How to Fill the Emptiness in Your Life


“Find your Calcutta.” ~Mother Teresa

Something is missing in your life, isn’t it?

You’re working hard, trying to get ahead, doing everything you possibly can to make life just a little bit better. You’re trying to keep it all balanced, though. You won’t be one of those people who commits every waking second to work and the pursuit of career.

Not you. You’ve got it figured out. You even make time to exercise, eat right, meditate, or maybe spend time with friends and family.

You’ve got it all figured out—except for that one stupid thing that keeps tugging at your heart. You don’t really know what it is, but it is there, and it is driving you a little crazy.

Yeah, I know. I get that feeling sometimes too.

It is often mistaken as unhappiness, fatigue, depression, or being stuck in a rut. Many people will go off and do wild vacations or try things they would never try in a million years just to see if those activities settle the strange, inexplicable emptiness they feel inside.

When they return to the real world, though, the problem is still there, still nagging at them.

Maybe they think they didn’t go “extreme” enough, and will push themselves harder. Or maybe they take it in a totally different direction and put more time into meditation, or even trying to manifest happiness in their lives.

Sound familiar?

Or do you have it under control? I’m guessing since you’re still reading, you don’t. It’s okay. Neither do I.

In fact, neither do most people.

So, what is this mysterious thing that is pulling at you, leaving you feeling empty and unfulfilled in a life that would, from the outside, seem all but amazing? It’s the pursuit of happiness.

Before you click away from the page, thinking that this is another article about how when you stop pursuing things, that is when they come to you, don’t.

It’s not about that at all.

We are constantly presented with things that we believe will make us happy. New cars, flashier televisions, prettier women or men, houses, furniture, more money, exotic vacations, and a myriad of things that go along with that stuff.

We are pounded by books, blogs, and billboards about how we can get everything we want in life, and live happier, better, and wealthier.

The simple truth is, we are so focused on getting what we want that we forget about everyone else in the world around us. And therein lies the key to that empty feeling inside.

Right now, there are people who are hungry. And not just in Africa or India. They might be within a square mile of you. There are kids who don’t have a decent place to sleep.

Let me tell you a quick story.

Recently, a friend of mine (a former high school teacher) passed away. He had been fighting leukemia and eventually cancer for a long time. He was 74 years old.

When I met him, I thought he was one of the most energetic people I’d ever come across. Of course, I was only 16 at the time. His Italian ancestry only added to the natural charisma he displayed on a daily basis.

This teacher started a program at my high school called Project 5000. It was an initiative aimed at collecting five thousand canned goods to distribute to needy families in our area. I can still remember seeing the boxes of food under the auditorium stage. 

Not only did our little school of 300 kids collect five thousand cans, we collected far more. And every single year, the number grew, surpassing multiple tens of thousands every year.

Because of his efforts, many needy families got to have a few good meals around Thanksgiving, even if it was just a few.

My friend also helped out at a place called the Chambliss home, a transitional facility for kids similar to an orphanage. He organized a Christmas program there every year so that, at least for a night, those kids could actually be kids.

Why am I telling you about this?

Because this teacher always had a smile on his face. He always had tons of energy. And because of one very important thing he told me in relation to the problem I discussed earlier. 

He said that if you live your life providing a service to others, you will have the most fulfilling life possible.

And there it is. We’ve been so focused on getting what we want in this world that we forget that there are people who have desperate needs. You don’t have to look far to find them either.

They could be right up the street, in a local school, a homeless shelter, a nursing home, or any number of places.

At the moment, I work in a school that has a student body that is 100 percent on free and reduced lunch. Basically, that means it is a school of kids from low-income homes. I work there as a school counselor and as the boys’ soccer coach.

My commute sucks, nearly an hour each way. The hours suck (since my best energy times are not waking up at 5:30 and working until 5:00 in the afternoon).

When my friends ask me why I don’t quit or find a job closer to home at a better school, I explain to them that it is my Calcutta. While, sometimes the work is not stimulating, and the kids can be a little rough around the edges, it is a place where there is a great need.

Ever since I started looking at it that way, I have been a lot happier in the rest of my life. I am more fulfilled because I know that I am providing a service to people in need, and not just living for myself.

When I get home I have more energy, a happier demeanor, and I feel like I have done something good.

The bottom line is, helping others energizes you and fills you with good feelings.

Where can you find your Calcutta? It could be as simple as donating a piece of furniture to a needy family. Or you could give a few hours a month at the local soup kitchen. Are you an expert at something that could help solve a problem for people? Find a way to do that on a semi-regular basis. It can literally be almost anything.

