Get the Better newsletter.
By Stephanie Thurrott

Even if you’re not Christian, you’ve probably at least heard of Lent — the 40 (really 46, since Sundays don’t count) days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. But what is Lent really about?

It’s about introspection. “Lent is a time of putting aside what we normally do to reevaluate our lives. It’s a time to ask, ‘Am I really being the person I intend to be?’” says Father Mark Morozowich, dean of the school of theology and religious studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC.

It’s about connecting with others. “Lent is a journey people can take together. Even if you don’t identify as Christian or identify as religious you can take part in the journey with friends or family members,” says Corey MacPherson, university chaplain at Colgate University in Hamilton, NY.

If you just stop eating chocolate for Lent, you’re missing the point. You need to reflect on the sacrifice.

It’s about slowing down. In the Orthodox tradition, Lent is considered a return to normalcy. “It’s being more mindful, and more involved, and bathing yourself in the rituals of the church, so you can see your own needs. It’s a beautiful time of year,” says Jeff Citro, licensed social worker, a Massachusetts-based counselor with broad experience in the Christian denominations.

Giving something up

Fasting and sacrifice are cornerstones of Lent. But if you just, say, stop eating chocolate for Lent, you’re missing the point. You need to reflect on the sacrifice. “Why have you been eating so much chocolate anyway? What are you trying to heal from, or medicate?” asks Citro. “Giving up something in and of itself is useless. It’s only meaningful in the context of your spiritual journey.”

Citro also warns that following the “rules” of Lent — like not eating meat on Fridays — without introspection can blind you to your own needs. “If you don’t eat meat but you have a lobster, what’s the value in that? It becomes senseless,” he says. “You’re evading the purpose of Lent, which is to make you softer, more approachable and more moldable.”

So, what should you give up for Lent?

In some traditions, people would meet with their priest and work together to come up with a meaningful sacrifice for Lent. Today — Catholic or not — we’re mostly on our own.

Citro points us toward a path of courage. “Whatever causes you to feel fearful, that’s where you need to go,” he says. “What keeps you from connecting with others? What causes you to be frightened? What makes you self-medicate?”

  • Give up a lack of connectedness. Eat together as a family, or schedule time with friends or call someone you know is lonely or sick.
  • Give up things that are cluttering your life and causing imbalance. If that’s physical clutter, try the 40 bags in 40 days challenge, where you commit to getting rid of a bag of stuff every day for 40 days. It could be digital clutter, too. MacPherson says his students often give up (or cut back on) social media.

Taking something on instead

There’s another side to Lent beyond making sacrifices. “It’s not only giving something up. A lot of traditions stress the importance of taking something on in this 40-day journey,” says MacPherson. “Solidarity with the poor is a big part of Lent that has been lost.” Consider adding a service project or volunteering as part of your observance of Lent.

Giving up something in and of itself is useless. It’s only meaningful in the context of your spiritual journey.

Jeff Citro, licensed social worker

Beyond the 40 days

The goal is not to revert to the person you were before Ash Wednesday — make Lent your new normal. “Easter Sunday shouldn’t be about catching up on Facebook and eating candy,” MacPherson says. Lent can set a pattern that transforms you, so your life is back in balance.

Don't miss: 7 questions to ask to help you make sense of your life

Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.