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8 Things You Can Do to Make Life More Meaningful

How to feel like you're bettering yourself and the world around you

By Sally Stich and Grandparents.com

(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.com.)

Whether you call it "adding meaning to your life" or "being a better person," focusing on things outside of you and your day-to-day life can have a positive impact on your emotional and physical health. And there's science to prove it.
 
Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and UCLA School of Medicine found that adults who derived happiness from practicing kindness to others were less prone to depression and had better immune systems than those who focused only on themselves.
 
In other words, helping others positively affects the body on the most basic cellular levels. And, says Emily Boorstein, a life coach in Marin, Calif., focusing on being a better person means "you are committed to creating a positive impact on the world around you.“ 

(MORE: 5 Tips to Find Meaning and Purpose in Later Life)
 
If you think it's difficult, think again. Living a more meaningful life is surprisingly easy to do. So, if you want to be an agent of change in 2015, try any or all of the following:
 

1. Be outrageously generous

“We not talking money here,“ Boorstein says. “We’re talking about giving something you have to someone else because it matters more to them.”
 
Instead of letting one car squeak into your lane during a rush-hour bottleneck (when you're feeling most impatient), let in two or three. Instead of jumping to conclusions — even when certain evidence seems obvious — give someone the benefit of the doubt.
 
And if you feel like spending a little money, pay for the coffee of the person in back of you in line or leave an extra-generous tip for a restaurant server.
 

2. Write, rather than call

Linda Carlson, 64, a marketing consultant in Seattle, Wash., sends regular newsy notes and interesting articles to friends battling chronic illnesses. “Sick people often don’t want to talk on the phone,“ she says. “The articles give the person not only something to look forward to, but also something to enjoy reading over and over.”
 
The same holds true for a handwritten note or letter. In this age where practically everyone emails and texts, sending a handwritten, thoughtful letter through the mail can make someone's day.

(MORE: 5 Ways to Make Positive Change in 2015)
 

3. Smile at people you otherwise would pass by

When his parents moved into a senior living apartment, Kirt Manecke, 53, of Milford, Mich., had a major epiphany. The author of Smile: Sell More with Amazing Customer Service knew smiles were a great marketing tool, but he suddenly realized the power of smiling at people who are often invisible to anyone other than their family.
 
“I smile, make eye contact and say hello to every resident I pass on my way to see my parents,” he says. A friendly interaction can make all the difference in their day.
 

4. Be specific about your compliments

It’s all too easy to spew one-size-fits-all kudos. But body language expert Patti Wood says that by complimenting people with details, you show that you appreciate and have truly seen what makes the recipient special.

Instead of telling a friend she made a great dinner, comment on what was so special about her dessert or how beautiful her table was. Details show that you're really paying attention to the other person.
 

5. Pick up after others

If you’re a walker anyway, this one’s a no-brainer. Sally Kurtzman, 70, a retired teacher in Denver, Colo., never takes a walk without a couple of small trash bags. ”I pick up other people’s litter and try to leave my path a little cleaner than it was,” she says.
 
And, of course, Kurtzman throws the recyclable trash in her recycle bin when she gets home.
 

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6. Do something for those in uniform

 
While we're all going about our busy lives, it’s easy to forget the people who protect us — firefighters, police officers and members of the military. No matter what your politics or what’s in the media, these are the people on the front line keeping us safe. Call a local VA hospital or a local military organization and see what you can do. Or bake cookies and take them to your local fire and police stations — any time of year, not just at holiday time.
 
Need some help getting started? Check out 9 Non-Financial Ways to Donate to Troops.
 

7. Make charity a project

What better way to teach the joys of giving to others than to do it with the whole family?

For Boorstein, it was a matter of calling the family together and telling everyone they had $100 to give to a cause of their choosing. Each person had to ultimately declare their cause and why they picked it based on their research. Then the money was sent to organizations like Habitat for Humanity, the Humane Farming Association, the Wounded Warriors Project and others.

(MORE: How to Start a Charity for a Cause You Care About)
 
Or instead of giving your kids and grandkids one more birthday or holiday gift, set up an account at Kiva International, a nonprofit that gives micro-loans to people in need around the world. Then have the children decide with you who should receive your money. They can choose people by country and region and can read mini-profiles about everyone who'll be helped. 
 

8. Listen twice as much as you talk

 
The squeaky wheel may get the grease, but in the long run, do you want to be remembered as the person who always interrupted, who spoke in monologues, who asked the same questions repeatedly?
 
Listening, truly listening, is an act of generosity and graciousness. Its implicit message: “You are important.” Seriously, has anybody ever criticized a friend, a party guest, a colleague or a customer service rep for being too good a listener? (And while you're at it, put the cell phone away! Not on vibrate. Away!)
 

Plus, Five More Things You Can Do...

A few other easy ways to make a difference, according to Darla Arni, a life coach in Marshall, Mo.:
 
1. When you take a coffee break, offer to fill up someone else’s cup.
 
2. On your daily morning walk or run, move someone’s newspaper from the street to the front door.
 
3. When you buy groceries or supplies, buy at least one extra item each time and then donate to someone or a cause (a family in need, a homeless shelter, a food pantry, a grassroots nonprofit).
 
4. Find out what your local school needs (paper, boxes of tissues, markers) and deliver it in person. 
 
5. Save your change for a month and pick a local cause to give it to.

Sally Stich Read More
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