The point is that you serve someone. And by serving others, you will begin to notice that strange, empty feeling begin to dissipate until one day, you find yourself smiling all the time.

Photo by Shisheido USA

About Ernest Dempsey

Ernest Dempsey is a Counselor and fiction author from Chattanooga, Tennessee. You can check out his books or his powerful blog posts at or follow him on Twitter @ErnDempsey.

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  • Sheena Vasani

    One of the best and most real posts I’ve read here! Thank you!

  • Chelcey

    I am very familiar with the “something is missing in my life” feeling. I have laid in bed wondering what could be missing and wishing that I could afford to take an exotic vacation. It is easy to get caught up in trying to fill that void with things that will only temporarily bring happiness, instead of finding things that touch your soul and bring a smile to your heart forever. I have learned this lesson over the weekend. My family is mourning the loss of three beautiful little children, who lives were taken away from them by an unspeakable act of violence. I was overwhelmed with the amount of love that people poured out to my family. Many attended the candle vigil that was held in their honor and prayed with my family. Over the last couple of years, I have lost sight of what life is all about. I am reminded that life is about reaching out to others, especially those who are hurting and needing help. Showing others love, kindness, and generosity is a humbling experience that has made me feel more connected with the world and those who live in it. I agree with the author of this post. Serving others is the best way to fill that “something is missing” feeling. Thank you for this post!

  • Ipsa

    Exactly one of the BEST Post ever read!! Wow what an insightful wisdom to fulfill the emptiness or unhappiness in life…Thank You!!

  • Mary Kay

    Thank you! I am going to save it to my favorites.

  • Betty

    Thank you, exactly what I needed to read right now

  • Karine

    I love this. So much. For a long time I have felt that this was a missing piece for me. To be of service to others is a true longing of mine. My trouble is, I’m a mom to two young children, living in a country where I don’t speak the language fluently. I’ve been so focused on this “service” being tied to my occupation that when I haven’t been able to find work, I’ve felt that emptiness as if being of service was not being allowed to me. I forget, all of the time, how my very being in this world – with my kids, with friends and family, and the world – can be an act of service if it brings more love, kindness and compassion into it. Still…I forget this.

  • Andras

    Thank you.

  • leanne

    This is exactly what I’ve realised recently, that I want to help others in order to feel more content with myself in the world. I get a bit shy, I really hope I find a way to do it 🙂

  • Awesome. And thank you. 🙂

  • And thank you for the kind words. 🙂

  • Very coo, Mary. Thank you. 🙂

  • Yeah, you have to quit beating yourself up. Sounds like your Calcutta is right under your nose. 🙂

  • You’re more than welcome. 🙂

  • You will. 🙂

  • This comment is so powerful. Thank you so much for sharing it. Wow. Heavy heavy stuff.

  • Jane Fowler


  • cailinbroga

    Thankyou for this brilliantly simple truth – it is exactly what I needed to read. I really need to prioritise this in my life and I will do so!

  • Deborah Lew

    “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” ~ Nelson Henderson

  • Find your Calcutta…I like that. I’ve recently found mine, both in the lower-income school district where I teach, and in the new blog I’ve started, where hopefully I can actually make a difference with my writing.

    Life is full of opportunities to give back and find meaning. Thank you for sharing.

  • Thanks for your comment, Bethany. Nice to meet a fellow educator. 🙂

  • Editha

    I don’t suppose anyone can explain to me what “Calcutta” is? I’m guessing its like similar to finding your safe haven? Or something? I looked up that it was like a city?

    Can anyone please explain! Please and thank you for your time!

  • Finding Balance

    I’m going to risk sharing a perspective which somewhat differs with the article…

    There was a span of years when I gave because I wanted to feel good about myself. I felt badly about this, and stopped. Then, I took it up again, after ‘working on myself’. I still kept trying to be noticed for efforts. It was embarrassing. In time, it became somewhat more about the recipient than before. I developed an identity “I give, therefore I am” and I lived from this. I was happier in a sense, feeling some purpose outside of me.

    My health was still ailing, I had no relationships with family or friends, and I wasn’t excited about work, but, I made it a mission to love those I worked with and I volunteered after work and sometimes before at the meditation center I attended and at community centers. And, since my world was limited to work-meditation-service-eat-sleep, life felt stable.

    This year, I left the meditation center. I had been receiving and witnessing ongoing and increasing emotional abuse and manipulation, and my inner wisdom said it was time to leave. Looking back, my service was a function of the teachings there, articles like this, and words from great sages…serve, focus on others, get my needs met from God, etc.

