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Therapists Spill: 16 Insights on Leading a Meaningful Life

Woman outdoors holding flower smilingClinicians help their clients make meaningful changes on a regular basis. They help them figure out what a fulfilling life looks like for them. So they’re a great resource when it comes to contemplating our own lives.

Here’s a roundup of therapists’ insights on living a beautiful life from our monthly interview series. Some of their advice overlaps. Other advice doesn’t. But that simply speaks to both the universal and diverse ways we can carve out meaning.

1. Focus on emotional connection.

“Don’t look for money or possessions to make you feel fulfilled. I think that emotional connection is the biggest source of meaning and purpose in life, and that is backed up by research. A big part of my professional and writing efforts go toward helping people pay more attention to what they are feeling and why because our emotions are what connect us to ourselves, other people, and the world. It’s all about emotional connection. We all need it, and those who have it are more fulfilled and overall happier.” ~ Jonice Webb, Ph.D.

2. Get out of your comfort zone.

“Don’t be afraid to let your feelings known. Express your problems and be true to yourself. It is important to validate and acknowledge your feelings. You are important and should follow your dreams. You need to take risks, and it is OK to fail. Besides, if you do not know failure, you cannot appreciate success.” ~ Helen Nieves, LMHC.

“I tell my clients to follow their inner voice. I encourage them to try to do the things they’ve always loved, or always wanted to try — even if it means taking big risks and moving out of their comfort zone. For everyone, life is about risk, and especially for creative people. You have to be willing to cross new territory, to try new things in order to create something original. It’s OK to fail, even necessary.” ~ David Silverman, MA, LMFT.

3. Look within to create your own meaning.

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“There is no definition for what it means to live a meaningful life, despite societal ideals. It is up to each of us to make our own meaning of our experiences. Look within to find who you are and what makes you feel good about your life and your impact on the world. Live consistently with this internal self.” ~ Marla W. Deibler, PsyD.

4. Focus on the details. That’s where life lives.

“Take the lessons learned from your past, set up some personal goals for your future and then live each day you are given. In the course of that day, find a small way to include some generosity, some gratitude, some connection and some laughter. A meaningful life is in the details of how we live each day.” ~ Suzanne Phillips, PsyD.

5. Be compassionate.

“The best advice I can offer readers on leading a meaningful life is to give, give, give. For me, there is no greater personal satisfaction than giving and helping another person in need. I know this may sound syrupy and sappy, but I am sincere. There must be truth in karma because every time I give of myself it comes back to me tenfold. But, the giving must be without expectation. I don’t mean just giving to patients. I mean helping relatives in my immediate family or close friends who need my attention, time, guidance, or financial assistance. Reciprocating kindnesses to those who have been good to me is high on my priority list.” ~ Fran Walfish, PsyD.

6. Identify what really matters.

“Make ‘space’ to check in with yourself each day. Even 5-10 minutes to be still, meditate, ponder, or pray will make a huge difference in creating a meaningful life, for it will allow you to ‘unplug’ and instead ‘tune in’ to what really matters. Ask yourself, ‘What matters most to me?’ Then listen, and write it down. Compare everything you do each day to your list of ‘what matters most.’ Pay attention to the things that do matter, and get rid of all that doesn’t. Repeat this process often, and your life will be full of love, joy, and meaning.” ~ Christina G. Hibbert, PsyD.

7. Get to know yourself.

“A journal is the cheapest therapy. Get a notebook and start writing down what you feel, see, and think. And find someone with whom you can speak frankly and without fear of judgment.” ~ Elizabeth Sullivan, MFT.

8. Trust yourself and your body.

“Everyone finds meaning in different things and in different ways. To find what has heart and meaning for you, I’d offer this: You can trust yourself, and you can trust your body. Having an allegiance to yourself and a loving partnership with your body can help guide you towards what’s true for you. The power is in the present moment. So much of the time we’re trying to get ‘there’ and forget to be where we are. Life is wonderfully complex, and the complexity of being human is worth making room for.” ~ Carmen Cool, MA, LPC.

9. Focus your efforts on what you can actually control.

“Focus on what you can control. There are things in life we can’t control. These things usually cause stress and anxiety. It’s much more useful to focus on what is within our control.” ~ Nathan Feiles, LCSW.

