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How to find meaning in uncertain times

J. Douglas Holladay, the author of Rethinking Success, shares four tips for finding focus.

For a lot of people, life is more uncertain than ever before. There’s the coronavirus pandemic, of course, and a potential long-term economic recession in its aftermath. Waves of civil unrest have become a dominant feature in our lives, and many of us are taking the necessary steps to be better allies for the black community.

Even in the best of times, it can be hard to make time to focus on the higher purpose of our daily work and family life.  J. Douglas Holladay, founder and CEO of PathNorth, Georgetown University professor, and former White House advisor, argues that we should also be using this time to rebalance ourselves. As he explains in his new book, Rethinking Success: Eight Essential Practices for Finding Meaning in Work and Life, these kinds of crises often give us opportunities to reflect on what we truly want in life — and help us find purpose.

“Now is a time to invest in practices that make us better at who we are,” Holladay says. He offers four steps (plus one final, all-encompassing tip) for anyone interested in beginning the journey towards a more balanced, meaningful existence — even during what we are now calling “uncertain times.”

In this article:

Practice gratitude

The first step in bringing meaning back into your life is to identify the parts of your life that are already meaningful. Keeping a gratitude list, for example, can remind you of all of the good that currently exists around you. “Every day you write down two or three things,” Hollaway says. “I do it four times a week, so you do the math: 4 times 3 times 52, you have a whole list of phenomenal things.”

Once you develop a regular gratitude practice — whether you spend the next year creating a 624-item list or simply take a few minutes every day to reflect on everything wonderful and awe-inspiring in your life — don’t be surprised if the rest of your life starts to change its focus. “You become what you think about and what you mull on,” Hollaway says. When you think of the world as a place of meaning and beauty, your days will naturally become more meaningful and beautiful.

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Be comfortable with solitude

The next step in Holladay’s practice involves becoming comfortable with yourself — literally. “We never quiet ourselves,” Holladay says. “Try two minutes where you just still yourself and breathe.” He cites 17th-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who once wrote that the problem with humanity was that people did not know how to sit in a room alone. (As the last few months have shown, Pascal was 100% correct on this.)

You may already be using meditation apps to help you calm your mind; if your guided meditations don’t include a few minutes of silence, see what happens when you add them in. Sitting quietly with ourselves, in solitude, is an excellent way to unwind from the stressors of the day. It’s also a good way to get to know yourself a little bit better. When nothing else is clamoring for your attention, where do your thoughts go? What do you really want? What do you really fear? What, in the quiet of your own mind, do you wish for?

Learn what makes you come alive

Once you begin orienting yourself towards gratitude and giving yourself the opportunity to sit in quiet contemplation, you can begin asking yourself what you really want out of life. Holladay quotes former Morehouse College president Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

How do you ask yourself what makes you come alive? Your gratitude list might give you some clues. If you notice that a lot of your gratitude list centers around the outdoors, for example, you’ve just found an area of potential aliveness. If you are most grateful for time spent with close friends, or time reading a good book, well… you’ll have a better idea of how you might want to spend more of your time in the future.

“Don’t worry about what job that translates into,” Holladay says. Just look for patterns — and if you’re having trouble, ask people what you’re good at. Maybe you’re good at leading teams, or maybe you’re good at working with children. The more you know about your natural talents and passions, the more you’ll be able to integrate them into your life.

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Integrate your life

The interesting thing about life is that everything you do either adds to or detracts from everything else. If you are sleep deprived, for example, you might find yourself less productive at work, less patient with your family and less inclined to make healthy choices in terms of food and exercise. If you are well rested, on the other hand, every other aspect of your day might improve as well.

“Everything reinforces everything else,” Holladay explains. “What you eat, how you exercise, what you think.” He suggests integrating your life in a way that allows you to reinforce as much positivity as possible — by getting regular exercise (which means working out at home, these days), spending time in nature, connecting with people you love and regularly engaging in activities that make you feel grateful and alive.

When you create an integrated life, you also create a balanced life. You make time for sleep, because you know that good sleep improves everything else you do. You make time for work and play and healthy, nutritious food. This kind of life isn’t always easy to maintain, and there are times when you might find yourself falling out of balance — but if you think of an integrated life as a life-long process, you’ll be able to make adjustments and get yourself back to where you want to be.

Use this time to reset

This brings us back to our current period of uncertainty — because a lot of us are feeling very unbalanced, these days. That just means that now is a good time to start the process of reintegration. “Life is really short,” Holladay reminds us. “This is a good time to reset.”

Start at the beginning, by making a list of everything you’re grateful for. Then, find some time to sit quietly with yourself and let go of some of the stress you might be carrying. Begin to ask yourself what you really want out of life, and what makes you come alive. Lastly, ask yourself how you can integrate the life you want into the life you already have.

If you want additional advice, along with all eight of the practices that Holladay suggests we employ in order to find meaning in work and life, read Rethinking Success — and see if the process of rethinking and resetting makes you, as Holladay puts it, “better at who you are.”

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About Nicole Dieker

Nicole Dieker has been a full-time freelance writer since 2012, with a focus on personal finance and habit formation. In addition to Haven Life, her work regularly appears at Lifehacker, Bankrate, CreditCards.com, and Vox. Dieker spent five years as a writer and editor for The Billfold, a personal finance blog where people had honest conversations about money, and is the author of Frugal and the Beast: And Other Financial Fairy Tales.

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Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

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