    So, after leaving, I kept serving in community centers. I added new service assignments. I continued to give money, matching the $12,000 I gave last year to charity, giving freely from whatever savings I had this year to charities abroad, a young man who wanted to start a business, etc. After some months, I became aware of a frantic sense of *needing* to serve or else I would lose my ‘spiritual’ identity. I ignored this and kept doing. I became drained/overwhelmed, and, I felt used when the money I gave for the business wasn’t used for the business. I didn’t know until later that amidst the struggle, I was growing in self-love.

    The Universe was pulling me away from service as I knew it; in hindsight I was doing it to prove to myself that I am a decent person. I wanted to support and do for others because I had no dreams for myself. I didn’t think my life was worth investing in. I was trying to love others to be lovable to myself. I listened and stop serving, and, I don’t do so anymore.

    I am becoming, as I heard someone say, like a tree. A tree gives just by being – shade, water droplets, food, oxygen. It does not try to give or serve; it is not depleted for others having benefited from it, either. It just is. It has felt excruciating to not do, at times.

    It is still hard for me to accept the notion that my not serving is not selfish. I have so many tapes in my head. I am continuing to see the embarrassing ways I aim for ‘secondary gains’ from doing outer things. Life is definitely rockier and I feel sort of aimless and invisible and shaky in my identity when interacting with others/making new friends, etc. My self-worth has at once taken a hit and I feel new strength from within. All this to say that not serving (others) and serving myself is where I’m supposed to be, until my inner call shifts.

  • caroline

    Try searching for “Mother Teresa” She lived and served most of her life in Calcutta. To me the quote means finding where the greatest need in your life is, and going there to serve.

  • caroline

    Great article. Thank you Ernest. I appreciate Finding Balance’s response, and hope Ernest has a chance to reply to it. One nice thing to remember about Mother Teresa is that it was found in her journals after she died, that she suffered from feeling abandoned by God, but she acted in her life of service on faith. So, service is also not the magic pill to happiness. I believe you are right, Finding Balance, you are serving by being who we are called to be. I think those times of sitting empty handed feel empty – like an empty field but this is also the same place where new grass grows – but it is place that is grounds for much potential and possibilities – the field cannot be stomped on by forcing something that isn’t there – like serving the meditation center if you are not called to this at this time. What do you think, Ernest?

  • Jasmine

    Excellent insight. My experience has taught me that you can truly only help others selflessly and unconditionally when you have done the same to yourself first. Otherwise the emptiness doesnt really leave. Using an analogy, our life often takes the form of a donut. The inner circle is “me” and the outer circle is “the rest of the world”. If your inner circle is nice and round, the outer circle is the same. If your inner self is chaotic as in the shape of a haphazard donut, the outer circle follows the same shape or form.

    The ultimate trick may lie in loving self unconditionally, accepting self as we are and forgiving self for all the pain that we inflict upon ourselves knowingly or unknowingly each second. Once we are able to achieve this, the emptiness will dissolve and we will be able to offer our higher self to the world. Now wont that be wonderful ? A world filled with happy and soulful beings.

  • Good stuff

  • nicole

    What about serving others in the hospitality industry like as a waiter or bartender? Thats serving others, but i dont like doing it and it certainly doesnt make me feel any happier. I also taught art to children at a day camp one summer and could really relate to your article. Thats another form of serving others through teaching. How do you explain these two different occupations that both serve others but do not give you the same amount of happiness? Why? Why do I feel so much more fulfilled teaching kids than I do serving as a waitress? Watsup with that.

  • gooseberry

    Thank you

  • Ellie

    Thanks for sharing this. Both it and the article resonate deeply with me. While reading, I thought of Pema Chondron’s book, ‘When Things Fall Apart’.

    In it, she talks about hopelessness. How until we can give up hope-that there’s someplace better to be, someone better to be-we will never relax with where it who we are. It is futile to try and get lasting security and suffering comes from an addiction to the hope that we can get stable ground under our feet. But suffering doesn’t mean that something is wrong with life or because we made a wrong move. It’s part of life. Hope comes from a feeling that we lack something. And we lose the ability to relax with ourselves and be with the present moment. The compassionate way is to acknowledge how we feel. To make friends with ourself, to not run away from yourself. That things are changing all the time. That everything-moods,emotions, situations, life ends.

  • Liv

    Thank you for both perspective, author and Finding Balance. The emptiness was always there and when my life took a dip, I resigned, joined an NGO and worked every day living breathing the cause. I thought it would fill that void but it didnt. It gv me adrenaline yes, fighting, working, advocating, doing everything I can.. to have it distract me from the void. Like you Finding Balance, it angered me when I see the cause used as marketing tool or tax exemption for some corporations, some people even. It angered me that some who worked there didnt bother at all about the cause. It drained me pretty soon. Maybe I was looking for acknowledgement. I drained myself pretty soon actually. Cant run on adrenaline for long.

