5. Listening to a favorite piece of music

“[M]usic has a substantial effect on your mood,” he writes. “Your brain literally lights up.”

Are You Flourishing?

Most people in the U.S. say they are “satisfied” or “reasonably satisfied” with their lives, according to one survey. But only 14 percent say they are “flourishing.”

Are you among the 86 percent whose life is merely okay? To find out, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you feel good about yourself and your life direction?
  • Are you curious about what’s going on around you?
  • Do you enjoy what you do every day?
  • Do you have positive relationships?
  • Do you feel you are in control of your life?
  • Do you think your work has a higher purpose beyond simply providing a paycheck? 

If most of your answers are no, try doing the things on Professor Dolan’s list. Keep it up for six weeks. Then test yourself again.

Positive Psychology

Professor Dolan works in the relatively new field of positive psychology. The idea is that happiness and well-being – previously thought too subjective for scientific investigation – can be tested and studied like other aspects of human behavior.

Along these lines, Britain’s New Economics Foundation has published a blueprint for a more purposeful life that closely mirrors Dolan’s prescriptions:

  1. Connect with people around you. The quality of your social relationships is more important than the quantity. Have a minimum of three good friends and stay in touch with them. Choose friends who are supportive and encouraging and who share your values.
  2. Be active. Physical activity is something of a miracle cure for depression, anxiety, cognitive decline and chronic health problems. Even 10 minutes or less a day – Dolan’s outside stroll, for instance – will have beneficial effects.
  3. Be curious. Practicing mindfulness – paying attention to what you’re sensing, feeling and thinking – brings a feeling of control over your life and enhances well-being.
  4. Keep learning. Continuing education sparks the mind, stretches your boundaries and fosters social engagement.
  5. Give to others. This is the ultimate win-win activity. When we reach outside our own desires and self-interests to help others, our sense of well-being soars. It can be as simple as smiling at a colleague or giving them a few minutes of your time. NEF research has shown that even an hour of volunteer work a week reduces mortality in older adults.

What would you add to these lists? What activities give your life purpose?


About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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