Speak of regenerating spirits when New Year rolls around and most would think it means a second round of whisky and another toast. The association with indulgence has its roots.

In our full-speed-ahead life, padded and insulated by luxury, we resemble F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description in The Great Gatsby when introducing the titular character’s old lover, Daisy, and her husband, Tom: “Why they came east, I don’t know. They had spent a year in France, for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully, wherever people played polo and were rich together.”

The word “unrestfully” isn’t in the dictionary, yet it is not incorrectly used. The made-up word evokes a perpetual state of dissatisfaction and, when combined with “drift” and “no particular reason”, describes a life without purpose. “Unrestful” may prove a useful label for the
year ahead.

Five years after the global financial crisis, the larger economies of China, India and Indonesia are slowing down and there is no guarantee that Asia can continue to grow.

In the West, the US shows improvement and Europe is coping with crisis better than feared.

Yet, even American optimism is measured in a modest uptick in jobs, rather than a return to
heady growth.

As America improves, moreover, the Federal Reserve’s policy to provide easy money will taper off, and many will have to adjust – from house-owners who borrowed at record-low interest rates to emerging markets that were flooded with cash.

Add to this, the political risks: demonstrations by angry citizens, international tensions among countries and neighbours, and rule changes by governments trying to balance budgets and raise taxes, while addressing social inequity and sentiments against foreign investors and the one-percenters.

There may be no full-on crisis but there will be turbulence, and growth will not be abundant. Yet, we are not condemned to fritter away the year.

January is named after Janus, the two-faced god of the Romans, who presides over doorways, beginnings and endings, and auspicious transitions. There can be a pause between one year and the next to review what has passed, consider what might come next and contemplate what it may all mean. We could, unlike Tom and Daisy, seek a new sense of purpose (or renew our current aims).

Indeed, in reaction to social and political developments, as well as a market-driven, consumer life, many have turned to God or the nation. Alongside skyscrapers and mega malls, there has been a boom in churches – both mega and the more traditional.

Others rally around a flag. Witness Japan and Abenomics. The effort by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration to end the country’s malaise comes after almost 20 years of economic stagnation, revolving-door governments and the decline of once-leading companies like Sony. Yet, the trigger in many people’s minds was the triple tragedy of earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima.

China’s revitalisation, too, started from a low point: the Opium Wars, when reformers realised how far their once-powerful empire had fallen behind the rest of the world. Yet, it took decades and many champions to see the need for a wholesale change, as vividly recorded in the recent book, Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the 21st Century by Orville Schell and John Delury.

Among these, the story of Sun Yat Sen seems especially compelling. He wandered the world – first to Hawaii, studying at the same college that US President Barack Obama would attend almost a century later, then to Japan, which provided the first example of a modernising Asian country. Besides learning, he also travelled near and far to raise money for the revolution in China. But not many of us want such a public and grand mission. There are other missions – secular and on a manageable scale – that can make a difference.

In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan that struck the Philippines, celebrity food entrepreneur Mr Makansutra (aka Seetoh Kok Fye) organised a fund-raising event at Gluttons Bay that brought in more than $12,000. Indochine’s Michael Ma holds a Green Festival and Gala Dinner annually to support environmental causes. Another friend, after a career in business consultancy and private- equity investment, has dedicated herself to helping orphans abroad – turning her sharp eye and tough mind to charity.
Such causes may not appeal to all. Some prefer a more personal sense of mission, if they can find one. Here are three suggestions to help you discover your cause.

First, take time out to think. No, not another event-packed holiday or gourmet tour, with Facebook photos to record each dish. Instead, find a place that’s quiet and different from your normal schedule, and yet familiar so touristing isn’t necessary. Stay long enough because thinking is a process that requires you to unwind from the daily grind. Include some physical element in the routine – something like yoga, walking in the hills or sailing. The mind often opens to new ways of thinking when the body is sufficiently occupied. But don’t overdo the physical difficulty or the mind will have too much to deal with. Science shows that walking at a moderate pace allows the mind to process other thoughts. But too much speed or hiking across a tricky terrain leaves no such space.

Second, don’t allow yourself to get bored too often. Whether it is in the workplace or an obligatory meal with someone you would rather not meet, find a way out. Get a new job. Stand up and walk out. Just say “no”.

If our time is used up by what fails to interest and motivate us, we could start believing that life is like that: boring, without enjoyment or purpose. We should demand that there be a point to each day or, as a compromise, to most days.

Third, learn new things. Not just the skill itself but the underlying lessons. In tai chi or yoga, for example, speed is not all. Sometimes it is better to breathe and focus.

My wish is to one day bring these elements together: gather people at a special place to think and work through lessons with the excitement and purpose of exchanging experiences and re-examining ideas, and learn new things.

For now, a closing whimsy about the Hollywood appeal of spies, superheroes and zombies.

Spies wow not only with their gadgets and hot women, a la James Bond, but also with the thrill of their secret missions. Superheroes excite not just because of special powers and body-fitting suits, but also due to their secret identities. So, we can sit at our desks, seemingly an ordinary chap in an office shirt, tie and spectacles, and yet be consoled that somewhere inside we are heroes, working towards an important cause.

The current popularity of zombies, conversely, shows how much we fear becoming the living dead they represent – shambling, mindless and perennially hungry for the flesh, blood and brains of anyone with a regular heartbeat.

Life with purpose should be otherwise.