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Happiness & Meaning
Why You’re (Probably) Wrong About The Meaning of Life
Lewis Vaughn asks what it’s all about.
After tragedy and heartbreak – after the war is lost, after the pandemic takes someone you love, after climate change destroys your home, after your life seems to be rendered nonsensical by illness, personal failure, or injustice – deep questions may linger like a bruise: What is the meaning of all this? Does life have any meaning or purpose at all? What is the meaning of my life?
Easy answers to such questions drop casually from the internet, books, and media. The meaning of life, we’re told, is pursuing pleasure or happiness, or giving and receiving love, or finding your passion, or doing something great, or living out your purpose, or being involved with something greater than yourself. But these commonplace answers are only partly right, and the questions are mostly wrong. So say a host of contemporary philosophers who have been studying meaning in life. They argue, contrary to the skeptics of previous generations, that human lives can indeed be meaningful, although perhaps not in the ways that many people assume.
For most of the twentieth century, philosophers ignored or dismissed the question of life’s meaning, even though many lay people assume that philosophy is mostly about the meaning of life. A lot of those dismissive philosophers insisted that the question is nonsensical because ‘meaning’ typically refers to words and symbols, not to objects, activities, and lives. To them, asking ‘What is the meaning of life?’ is like asking ‘How heavy is the color blue?’ Others thought that answering the question is in principle impossible, or that even if answerable, no one knows or ever will know the answer. However, over the past four decades this icy pessimism about meaning in life has been thawing. A growing number of thinkers have been probing two areas: (1) What the meaning of life question means – what we’re really asking when we inquire about life’s meaning: and (2) What, if anything, makes life meaningful – what things can give meaning to a person’s life? Along the way, philosophers have debunked some myths that have led countless people to believe that their lives are meaningless.
Is The Meaning of Life Grand or Cosmic?
Philosophers distinguish between the meaning of life in general – the meaning of the universe or of the human species– and meaning within individual lives. For many people, ‘the meaning of life’ refers to something found outside them. They may ask questions like ‘What’s it all about?’ or ‘What does it all mean?’ This perspective fosters the view that the meaning of life, whatever it is, is large, all-encompassing, magnificent; not to mention elusive, mysterious, maybe unobtainable, and discoverable only by gurus or sages. Others, however, argue that whether or not there’s meaning out there, there’s certainly meaning in here – there is meaning that we find or create just for ourselves. This is ‘meaning in life’. The majority of the philosophical investigations of life’s meaning have focused on the qualities or conditions that make an individual life worth living in this second sense. Here, meaning is about value – about what gives worth or significance – and the things that provide value are neither mysterious nor rare.
Mixing up these two senses of life’s meaning causes confusion. When people assert that life is meaningless, they may be saying only that life as a whole has no meaning; and yet they might also say that life has meaning, referring to the meaning their own lives exhibit. They may therefore believe their life has meaning, and still assert with logical consistency that ‘life is meaningless’.
Is Meaning in Life About Just One Thing?
When people ask about the meaning of life, there’s a good chance they’re assuming that it consists of a single factor. This idea is the inspiration for countless jokes: the meaning of life is a fountain, a river, a journey, 42, golf, the hokey cokey (because that’s what it’s all about). But most philosophers studying meaning reject this monist (one thing only) idea about meaning – a view that may have been prompted by the word the in ‘the meaning of life’. Having a meaningful life, they insist, is not only about achieving worthwhile goals, or only being involved with something greater than yourself, or only attaining worthy purposes. Rather, meaning in life is pluralistic. It has to do with several different elements. If this standpoint is correct, then ‘What is the meaning of life?’ is the wrong question.
The philosopher Thaddeus Metz, author of Meaning in Life: An Analytic Study (2014) offers this pluralistic account:
“Specifically, I advance a family resemblance approach, according to which enquiry into life’s meaning is, roughly, about a cluster of ideas that overlap with one another. To ask about meaning, I submit, is to pose questions such as: which ends, beside one’s own pleasure as such, are most worth pursuing for their own sake; how to transcend one’s animal nature; and what in life merits great esteem and admiration?”
Philosophers, like the rest of us, have an intuitive sense of what these things might be. They identify many activities and experiences as meaningful, although they differ about the comparative worth of these factors and how they are related. Unsurprisingly, the list includes loving and caring relationships, creativity, beauty, personal excellence, moral goodness, altruism, knowledge, transcendence, and achievement, among others.
Is the Meaning of Life Happiness?
