For those looking for a quick fix on how to live better, here’s the bad news: There’s no one right way to experience life. We’re all doing our best to get by and treat others with respect in a world that’s flawed, messy, and unequal. The good news: With no one-size-fits-all approach to happiness, anything that brings joy to others and ourselves is worth pursuing. How we make meaning in our lives, despite the challenges we face, can help bring us closer to that ideal “best” life.
At Vox, much of my reporting centers on helping people live better, offering insight on how to have stronger relationships, a deeper understanding of the self, and how to be a little kinder to ourselves (and everyone else) in the process. As I look back on the advice shared with Even Better in 2023 — lessons from academics and authors to therapists and parenting gurus — the biggest takeaway I gleaned was how little effort it takes to imbue life with a bit more meaning. Whether that means effectively connecting with friends and loved ones or getting a little closer to finding your life’s purpose, experts have offered insights that have informed our work all year.
After combing through all the many words of wisdom shared with readers this year, here are some of the most poignant pieces of advice on how to live a more meaningful life.
Have one meaningful face-to-face conversation every day
There’s no magic formula for how much social interaction one needs to feel fulfilled, but Jeffrey Hall, a professor of communication studies and the director of the Relationships and Technology Lab at the University of Kansas has one bit of advice: “The most impactful thing to do is have a meaningful conversation with someone you really like, face-to-face” every day, he says. The second best is having a daily conversation that fits any of the following criteria: The chat is face-to-face, it’s with someone you’re close with, or it’s a quality discussion (meaning you’re catching up, laughing, or getting deep).
Send the text already
You’re thinking of a friend whom you haven’t talked to in a while and want to send them some well wishes. Or maybe you want to compliment a stranger’s jacket on the street. Will your friend respond? Will the stranger think you’re weird? We often talk ourselves out of offering low-lift kindnesses to others due to fear we’ll be rejected or embarrassed. Plenty of studies show that doing the nice thing — sending the text or the thank-you note, extending the compliment — is well received and makes you feel good, too. “Being kind to other people, doing nice things for others — those are the activities that tend to improve our well-being,” says Amit Kumar, assistant professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “Folks have lots of opportunities for acting in these other-oriented ways that they don’t take advantage of.”
Capture memories with simple reflections
If you wake up every morning with little recollection of what you did the day prior, take a few minutes before bed to think back on moments you want to remember. Whether you choose to look at photos or videos on your phone, write in a gratitude journal, or recap the day with your partner or roommate, the more you reflect on your life, “over time you realize you’ll actually be able to remember more details of your life,” says five-time USA Memory Champion and memory coach Nelson Dellis.
Start a niche, ritualized social activity
A potential answer to the eternal question of “how do I make more friends in adulthood?” per Vox’s Rebecca Jennings: Join a club. “It’s a lot less risky to ask someone — or all of your Instagram followers — if they want to join your book club or pizza club or whatever club than to ask them to hang out one-on-one,” she writes. “When there’s a schedule and an activity, there’s less room for either party to feel as though they’re contributing too much or not enough, to convince themselves every uncomfortable silence equals imminent humiliation.”
Just being there for someone who’s going through a hard time is enough
When tragedy strikes and we’re called upon to support those we love, we often freeze. We’re afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing and further upsetting our already grieving friend. However, simply calling or texting a loved one and offering time is enough, says Roxane Cohen Silver, a distinguished professor of psychological science, public health, and medicine at the University of California Irvine. Don’t overthink it: Ask, “How are you feeling today?” or say, “I’m thinking of you,” “You crossed my mind today,” and “I’m just checking in.”
When speaking with kids, let them lead the conversation
Children are some of the most interesting conversation partners once you get them going. To get there, resist the urge to fill the space and let them guide the conversation. “Ask questions and let the kid direct the flow; they’ll naturally lead the conversation toward what interests them most,” contributor Charley Locke writes. Ask kiddos about their hobbies and favorite subjects in school, and “don’t try to show off how much you know — encourage them to share instead,” writes Locke.
Apologizing is more than saying you’re sorry
An effective apology has six (and a half) components, according to Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy, the authors of the book Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies:
- The words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.”
- The specific reason you’re apologizing; the thing you did.
- An understanding of why your actions hurt another person.
- An explanation for why you did what you did (but don’t make excuses).
- A plan for how you will avoid this infraction again in the future.
- An offer to fix what’s broken.
Finally, listen to the person or people you hurt — that’s the half-step.
Make purposeful activities a regular part of your life
A life’s purpose is something you pursue long-term, are competent in, and that has an impact on the world or your community. If you have no idea what your purpose is, don’t panic: Many people don’t cultivate purpose until well into adulthood. To live more purposefully, think about the activities that you enjoy, and that fulfill and motivate you, then “organize your life in a way that allows for you to make those things more habitual,” says Patrick Hill, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “Ultimately, that can be a way to help people think about developing a purpose from the ground up, eventually.”
Use more words to describe your emotions
Therapy-speak offers succinct sound bites for complex terms. In the process, the meanings of these concepts, like gaslighting or trauma, become flattened and misconstrued. Instead of relying on pop psychology terms, try to be more descriptive when discussing your emotions and experiences, says licensed marriage and family therapist Moe Ari Brown. “If you’re wanting to call someone a narcissist,” Brown says, “what is it that I mean? I’m meaning that I experienced them as self-important and not really taking the time to notice other people’s needs. It’s okay to say that because that really clearly expresses what you’re thinking.”
Give yourself permission to quit
If you’re considering picking up a new hobby as a New Year’s resolution, first of all: good for you! Second of all: give yourself criteria for when you’ll let yourself quit, also known as “kill criteria,” according to Annie Duke, author of Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away.
For example, “I’m going to run the marathon unless at some point, the medical staff tells me that I really ought to stop,” Duke says. What is the line you’d need to cross to give up on an endeavor?
Feel free to ignore all of this advice if it doesn’t align with your life
Advice is only good advice if it feels applicable. “If the advice just does not gel with your lifestyle, if it’s not practical, it can be good advice for someone but not for you,” says John Paul Brammer, author of the advice column ¡Hola Papi!.
Similarly, parenting advice isn’t one-size-fits-all. What one child responds to may not be successful with another, even within the same family. “If you’re trying to do something, and it’s not working in your family, go ahead and give yourself the freedom to just not do it,” Bethany L. Johnson, a doctoral student in history at the University of South Carolina and co-author of the book You’re Doing it Wrong! Mothering, Media, and Medical Expertise, told Vox’s Anna North.