The things we do each day shape our lives and give our lives meaning and purpose (or not). What is it that makes what we do meaningful? Why doesn’t putting more effort into life make it more rewarding? Will life be more satisfying if I do more or if I do less?

A quick internet search will give you hundreds of options for increasing happiness and getting your life back on track – often packaged as “5 ways to improve…” or “the 14 day plan for…”. And yet people continue to search for that elusive solution. Sadly – and let’s get the bad news over early on in this post – making meaningful and fulfilling changes in your life isn’t as simple as ticking off a checklist of things to do or turning your life upside down for 14 days. If only it were! When you stop to think about it, a meaningful life where you feel pleasure and satisfaction with your day has more context than 5 bullet points – and should have much more complexity and substance than a simple check list or 14 day plan. There is no quick fix for life. And the good news? Changing things little by little, bit by bit can have a big impact on your mood and quality of life – and tends to be what works best in the long term to sustain more pleasure and satisfaction each day.

This is the first in a series of blogs about what I call the umbrella of life – a way of looking at meaning, purpose and pleasure using the analogy of an umbrella. Let’s start with the canopy of the umbrella to look at an occupational therapy perspective of living a meaningful life.

What’s the big deal about ‘occupation’?

Occupation – from an occupational therapist’s point of view – is described as the things you do that occupy your time. The theory talks about occupation as being more than just a task or an activity; it is something you do that has meaning and purpose beyond the actual activity itself. For example, the movement of picking up a pen or pencil becomes a task when you write words on a page or write a letter that communicates a message. It is only when the letter becomes a job application or a note to a friend that it becomes an occupation that has context and meaning within the broader scope of your life and has an impact beyond the here and now. More than words on a page, a note to a friend has a connection, a message, and has a very different purpose to a job application. It uses a different style of language. A note to a friend may use a colourful, decorative card instead of plain copy paper that you would use for a job application. A friendly letter will look and feel different to a job application and will elicit a very different response from the reader. Both activities require the same physical movements and language skills, but the reasons you engage in the task and the hopes of how the outcome will add to your life’s experiences are vastly different. The intent and the hoped-for outcome are what turn a task or activity into an occupation.

“Doing nothing” can also be an occupation. It certainly occupies your time and, in most cases, serves a specific purpose – albeit not always achieving the result you would like. Spending long hours in bed with time passing may be exactly what your body needs in the early stages of recovery from illness or injury. It may be what your brain needs during a particularly stressful time to calm heightened emotions and to clear the fog in your head. At other times, it may be what you “do” in the hope that your brain or body will improve or change. In some cases, spending long hours in bed only serves to allow you to ruminate over all the thoughts swirling in your mind, which leaves you feeling less impressed with yourself than when you started. Similarly, standing staring out of the window at the ocean on a rainy day might be a signal of hopelessness or despair for someone who is overwhelmed with the challenges of the day ahead; whereas in different circumstances or for a different person, it may be a very deliberate form of relaxation and rejuvenation, of taking pleasure in watching the movement of nature, or becoming inspired for creative endeavours.

So we can see that it is not the task, the movement, the busy-ness or inactivity itself that creates an occupation. It is the meaning and purpose behind the activity. Simply participating in a task or activity doesn’t necessarily give it meaning; it is the purpose, the context, and the hoped-for outcome that define it as an occupation. It is your occupations that give your life meaning, purpose, and pleasure.

Exploring your own occupations

The first step in reclaiming meaning and purpose in your life is to explore your own occupations – to clearly understand why you do the things you do. This isn’t always obvious even on a very basic level of identifying the true meaning behind your daily routines and everyday tasks.

The meaning of an activity, at this particular point in time, is tied to what you have done in the past and why. At any point in time, you are the sum of your life’s experiences, what you have done in the past, your connections with people, your values, your beliefs, and aspirations. These all come together to give what you do a particular meaning at a particular point in time. The things you do, the things you don’t do, and doing nothing all occupy your time, and have different meanings in different circumstances and stages of your life.

When challenged to think about the concepts of the meaning and purpose of what you do, it is easy to skip straight to whether you are satisfied with what you’ve done. Has it been enjoyable, fulfilling, entertaining, and successful? This is actually the next step. You have to know why you are doing something and what you hope to achieve before you can determine if you’ve been successful. Only then can you decide whether you are happy with the result. This blog post helps you explore the “why” of what you do and helps you clarify some of the broad concepts of why you do things. The next post in this series deals with “how well”.

The four categories of occupation

There are a myriad of things we do throughout our daily lives and a multitude of reasons for doing them. To simplify the process of exploring your own occupations, you can divide all the things you need to do and want to do into categories based on meaning and purpose – the theorists call these categories “occupational domains”. Note the use of the term “occupational”, which signifies purpose, context and intent; not task or activity.