People popularily tend to equate meaningfulness in life with happiness, but most who study meaning think this is a mistake. Certainly if your life is meaningful, you are more likely to be happy. But we can imagine someone who is continually and blissfully happy because they are, for example, continually taking hard drugs; but few would call such a life meaningful. And some people can lead meaningful lives even while miserable just because their meaningful activities are arduous or dangerous. As John Martin Fischer says in Death, Mortality, and Meaning in Life (2019):
“Meaningfulness is not the same as happiness, although we would expect a connection between them. If one’s life is meaningful, then probably the individual would be happy. But we can certainly imagine people with meaningful lives – scientists, artists, poets, philosophers, and so on – who struggle in their fields and are thus not very happy (if they are happy at all). Or we can consider people whose careers are deeply engaging and meaningful, but whose personal lives are troubled and who are thus not very happy… One can have a very happy life that is only somewhat meaningful, and a very meaningful life that is not very happy.”
Is Meaningfulness Entirely Subjective?
Some scholars are subjectivists about meaning. They believe meaning in life depends solely on what persons want or choose. Someone is said to have a meaningful life if they get what they intensely desire or strive to attain or do what they consider exceptionally important. Here there are no objective standards of meaningfulness. Rather, meaning in life is, as the internet meme says, ‘whatever you want it to be’. Most philosophers studying meaning, however, disagree. They argue that meaning in life is at least partly independent of people’s beliefs, attitudes, and desires. Many activities and conditions – creating a beautiful sculpture, saving a child’s life, discovering a new exoplanet, and doing a myriad other things – are, they say, objectively meaningful. If so, then merely believing that something makes your life meaningful does not make it so. The most potent objection to subjective views of meaning, is that there seem to be many inherently valuable things that give meaning to life, independently of whether they are subjectively desired, pursued, or believed to be meaningful.
Are Only Lives with a Purpose Meaningful?
Many ask, ‘What is the purpose of my life?’ or ‘What am I here for?’, and when they cannot give a convincing answer, they assume, with despair, that their lives are meaningless. But is this conclusion warranted? It surely is the case that having a nontrivial sense of purpose can be a significant source of meaning in a person’s life. Many philosophers, however, would argue that, first, a life without a general purpose can also be meaningful, and second, whatever purpose is present, it need not come from outside the person.
Particular experiences and activities can be meaningful even though they serve no overarching purpose and are not directed toward any end beyond themselves. Many things, such as acquiring knowledge, doing good, and appreciating beauty, are intrinsically valuable, and therefore meaningful – they are not just a means to anything else. They aim at nothing beyond themselves. Not everything we do requires a goal, end, or purpose in order to be meaningful.
Does Meaning Require Perfection?
Why do so many people believe their lives are meaningless? According to the philosopher Iddo Landau in his book Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World (2017), the main obstacle is often the untenable ambition he calls perfectionism :
“According to this presupposition, meaningful lives must include some perfection or excellence or some rare and difficult achievements, and lives that do not show this characteristic cannot be seen as meaningful. Meaningful lives, then, must transcend the common and the mundane… What marks perfectionists is that they fail to see the worth that inheres also in the nonperfect; they despise and reject it….Perfectionists believe that if our city is not the most beautiful in the world, it is disgustingly ugly; that if one is not Einstein one is a fool; and that if a person does not write as Shakespeare did, she had better just give up writing altogether… Thus, perfectionists are so busy with the search for the perfect that they neglect to see and find satisfaction in the good. And since it is rare, and sometimes impossible, to reach the perfect, perfectionists, who do not want to have anything to do with the good that is less than perfect, find satisfaction in nothing, continuing their desperate quest for the perfect.”
We should reject perfectionism in our search for meaning, Landau argues. One reason is that we generally reject it in other spheres of life. We usually don’t think a beautiful painting that has a tiny flaw is worthless and should be burned, or that we are hopelessly ignorant if we aren’t as wise as Aristotle, or that we are utter failures if we haven’t won a Nobel prize. But if we reject perfectionism in other spheres of value, we should reject it in judgments about the meaning of our lives.
As a young man, I fell helplessly into the perfectionist trap. I was miserable because I couldn’t do the impossible and paid no attention to the goodness around me that was within my reach. Fortunately, I eventually outgrew this phase; but I was reminded of its madness years later when I was given a medical diagnosis that seemed at the time to portend the worst. I thought I was going to die. Later I learned that this definitely was not the case; but the news jolted me into a ‘posthumous’ perspective, from which I saw my life overflowing with meaning emanating from my family and friends, the people I help, my research and writing, memories of good times, the daylilies in my garden, the sounds of children laughing, and much, much more. I saw all these wonderful, common, meaningful things, and not a single one was perfect. But they were enough.
Meaning in life is a big subject, with depths to plumb and plenty of points of disagreement. But most who are exploring these waters believe that meaning can be found in a thousand places in life, most of which are reachable, and that the path to them is straighter and shorter than many might think.
© Lewis Vaughn 2021
Lewis Vaughn is the author of several philosophy textbooks, including Philosophy Here and Now; Doing Ethics: Moral Reasoning, Theory, and Contemporary Issues; The Power of Critical Thinking; and Bioethics: Principles, Issues, and Cases. He is also the coauthor with Theodore Schick of the science/critical thinking text How to Think about Weird Things.