The Importance of Finding Meaning in Life


by Barry Michels

I’ve been a psychotherapist for 30 years. No matter what symptom a particular patient brings to me, underneath they’re all asking the same question: “How do I find a sense of meaning in my life?”

The search for meaning is one of the most important journeys a human being can make. But you can’t find it by debating the meaning of life in your head. The reason is simple:

Meaning is not an abstract, intellectual construct; something you can define, once and for all, in words. Meaning is a felt experience. If you think about the meaning of life, you’ll never find it. But if you want to experience your life as meaningful, my advice is to live by this simple precept: give everything you have, every moment of every day, so that by the time you die, you have given your all.

What do I mean by “give”? There are so many forms a person can give of themselves it’s almost impossible to list them all, but it helps to have some examples. When I’m with a patient, I try to focus 100% of my attention on them, rather than giving into the multiple distractions my mind feeds me. When I’m writing, I put as much of myself into it as I can — and I turn off all electronics so there’s nothing to distract me.

Also, when you’re thinking of ways to “give,” think about the people closest to you—the ones you’re used to taking for granted.

Here’s a story that may illustrate the point. When my daughter was around 8 or 9 years old, I pulled into the driveway after a long day at work. Back then I used to see 10 or 11 patients a day and I was exhausted; I was running on empty.

It felt like I’d given everything I had to give at work, and all I wanted to slip past my family and go straight to bed. But as I got out of the car, my daughter ran outside and threw herself into my arms, hugging me. Then, she whispered in my ear, “Daddy, everybody’s having a hard time right now. Will you help bring us up to your level, instead of coming down to ours?”

I realized something at that moment. My day job was done—but my night job was just beginning. And I had to—and suddenly wanted to—bring the same integrity, intensity, good humor, and love to my family that I’d brought to my patients all that day. That’s what I mean by giving: going beyond where you think you can go in being of service to others.

Since then, I try to give everything I have, every moment of every day, so that by the time I die, I will have given my all.