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5 Ways to Find Meaning and Purpose Beyond Work

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After 20 years of working, I never thought the day would come that I’d have to go on social security disability due to mental health issues. And though I continued to work at several agencies for another nine years, each try led to a breakdown or inpatient hospitalization, which has ultimately left me unable to work for the past six years.

The loss and shame associated with not working, along with my fear of what friends, family and others would think of me — especially when it was a considerable part of my identity — was despairing. However, I have come to find meaning in other avenues, and I believe you can, too. So, here is a guide for living a purposeful and meaningful life when you can no longer work.

1. Volunteer.

Not only is volunteering rewarding, knowing that you are giving back, but it is also a way of getting out of our heads, where we tend to overthink.

Many organizations such as hospitals, nursing homes, animal shelters, food pantries or community outreach desperately need volunteers. The holiday season is also a peak time to volunteer with charities, such as the Salvation Army or Toys for Tots. Therefore, you can help make a difference in many ways.

I volunteered at my children’s school for nine years, but they are now grown. So for the past two years, I have volunteered through NAMI (The National Alliance on Mental Health) as an In Our Own Voice presenter at inpatient facilities. Sharing my story with others who live with mental health issues, and knowing that it can make a difference, has been the greatest reward. Not to mention how much it helps me.

2. Attend a support group.

Having other peers to talk to and knowing that you are not alone can be such a reprieve. There are many in-person support groups or online support groups that are available at no cost. And whether you choose to attend in-person, online or both, you don’t have to share your story or be seen on camera if you don’t feel comfortable doing so. There is no requirement to either.

I ran both in-person and online support groups and have been an attendee, and I found that many gained just as much by listening. It is up to your discretion.

3. Spending time with other stay-at-home individuals.

Many individuals stay home or don’t work for various reasons — maybe they are retired, an older adult who needs home care, another disabled individual, or a stay-at-home mom or dad. Being alone can be very lonely and isolating. Therefore, socializing and having a chance to spend time with another individual would be welcoming to them and yourself.

Perhaps you can host at your home or go for a visit. Or how about going walking together — exercise aids in your physical and mental well-being. If you cannot meet up, you can always call each other on the phone or video chat. It doesn’t have to cost you anything but good company and a way for both of you to socialize and feel better about yourselves.

For myself, I felt very lonely when I wasn’t able to work any longer. Almost all of my friend’s worked, so I found a mom’s group and got together with other stay-at-home friends while my children were in school.

4. Join a community

Connecting with the community is a great way to get involved. You can search online or maybe in your newspaper for local community events. To name a few are book clubs, community walks, fitness classes, sports, special interest groups, and hobbies and crafts.

Years ago, I had joined a sewing class, which I was terrible at, but I at least had the opportunity to meet a great group of people. I then formed a community meet for others who live with mental health issues, and knowing that we had a commonality gave me a sense of belonging.

5. Be creative.

As long as we don’t isolate ourselves from the world, we can also find meaning in doing things alone: cooking, baking, decorating, crafting, coloring, writing, etc. Or maybe you’re a music listener and like to sing and dance to it or enjoy becoming engulfed in a good book. Plus, there are also free online classes you can take.

Whatever you prefer to do doesn’t have to be anything spectacular, complex or overtaxing, but something that makes you feel good about yourself.

For myself, I love to blog and listen to audiobooks. It is very soothing, temporarily brings me into another world and is an excellent way to stay in the moment.

We Are More Than Our Careers

I have spent years dodging questions about what I do for work due to feelings of inadequacy. And though I no longer earn an income from employment, there is more to me than a career: I am a mother, sister, friend, grandmother, volunteer and blogger. I am also a helpful, kind, caring and compassionate individual. It’s not your career that makes you who you are, but who you are that does.

Getty image by Justin Case

Originally published: December 13, 2021
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