When you take time to reflect on your life, do you ever feel like something’s missing? That you’re not especially happy or fulfilled, and you’re just going through the motions?
It isn’t that you haven’t achieved anything with your life. In fact, many of the people I work with, and who visit this website, are actually considered “successful” by society’s standards.
They have good careers, homes, families—all of the traditional markers of success—and yet, when they’re alone with their thoughts, this little voice whispers, “Is this all there is?”
Having achieved things can actually make that feeling of dissatisfaction even worse. Some people tell me that they feel like they’re living a lie: that who they appear to be on the outside doesn’t match who they are inside, and they can’t let anyone know. They feel like they have to maintain a façade!
After all the struggling it takes to get anywhere in this world, it’s a rude awakening to discover that you haven’t gotten anywhere that really matters to you.
Good news: you're not alone . . .
It can be lonely feeling this way. You probably feel like an oddball sometimes because so many other people seem to be fine with what seems to you like a pretty humdrum, or even shallow, existence, while you can’t shake the feeling that you’re wasting your life.
You might wonder, “Why can’t I just be happy like everyone else?” And you’ve probably tried new hobbies, relationships, or maybe even careers, all in the hopes of feeling some engagement, meaning, and deep satisfaction with your life.
Well, I’m here to tell you that there isn’t anything wrong with you! Not everyone longs for a meaningful, engaged life because they aren’t alert to their deepest needs and capacities as human beings, which is where that longing comes from.
They just don’t go there—which spares them the kind of discomfort you’re feeling, but also traps them. They’re stuck in a black-and-white Kansas instead of a full-color Oz but, as they say, ignorance is bliss.
. . . and you can get unstuck.
Your awareness of the mismatch between the circumstances of your life and your deepest needs and capacities is actually very good news: it means you can do something about it. The rich and fulfilling life you want is possible, even if you think it’s too late for you!
You can feel like there’s a purpose to everything you do, and not like you’re just going through the motions. You can have close, connected relationships with people who truly care about your best interests; people you don’t have to pretend to be someone else around.
You can be so stable and deeply content with your life that the inevitable day-to-day problems you face won’t have the power to throw you off course.
That’s what this website is all about, and I’m about to give you a framework for doing exactly that. It’s grounded in the latest research in psychology, neurobiology, and other life and social sciences, which may sound complicated, but it’s actually very simple.
It may not be easy . . . and it may be easier than you think.
The changes you want to make will, of course, require you to change the way you do some things, which means not following the path of least resistance. When is that ever the best long-term play, anyway?
How do you think you’d turn out if you spent the rest of your life lounging on the couch eating snacks? That full-color Oz isn’t located in your comfort zone, so you’ll have to shake things up.
On the other hand, there’s something called “interdependence” that works in your favor. Interdependence means that each of the four dimensions of your life (psychological, physical, social, and vocational) influence each other. That’s important for a couple of reasons.
For one thing, having so many variables at play means that your path to meaning, satisfaction, and purpose in life is as unique as you. (Which means that the one-size-fits-all approaches promoted by those self-help gurus out there won’t work.) It also means that you have lots of flexibility in your approach.
Right now, the most prominent obstacle to your happiness might be “toxic” people who make your life miserable, a career that you can’t stand, the lasting effects of a traumatic event, or anything else.
But you don’t necessarily need to confront the most prominent obstacle head-on. You can really begin anywhere and take advantage of improvement in one dimension of your life to improve other ones. You can start making small changes and let the rising tide lift all your boats.
Below I give you a quick overview of some big-picture considerations for the four dimensions of your life individually. But it’s just scratching the surface, so don’t stop there. At the end, you'll be able to download a free, 28-page, expanded version of this article with more ideas to implement in your life.
You can develop unhealthy habits of mind or behavior, insecurities, and fears in response to events from your past and your current environment. You may even be predisposed to them genetically. The negative emotions they come bundled with can keep you stuck in place—or in a downward spiral—but they don’t need to be permanent.
One of the most common problems my clients face in the psychological realm is taking their thoughts too seriously—especially their negative thoughts about themselves. Sometimes you’re your own worst critic, right?
But thoughts are simply electrochemical events in the brain, and don’t necessarily have any basis in reality.
In fact, the human brain isn’t very good at telling the whole truth, but you can see it for yourself by dragging your negative thoughts about yourself out into the light and exposing them to critical inspection, much like a defense attorney would cross-examine a witness.
If you take the time to weigh the evidence for and against them, you’ll usually come away with a more nuanced, realistic, and positive conclusion than your first one.
For instance, let’s say you make a mistake and your inner critic starts telling you, “I’m a failure and I’ll never get it right.” Well, those are opinions. Could you gather some facts and restate your thoughts in a more even-handed way?
Perhaps: “I made a mistake today and feel bad about it. However, I actually do things right a lot more of the time, so I know I’m not a failure. In fact, I’m going to learn from this incident and do A, B, and C differently next time, so I’ll be less likely to make this mistake again.”
Sounds better, right? Best of all, it is 100% true.