10. Accept life’s imperfections.

“…[A]ccept that life isn’t perfect and pain is a part of being alive. If you can deal with that, you can deal with everything.” ~ Gerti Schoen, MA, LP.

11. Lead an examined life.

“To answer this question I’d like to use a quote credited to both Plato and Socrates: ‘The overly examined life has not been lived and the unexamined life is not worth living.’ I think that someone who leads an unexamined life is reacting to events from feelings that are hidden from his or her awareness. To lead an examined life is to do the emotional work to reach a high level of self-awareness and pull yourself out of the painful emotions of blame, guilt and anger.

“Self-awareness leads to emotional balance and a deeper understanding of the people around you, [and] thus frees you to live with more love and equanimity. Seeking out insight-oriented modalities such as psychotherapy and other inner exploratory work increases one’s self-awareness and self-worth.

“To live your life without reflection and self-growth is to live with unexplained emotional reactivity and rejection of the self and others. Taking time to reflect on your actions and choices will create deeper meaning and is a sign of developing emotional complexity and emotional and mental health. Do your emotional work, it’s not easy, but you’re worth it!” ~ Kathy Morelli, LPC.

12. Seek your greatness.

“…[A] mentor of mine suggested that each of us carries greatness in some way. So seek your greatness. And trust that, even if you do not discover it all at once, it is there. And if you continue to work toward your greatness, you will fulfill and achieve it. This is another great joy of life.” ~ John Duffy, Ph.D.

13. Live your values.

“Name your three highest values and then see how closely you are actually living those values. For example, if you really value community yet find yourself feeling lonely or disconnected, the gap between your value and how you’re living it is pretty wide. What are some ways you can close that gap to live more closely by your values? As Russ Harris suggests: Picture yourself at your 90th birthday party. What do you want people to say about you? What do you regret? What do you wish you had done more of?” ~ Bobbi Emel, MFT.

14. Explore your personal well-being.

“…[W]ell-being is an art form. In order to find well-being and maintain it, you’ll need to understand your own genetic tendencies and how your life story shapes who you are. This biology and biography will be unique to you and only you. Well-being also invites you to embrace holistic as well as traditional ways of living. And once you find what works uniquely for you, safeguard it, feel empowered by it and celebrate it.” ~ Deborah Serani, PsyD.

15. Cultivate calm in your heart.

“The best advice I can offer is captured in the following tale:

There once was a king who offered a prize to the artist who would paint the best picture of peace. Many artists tried. The king looked at all the pictures, but there were only two he really liked and he had to choose between them.

One picture was of a calm lake. The lake was a perfect mirror, for peaceful towering mountains were all around it. Overhead was a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. All who saw this picture thought that it was a perfect picture of peace.

The other picture had mountains too. But these were rugged and bare. Above was an angry sky from which rain fell and in which lightning played. Down the side of the mountain tumbled a foaming waterfall. This did not look peaceful at all. But when the king looked, he saw behind the waterfall a tiny bush growing in a crack in the rock. In the bush a mother bird had built her nest. There, in the midst of the rush of angry water, sat the mother bird on her nest, perfectly at peace.

Which picture do you think won the prize?

The king chose the second picture. ‘Because,’ explained the king, ‘peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. Peace means to be in the midst of all those things and still be calm in your heart. That is the real meaning of peace.'” ~ Aaron Karmin, LCPC.

16. Find your own answer.

“I think each person has to answer it as an individual. Some people find meaning in giving incredible service to others. Some find it in developing an amazing talent and sharing it. Others find it in becoming parents and raising children who are good citizens. For me a meaningful life involves finding my most authentic self and then spending time with people who validate it. It includes some kind of service to my fellow beings and a belief system that acknowledges a collective power greater than our individual selves.” ~ Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

A meaningful life is different for each of us. The key is to look within — and to keep looking within on a daily basis — to discover just what meaningful means. And then the other part, of course, is to live that by incorporating that meaning, those values, into our everyday lives.

Therapists Spill: 16 Insights on Leading a Meaningful Life

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Therapists Spill: 16 Insights on Leading a Meaningful Life. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.