For a long time, I’ve had a desire to share my version of an answer to the age-old question, “What is the meaning of life?”.
Here it goes.
I think it would be interesting to revisit this topic on an annual-ish basis. If I’m successful in fulfilling that vision, then this will officially be the first entry in a series.
The Meaning of Life
I believe the meaning of life is to reduce suffering and increase joy for those around you and yourself.
A few parts of this statement are notable for me:
- In one sense, this suggested “answer” to the meaning of life is disingenuous, because I believe that there is no single answer to this question that will be true for everyone. In a sense, I believe that the meaning of life is to discover the meaning of life, the answer to which will likely be slightly different for everyone. But, I do think my answer is probably “good enough” for many folks. And regardless, this is my blog so it makes sense that I’d be talking about my personal philosophy of the meaning of life.
- Joy and suffering do not exist on the same spectrum. It is possible to simultaneously experience low suffering and low joy or high suffering and high joy. In my vision, purpose comes from finding ways to minimize suffering while simultaneously maximizing joy. For example, if one were to minimize suffering by becoming numb to everything, I would argue that is not fulfilling a meaningful life. In contrast, a life of habitual drug abuse might characterize an experience of high joy and high suffering (albeit probably not at the same time). It is important to recognize both experiences as related but separate.
- The statement ends with “for those around you and yourself”, and to me the order of this phrasing is important. The tension between satisfying the collective and satisfying yourself is a difficult one to resolve, and I don’t think there is any easy answer. On the one hand, denying yourself entirely for the sake of the collective is absurd when taken to the extreme: the collective is made up of individuals, so if no one individual is prioritizing their personal wellbeing, then the collective will never thrive. That is, the collective can only be as healthy as their least healthy member; it does not serve the collective to deprive oneself of joy and satisfaction. In the other extreme, maximizing your own joy and minimizing your own suffering at the sake of others’ interests is equally harmful. It is impossible to be truly joyful if your joy is coming at the cost of others’ suffering. It is impossible to entirely avoid suffering if those around you are in pain. We are a social and collective species, and we must lean in to our mutual dependence. In addition, modern psychology strongly supports the idea that strong relationships are the most dependable path to long-term happiness. Going back to my original phrasing: the reason I put “for those around you” first is because, in my culture (Texas, United State of America circa 2024), exclusively prioritizing oneself is far too easy, and even frequently encouraged. I know other cultures are likely different in this regard, but in my experience it is important to remember to focus on the needs of others first. It is easy to make time for yourself; it is much harder to make time for others if you do not make an intentional effort to do so. Of course, this is also a very personal statement, and goes back to my first point: the meaning of life is probably to discover your own meaning. This tension of working for others vs. working for oneself is possibly much less challenging for other people, and may only reflect my own experience.
I sincerely hope that I revisit this on an annual-ish basis. I would love to be able to look back in many years and trace the progression of my personal meaning of life. But in case that doesn’t happen, I feel content knowing that at one point, I sat down to clarify my thoughts on this matter.