    I didnt stop helping and it is still a cause close to my believes. I helped kids in shelters sometimes but fully aware they are giving me more than I do them. They help distract me. It isnt bad, but like putting sand in a concrete gap.

    Instead of searching, I am now looking at it, staring at this void, painful as it is and taking the responsibility that nothing outside can fill it. It can make me forget, for awhile.
    I once asked a monk, how do I fill this emptiness, he said – life is painful, to forget that pain, help others. A guy in a bar told me, if that doesnt work, just dance.

  • Carrie2

    I believe now in serving those that are truly needy. Most that ask for help, don’t really need it. Many play the system now and have their hands out in various ways. I find that in giving in unusual and unplanned ways are the most fulfilling because they make the most difference.

  • Abdul

    Great article. It goes deep inside. It dives and touches the soul which is where the meaning of life can be felt. As a Muslim, i learned that helping other people is good thing to do. Actually Islam says the person who takes the time and the effort to make someone else happy, Allah will send (him/her) people that will make (him/her) happy.

    Yesterday, when i was at the gym, there was an old man on wheelchair. He looked desperate, tired from the inside, and for sure weak from the outside. He was working out despite his age and his weakness. I saw him moving around the gym on his wheelchair and stoping by some machines that would be easy for him to use. When he came near me to use a certain machine, he got off very slowly from his wheelchair. He did not look at me but i felt that he needed help. I offered my help and said, “let me help you please”. I thought he would just say thanks or even ignore me. He actually smiled, looked at me in eye and thanked me a lot for offering help. It was not normal thanks, i knew that it was from his heart and that he would feel happy for sometime. Also, i knew by doing that to the old man, i will be happy latter and yes actually i am feeling happy right now. I just would like to encourage people to do anything possible to make others happy and to never underestimate a good deed.

    Thanks a lot for posting.

  • Lilmoma

    Thank you Earnest this is just what I needed to hear , today and at this moment, am turning 42 and seem to come to a crossroads that is leaving me confused and empty. I have the best children in the world, I know everyone says that, but I truly mean it and I am blessed to be their mother everyday of my life. I have a negative relationship in my life for many years and I feel defeated and alone. I try to teach my children values of compassion, kindness ,openness, and love but don’t seem to get this in return, I meditate, volunteer, went back to school. I give of myself but am looking for the same in the person I share my life with. I have a tape playing in my head that won’t quite and I needed to hear that to heart someone has similar values and there are people out there that give of them selves with ease. I need to stop and focus on the good and my path of myself and my children. I need to bask in the knowledge I am where I am suppose to be and doing what I suppose to be doing, Learning the positive and the negative. Taking in the light and the dark I will live the life that the universe has intended. I need to understand that I not the consciousness to realize what life my be in store for me, Changing my perspective will and can change my happiness, Thank you.

  • Feeling Lost

    I wonder and dont have an answer yet on how to fill the emptiness or the thought that life is pointless. But here is what I have tried and has not worked
    – Service of others – service for others is not my passion. I am kind and help others when I can – but it does not fill my emptiness.

    I believe achieving my desires is what will give me happiness – such as having a family(husband and kids) and being really successful in my career. I am stable financially but that is the only thing I have achieved in my life – and none of my other desires.

    I feel I will always have the emptiness as I am 43 (almost 44) – as I definitely will not have a family of my own or even a companion.

    Maybe people who have achieved romance, love, relationships, family and successful career – then feel empty – so for them maybe service or religion is the answer. Just random thoughts 🙂


    Shit article. Fuck you

  • Sergio

    I think that the emptiness will never go away because this is the trick of your mind to keep you looking for something new to fill that gap. As you already have seen, every new “thing” for the mind is interesting, but, the mind will always want more and more until it gets boring. Only for illustration, let’s think about an orgasm. Ok you have it, and then what? there is the need for more which causes the emptiness sooner or later. As every activity, pleasure, doctrine, object, … and every external thing, will guide you to that emptiness state, where is the answer? There is something which independently of your mind will remain, this is your inner being, the god inside you. It is not the experience you are idealizing about being enlightened or a Buda, but the very acceptance that you inside are not empty, because you can not be empty anymore when you are connected to the source. Therefore, the only path, which is not actually a path because you are already there, is to go inside. This is not a meditation or any kind of practice, it is deeper than that in your holiness and completeness.

