Everyone derives meaning and purpose in different ways that involve benefitting others, as well as yourself. You may think of it as a way to feel needed, feel good about yourself, a purpose that drives you on, or simply a reason to get out of bed in the morning. In biological terms, finding meaning and purpose is essential to brain health as it can help generate new cells and create new neural pathways in the brain. It can also strengthen your immune system, alleviate pain, relieve stress, and keep you motivated to pursue the other steps to improve mental and emotional health. However you derive meaning and purpose in life, it’s important to do it every day.

What gives you meaning and purpose?

Engaging work that provides meaning to yourself and others. Partake in activities that challenge your creativity and make you feel productive, whether or not you get paid for them. Some ideas are gardening, drawing, writing, playing an instrument, or building something in your workshop.

Relationships. Spending quality time where you give of yourself to people who matter to you, whether they’re friends, grandkids, or elderly relatives, can support both your health and theirs, while also providing a sense of purpose.

Caring for a pet. Yes, pets are a responsibility, but caring for one makes you feel needed and loved. There’s no love quite as unconditional as the love a pet can give. Animals can also get you out of the house for exercise and expose you to new people and places.

Volunteering. Just as we’re hard-wired to be social, we’re also hard-wired to give to others. The meaning and purpose derived from helping others or the community can enrich and expand your life—and make you happier. There’s no limit to the individual and group volunteer opportunities you can explore. Schools, churches, nonprofits, and charitable organizations of all sorts depend on volunteers for their survival.

Caregiving. Taking care of an aging parent, a handicapped spouse, or a child with a physical or mental illness is an act of kindness, love, and loyalty—and can be as rewarding and meaningful as it is challenging.

When to seek professional help

If you’ve made consistent efforts to improve your mental and emotional health and still aren’t functioning optimally at home, work, or in your relationships, it may be time to seek professional help. Following these self-help steps will still benefit you, though. In fact, input from a caring professional can often help motivate us to take better care of ourselves.