The relationship between your physical health and mental health is well-documented. Your state of mind can affect your physical health, and the better you feel physically, the better you’ll feel psychologically.
And again, since the different dimensions of your life work together, feeling better about yourself will improve your relationships and work performance, too.
Just covering the basics, like exercising and having a healthy diet, can make a big difference in your sense of well-being. There are also physical activities, like qigong, yoga, and tai chi, that promote the health of your mind and body simultaneously.
Those help to emphasize the connection between the two, which in turn helps you spend less time lost in unpleasant thoughts and more time connected to your actual moment-to-moment experience of life, where you can actually make the changes you want. (I’ll talk about this concept of mindfulness in a moment.)
Humans have social needs that are scientifically proven to be hard-wired into our nervous system. At the most basic level, we just need to physically be around other people (that’s why solitary confinement is so awful), but higher levels of well-being require deeper connections with people.
You need to feel that you’re worthy of others’ acknowledgment, concern, and love, and that your needs matter. That you have a base of support, with at least some people, that serves as a safe haven for you when you need a reprieve from your struggles.
You need to feel that other people are attuned to the same part of you that YOU need to be attuned to: that core part, where your deepest human needs and capacities reside.
You do this by practicing healthy communication skills and being more selective about the people you share your life with. Best of all is if you can find and nurture relationships with people who not only support you in your quest for a rich, full-color life, but who are on their own quest, too.
You’re more likely to have fun and stay motivated, and less likely to get lost, if you travel with a partner.
Sitting around doing nothing isn’t good for us psychologically or physically because humans have a basic need to be occupied with things. But not having things to do is probably the least of your worries! Of all your responsibilities, if you work, your career probably consumes the largest chunk of your waking hours. That’s a big reason why it has such a huge influence on your happiness, sense of meaning and purpose, social health, and even physical health.
It’s important to figure out how you can use your vocation to meet and exercise those deep needs and capacities of yours. Simply collecting a paycheck doesn’t do that. Maybe it would be helpful to make some changes to the way you approach your existing work, so it can be used to support your efforts in other areas of your life.
Or you might benefit from a different job or career altogether—one that resonates better with values or qualities you cherish. That decision tends to cause people a lot of anxiety, so it’s good to take your time with it. Also, to remember that your deepest capacities are like seeds, and if you don’t water them they’ll remain dormant.
Finally, there is mindfulness: not a dimension of your life like the other four, but a state of mind that has a major influence on your satisfaction with all areas of your life.
Mindfulness is the quality of awareness, curiosity, and acceptance of your unfolding, moment-to-moment experience of life. Most people spend a lot of their lives—more than they realize—lost in negative thoughts about the past or future, or just zoned out with planning or fantasizing.
When you’re oblivious to the present moment in that way, not only can time can slip right through your fingers, but it’s awfully hard to follow through on your decision to do things differently.
You have countless opportunities every day to alter the course of your life in a direction more to your liking, but if you’re not present when they come, you’ll miss them.
The best way to cultivate presence in your life is to practice mindfulness meditation which, by the way, isn’t a New Age-y thing. It’s an ancient practice with a wide variety of scientifically-proven physical and mental health benefits: everything from improvements in stress and blood pressure, mood, and compulsive behaviors, to intangible qualities like empathy and compassion.
(You can also visit the Meditate page on this site and try a guided meditation.)
Take advantage of guidance
Thanks to those primitive impulses of ours to take the easy route, even when we’re completely dissatisfied with the way things are, we’ll still tend to keep doing the same things, even if they don’t work, because that’s easier and less scary than doing things differently.
Over time, it can start to feel like your trajectory is set in stone, and trying to change is futile. Eventually, you can start to lose hope.
Don’t let that happen.
It’s very helpful to have someone around who can help keep you oriented in the direction you really want to go, and give you the tools and encouragement to actually make progress. And it so happens that doing those things for people is exactly my mission in life.
One option you have is to click here to join my free newsletter. I'll send you a series of articles that will go deeper into some of the topics I covered here, covering lots of ways to maximize your psychological, social, and vocational well-being. To get unstuck and stay unstuck.
The next step up from that is to click here to download a free, 28-page PDF guide I put together that also expands on the ideas here, and goes further. For one thing, it covers why concepts like the "work-life balance" we're supposed to pursue can actually be more harmful than helpful. The guide is also free (and I'll also send you the newsletter and other updates).
Finally, if you've already been trying the do-it-yourself approach to feeling better, but not getting the results you're after, then I encourage you to check out my individual coaching page. (Or my organizational coaching page, if you'd like to learn how these principles can help businesses thrive by helping their employees to do so.)
I spent 15 years (and then went to graduate school) developing my coaching approach, so if you're ready to get on with feeling energetic, productive, and deeply happy—not just in your work, but in all areas of life—then you might want to take a look at the coaching page.
P.S. It would mean a lot to me if you’d leave a comment below telling me one thing in this article that you learned, or gave you hope for a brighter future. Thank you—I love comments, and I recently lost all of them when I moved my website!