  • Ji-u Yue`-Feng Tao

    I don’t think I have much left to give at the rate I feel drained. I am hoping I changed 1 life by now and I can’t see that, so its not very fulfilling to me anymore. I see a lot of backlash and backfiring. Kind of want to be extremely selfish now. I feel bitter about life and since no one is to blame, I want to blame life or God. If not I want to blame everyone around me and if not them then i might as well blame me because I mean everything is not only not where I want it, but idk what the hell to want anymore cuz I’m scrambling. settle for less settle for more but expect less expect more receive little receive a lot it means nothing it means everything i can’t feel for these things because i feel I’ve given so much that I’m always here by myself with no one to turn to unless i am ready to be criticized. thats how i got here turning at night wondering how i ended up by myself after i thought i was becoming better of a person. now it sounds like a pity party but saying the opposite is not agreeing with me.

  • Rageful bastard


  • Jofuss H.

    The key here is truly seeking nothing in return. Just giving out of the abundance of your heart. Even if it doesn’t give you a warm feeling inside, giving is an intellectually satisfying action/deed. As there is no getting “rid” of that part of us, it just IS, neither good nor bad, and once we accept, it loses all its power.

  • Jofuss H.

    I agree, no tearing out, fixing, or getting rid of. Just accepting fully and entirely the sensation and allowing it to BE.

  • Jofuss H.

    It is a pity my friend, these things shall pass, when you give there’s sometimes nothing to receive, not even comfort. Breathe into the thoughts, feelings, and emptiness, it is nothing to be scared of for we all have it. Peace be with you

  • Eef

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful inspiration.

    At the moment I am located in downward spiral. Overcome by a deep void in me. As a cheerful and happy person as I was, so empty and sad is it now. First the battle by brother and sisters and the further effect of this, and now as a blow to a void by the lack of my children and grandchildren.

    The heavy quarrel ring of brother and sisters, cousins, that I have overcome. But what most hurts is the absence of the visual contacts of my children and grandchildren.

    But what also hurts a lot is the loneliness in me, my husband is 13 years younger. Is busy with work and his sport.

    He must still work and his sport he does need to relax from his busy work.

    He deserves this. But sometimes I miss it that we do things together.

    But after reading your article I will move on with working on myself. At least I will do my utmost best. I know I can do this, because I find myself a very strong person. I will conquer all the negative aspects in life.

  • Rong See

    What happens if I do not feel satisfaction from helping others, especially since majority of the people I helped ended up exploiting or betraying me? I have low energy, so much so that just spending time with my family or talking to one stranger depletes my energy so much that I have to withdraw for a few days to recover as I get overwhelmed easily. I don’t like how cynical and cut-off I have became towards others.

  • Chelsie

    Hi, have you considered helping animals instead? I myself feel disconnected from humanity due to bad experiences. However, animals are loving in every respect and being they aren’t able to ask for help they never come to expect it. Maybe helping animals would be better for you? Just a thought. x

  • Heartweaver

    I would admit that I am not an animal lover, but I do feel deeply for animals being harmed. They have never backstabbed me for helping them

  • Heartweaver

    That’s a very good idea, thank you

  • kaamini

    how does one fill the missing areas of life which are essential like work money family love.

  • Valerie

    I’m guessing helping yourself unconditionally refers to helping yourself regardless of outcome, but how would you be able to help yourself *selflessly*??

  • There is no simple answer

    I have done exactly this in my career… I’ve worked in health care. I’ve worked in mental health. It is rewarding but it’s also very draining even if you do a lot of self-care. I disagree with the article. Sometimes giving to others and being the rescuer is a crutch to avoid doing work on ourselves. I think it’s important to have meaningful relationships in our lives and to not be in work mode all the time. I’ve started to forget who I am because I’m too busy being the counsellor and being in work mode. Have people that you can be yourself with. Let loose, say inappropriate things, etc. Have people to celebrate successes with you and support you when you’re down. We have to have our own personal growth and development goals and push ourselves to pursue what we love and fear.

  • John

    Great Article! It helps reinforce and remind me about my goals in life. We all want to help make a better world for all of us. It also points out that helping others can be applied simply and straightforward. We can all start today. Thank you for your inspiration.

  • mindsasone

    I disagree. Doing for others, one only realizes that their fate is the same as yours…death. Your helping them is irrelevant, just as helping yourself.

  • Jillybean

    Good article and long may it help you. You might think differently when you’re old and grey and have no-one to comfort you when you realise that every day is just one step closer to death. The emptiness is the realisation that everything is futile to the final destination. Helping others is just a temporary fix and may help us to go to our deathbed knowing we made someone else’s life a little easier, so it wasn’t all for nothing.