If you’ve been in a hospital or rehabilitation facility in Australia you will probably be familiar with people talking about your self-care, domestic tasks, and community tasks; or self-care, productivity and leisure. These are some of the categories that occupational therapists have traditionally used and they have become part of the language used by health and support services.

However, the concepts of how we categorise occupation have changed over the last decade, partly because of the evolving nature of lifestyles and community services. It is true also that the naming of categories, such as those mentioned, has tended to draw together a set of specific tasks rather than bring together an over-arching idea of the purpose and value of activities. In naming my categories, I have, therefore, used terms that relate to intent and not to groupings of tasks or of places (home, community, work). When categorising your occupations, it is important to always keep in mind meaning and purpose, not movement or activity.

When working with my clients, I use four domains of occupation based on four very broad categories of the reasons we do things. The four categories are:

  • Survival and Health
  • Connecting and Contributing
  • Leisure and Learning
  • Rest and Recuperation.

Survival and Health

Survival and health tasks are the things we need to do to stay alive and healthy – food, water, shelter, warmth and hygiene. The survival tasks include getting showered and dressed, preparing and eating meals (including shopping for same), organising and paying for appropriate accommodation, managing medications and other activities that help maintain a healthy physiology – not forgetting collecting the mail and dealing with the rubbish, paying bills, managing laundry and house cleaning. Conceptually all these tasks relate to health maintenance – if you don’t do them on a regular basis, be that daily, weekly, or annually, then you will eventually become ill.

The literature variously calls this self-care, health maintenance, self-maintenance, self-help – all of which have been bandied around by different professionals in different contexts and which no longer have a clearly defined meaning. In particular, the term “self-care” is used by so many different people and organisations in vastly differing contexts that it is often difficult to know exactly what is meant. So I prefer to use the term survival and health to signify the tasks’ purpose.

These tasks are often centred around the home, but not always. Particularly over the last decade as the internet has changed our lifestyles so significantly, daily tasks that were previously “home-based” or “community-based” have shifted their geographical base for many people and for changing lifestyles. This is another important reason to understand the domains and not restrict your thinking to traditional geographically-based activities or standard lists of tasks. The survival and health tasks are the things you need to do to stay healthy, regardless of whether you want to do them or not. They are the tasks that create a healthy physiology that, in turn, form the basis on which you can engage in the other three categories.

Connecting and Contributing

This category is the things we do that contribute to society and connect us to our community. While the first domain, survival and health, relates to our own health and survival, this category relates principally to other people. It describes our connections with other people and our place within society; contributing, participating, connecting with others, creating families and communities, fostering cultural continuity.

This is the category where most people would include paid work; although some might be tempted to put work in the survival domain if they view their work as purely a means of funding the rest of their life. Remember that in categorising the things you do, you look at the intent of your involvement in the task, not your satisfaction or enjoyment – looking at those aspects comes later. Work connects us to a community. Even if you work from home sitting alone at a desk, you still connect in some way to people through work and work contributes to society. Commercial interactions of any nature have an impact on other people. Regardless of whether you enjoy your job, or whether you feel fulfilled or energised by it, it is fundamentally a connection to society.

This category also includes our family roles and relationships. These are the things we do to care for other family members, parenting and ensuring our children are safe and healthy, activities that create the bonds of families. It also includes our involvement in community groups, sporting clubs, cultural activities, and gatherings of friends. These are the things you do to express your aspirations in life and that reflect your values. In previous literature, this was often referred to as “work” or “productivity”; but again these words mean different things to different people, particularly in the political and commercial world. This category exemplifies the richness of experience, pleasure and reward from interactions with others, an outcome that has value to others and activities that foster relationships and communities.

Leisure and Learning

The third domain is leisure and learning. These are the things that provide pleasure and inspiration from the activity itself rather than from interactions with other people. These tasks are opportunities to engage your creativity, to learn and develop new skills, to do things purely for self-satisfaction and self-advancement. In other words, ‘me-time’ – even though the me-time might be spent with other people. If you enjoy landscape painting you might choose to sit in your backyard while drawing aspects of your garden or you could join a group of artists who gather in your local park. There might be very little discussion while everyone paints or there might be lively banter (art related or not). Or you might join a more formal art class and have individual tuition or group lessons. Each of these activities will fulfil your pleasure of painting and provide leisure and learning; they have varying degrees of connections and social interactions with others. But they are all ‘me time’.

There’s no limit to the activities that can fit into this category – what matters is what they mean to you at this point in your life.

