We all want to lead a life with some sort of meaning. What that meaning is, however, is often left for each of us to decide and figure out on our own.
We asked seven clinicians about the best advice they’ve received on living a meaningful life. Here’s their take on this important life question.
I am a lover of words, and have always enjoyed using meaningful quotations as mantras. One I found long ago as a graduate student of psychology is my absolute favorite.
“All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.” ~ Henry Ellis, British psychologist (1859-1939).
I live by these words personally, and try to help my patients find this balance professionally. For well-being, the key to taming this ebb and flow of what to hold and what to let go off is all about perspective.
Too much letting go can leave you feeling empty and remote, while too much holding on can burden you, souring your very soul. For me, balance comes from knowing what I can and can’t control, appreciating what is truly sacred in my life, and letting the rest flow above, around and through me as I let it go. Like Ellis says, it’s a fine mingling.
Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, California, also mentioned balance, though he talked specifically about striking a happy medium between the personal and professional.
The most practical, meaningful advice came from a graduate school classmate who told me: “Don’t let psychology become both your job and your hobby.”
As a psychotherapist, it’s very tempting for me to take work home. Not paperwork and phone calls, that’s easy to leave behind. It’s all the unanswered questions that try to follow me out the door. Questions like “What happened in that session?” and “What can I do for her?” and “How else could I phrase that?” and “What’s going to happen next?” could easily occupy all my free time. I’m a professional problem solver, and each day uncovers more questions.
I could fill my spare time reading endless research journals, textbooks and self-help books to help expand my knowledge. I could combine all my vacations with professional conferences. Or, fulfilling the stereotype of the annoying therapist, I could be the guy at the cocktail party analyzing every new person I meet. It would be so easy to let this profession consume me. But I recall the words of my friend and try to leave work at work.
I do plenty of reading, planning, contemplating and consulting during my workday, so I try to draw a boundary and keep my evenings and weekends filled with other activities to keep my brain open, my objectivity intact and my relationships from growing sick of me. I believe this is not just better for me; clients get more from a well-rounded therapist. The idea of the work/life balance is that work isn’t your whole life. It shouldn’t be.
John Duffy, a clinical psychologist and author of The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens, talked about the surprising advice he received from the least likely place.
Many years and another career ago, I quit a job in public accounting. Shortly thereafter, I applied for a job at a high-powered, high-paying executive search firm. The interview went great, and I really connected with the interviewer, Arnie Kins, a well-dressed, dapper corporate partner. We talked for a couple of hours, and I really felt like I was killing it. I was on my way to big bucks, fancy suits, long lunches, corporate travel, the whole deal. Mr. Kins finished the interview with the following:
“John, I really like you. So, I’m going to do you a favor. I’m not going to hire you, no way. You don’t want this job. This job’s about money. Go out there and do something you care about.”
I left the building crestfallen, and fearful about my future. Within a couple of months, I was pursuing my graduate degree, and on my way to a career more meaningful than I had ever imagined. So, this is my official thank you, about 18 years late, to Mr. Arnie Kins, a gentlemen and an inspiration. His message to me has become a large part of my message to my own clients.
Ari Tuckman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and author of Understand Your Brain, Get More Done: The ADHD Executive Functions Workbook, explained how intimate relationships help us grow and serve as powerful drivers of change.
I often find myself coming back to the idea that, “the sign of a good relationship is that it pushes you to become a better person” from some books by David Schnarch, PhD. It informs a lot of what I do in therapy with clients and also how I handle my own marriage.
No one else will call us on our stuff more than a romantic partner or family member. The people we are most intimate with are the ones who have the most at stake with what we do, and vice versa. Friends probably don’t care nearly as much if you spend money impulsively as your romantic partner will because it won’t affect friends’ lives as much.
The more someone matters to you, the more likely it is that situations will come up where there is a disagreement and things need to be worked on or at least negotiated out. In less intimate relationships, it’s easier to just ignore things or let bygones be bygones.
One of the great things about this line is that it can make disagreements less stressful if you can see them as part of this inevitable process in relationships — disagreements push us to become better people.
Of course, it doesn’t make the work easy. We need to be honest with ourselves and the other person, including the hard truths that we would prefer to not hear. We also need to behave respectfully and with integrity, rather than in the heat of the moment.
But we’re willing to do this hard work of rising to the occasion, rather than sinking to our worst, because the relationship and the other person are important enough to us that we don’t want to lose them.
Kim Boivin, MEd, a registered clinical counselor at Positive Change Counseling Services in Vancouver, BC, Canada, talked about truly accepting reality.
When I was travelling extensively several years ago, I met a couple who were significantly older than me. Their names are Norman and Mohini. Among the many adventures that filled their lives, they were devoted spiritual seekers and practitioners. Our talks were often very deep. One day, we were having a conversation (about a topic I no longer remember), and Mohini said to me, “If you argue with reality, you’ll lose.”
I had never heard this before. It hit me very strongly. It rang incredibly true. I started to see how often in my life I had tried to do exactly that. When confronted with a reality that I didn’t want or like, due to my attachment to it being different, or the way I wanted it to be, I would try to argue with it. Sometimes, the arguing would take the form of ignoring, pretending, contorting, defensiveness, and minimizing. Why would I do that? As I looked more deeply, it seemed to be connected to fear of pain and loss.
I’m learning that I can handle the pain and loss that sometimes comes with accepting reality more. I’m also experiencing more joy and freedom as I practice accepting reality more. That potent truth that my friend shared with me that day has definitely given my life more meaning, even if it has meant that my ego gets to have its way less often. For this, I’m very grateful.
Psychotherapist and author Jeffrey Sumber, MA, shared the powerful question (and lesson) one mentor taught him.
My first job as a therapist was on a mobile crisis response team that functioned in close relationship with law enforcement. We always went out into the field with a partner and my primary partner, Mary, was one of my greatest mentors as a crisis counselor.
Her most important advice to me as we confronted suicidal and homicidal people was to hold the question to ourselves and them: “Do you truly want to die or kill or do you want things to look and feel different?” That has stayed with me to this day.
Roseann Adams, LCSW, a psychotherapist with an independent practice in Chicago, talked about the importance of love.
The best advice I received on living a meaningful life has come from several sources. My first teacher on this subject was Victor Frankl. I read his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, as a freshman in college. The book chronicles Frankl’s experience as a concentration camp inmate and this paragraph is underlined in my worn copy:
“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. That truth — that love is the ultimate the highest goal to which man can aspire … that salvation of man is through love and in love.”
Reading that book planted the seeds of my belief about happiness being a choice we make and meaning something we must create in our lives with commitment, intention, persistence and love.
Another teacher is His Holiness the Dalai Lama who says that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness and a meaningful life is created by following a desire not for things but for peace and for wanting and appreciating what we have — contentment.
Recently I’ve been inspired by leaders in the positive psychology movement such as Martin Seligman and Barbara Fredrickson who are conducting research and providing our profession with information about how we can help our patients and ourselves flourish and live in authentic happiness.
Their research shows that happy people are generally found to be more sociable, flexible, creative and are able to tolerate life’s daily frustrations more easily than unhappy people and are found to be more loving and forgiving than unhappy people. So it’s all about love. Giving it, receiving it and creating it are all the ways love can be experienced.