5 Ways to Reflect, Refocus, and Renew Your Life

Universal lessons for better—healthier—living, inspired by Yom Kippur

Young woman looking very serious

Whether it's having a regular coffee date with a friend or joining a reading group, consider building your social bonds to boost your spirits.

Do good works. It doesn't matter if you're organizing a winter coat drive or visiting the elderly, the act of giving can transform us. "When we give, it's likely that we turn off the fight-or-flight response," writes Stephen Post in Why Good Things Happen to Good People. "Giving pushes aside the brooding negative emotions, like rage and spite and envy, that clearly contribute to stress-induced psychological and physical illness," says Post, director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University in New York. It also makes us happier, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California-Riverside. Giving can give our lives meaning and purpose, boost self-esteem, and divert us from focusing too much on ourselves. So, next time you see someone's parking meter about to expire, why not toss in a few coins?

[See 13 Fool-Proof Ways to Get Happier]

Face death to more fully face life. "It is crucial to be mindful of death—to contemplate that you will not remain long in life," writes the Dalai Lama in Advice on Dying: And Living a Better Life. If you are not aware of death, you will fail to take advantage of this special human life that you have already attained." Death clarifies the meaning of life. Consider, for example, Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie and Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture, books that captured pivotal life lessons in the face of death and transfixed legions of readers. Why? We want to know that, when our time comes, we will have lived up to our lives. It was the question posed by my rabbi at that sermon so many years ago and one articulated beautifully by Tim McGraw, the country singer, in his "Live Like You Were Dying," a song about his friend's response to terminal illness. "I went skydiving. I went Rocky Mountain climbing ... I loved deeper, and I spoke sweeter, and I gave forgiveness I'd been denying. And he said someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying ... like tomorrow was a gift, and you got eternity to think about what do with it. What should you do with it? What can I do with it? What would I do with it?"

McGraw couldn't have articulated a more perfect Yom Kippur sermon.

Updated on 9/26/2012: In the last sentence of this story, the word "written" was changed to "articulated."