Rest and Recuperation

Finally, the fourth domain is rest and recuperation. This domain recognises the need for good sleep patterns and the importance of sleep to manage all the other areas of our daily life. It’s very difficult to function well throughout the day after a poor night’s sleep, particularly after a succession of nights of poor or interrupted sleep. Tied in with sleep is your ability to relax and to recuperate, to have a break from the other three categories, to re-energise or to be calm. This is a category that is often missed by health professionals and is generally not well “treated” within our current health systems, and yet it has an enormous impact on all other aspects of our lives. This category looks at your sleep habits and patterns, whether you wake feeling refreshed in the morning. It looks at your ability to recognise your need for rest, and what you do to recuperate (physically as well as emotionally) and re-energise. It is the category that incorporates the things you do and don’t do to soothe and be calm.

Same task – different domains

A particular task could fall into different domains for different people or fall into more than one domain for the same person. Cooking is a good example of this. Food preparation is part of the survival domain – we need to eat to stay alive; we need to have a healthy diet to maintain optimal health. Even if this simply involves going to a café or buying pre-prepared meals, there is still time and effort needed to do this. For some people, cooking is simply something that has to be done each day; for others it is a pleasure, part of the me-time, a time to relax, to be by yourself, to think and ponder (or not), to be stimulated by all the colours and smells and textures of food. For others, it is an integral part of family life and family connections – part of the role of providing for other people’s needs, or a regular opportunity to talk about your daily happenings with the people you care most about. It may be your creative bent, an opportunity to experiment, to learn (or teach). It may be your profession or your livelihood that is a means to a different end. And so the same activity has a different meaning and purpose for different people and may be in more than one category, or may be in different categories at different stages of life.

So we see that it is not the activity or task or role per se that helps categorise the things you do, but the meaning those things have to you individually within the context of your daily life and lifestyle at this point in time. It is the purpose that a particular task or activity serves in the overall picture of your life.

Your umbrella canopy

When you collate all the things you do that occupy your time, and separate them into the four different domains, they collectively form an overarching picture of your life’s meaning and purpose.

They create an umbrella of the meaning of the things you do that occupy your time.

A crucial feature of any umbrella is to have a complete canopy over your head. Just as an umbrella with only one section of fabric is little use on a rainy day, the umbrella of meaning and purpose is only useful when it covers all four domains. When you know that you are not spending all your energy on just surviving day-to-day; when you recognise the importance of connecting with people around you and with your community, of having time and resources for leisure and learning and opportunities to recuperate and re-energise.

When you are consciously aware that survival tasks might not be enjoyable but are maintaining your health, they become more doable. Especially when you can clearly see other activities in your umbrella that provide you with pleasure and satisfaction. Having a clearer understanding of why you do things, and which activities provide enjoyment and vitality can help you prioritise where to spend your time and energy. This will hook you into doing more of the things that give meaning, purpose and pleasure to your every day.

umbrella canopy; umbrella of life

Where to from here?

What’s your gut feeling about how balanced your canopy is? Don’t overthink this question. What is your first response? Do you think your canopy is reasonably well balanced, or does one section dominate, or is one of the sections missing?

  • If you feel your canopy is fairly well balanced, I’d suggest you initially concentrate on the Leisure and Learning category (because this category is fundamentally about you). What one thing can you do today to add some leisure or learning to your life? Choose just one thing.
  • If there is a section that takes too much time and energy and leaves you feeling depleted, what one thing can you do today to lessen the time and energy this category takes? Or is there something you can NOT do that will decrease the time and effort in this section? Choose just one thing – sustainable change happens little by little.
  • If there is a section that is missing or overshadowed by others, what one thing can you do today to increase this category?

This strategy for being well and living well, in terms of changing what you do rathen than how you think, takes some time to get used to. It also requires practise (often with appropriate support and encouragement) before you can expect lasting benefits. But it does work. There’s a lovely Tanzanian proverb that says:

“Little by little a little becomes a lot”

So start with just one change today. And let me know which aspects of your umbrella canopy you’d like to know more about.

More resources

The above information is an excerpt from my book “Bit by Bit: reclaim meaning, purpose and pleasure in everyday life”. If you’d like to further explore the umbrella concept you can buy the book in paperback, ePub or Kindle versions.

This is the first in a series of blogs about the Umbrella of Life. You can subscribe to my blog feed here to keep up to date with future posts.

My Starting Pack (here) is an email-based workshop to help you explore your own umbrella canopy wtihin the context of your current lifestyle – it’s a starting point for working with the umbrella theory.

Have you found some resources that you think would be useful? Please let me know in the comments section.