Finding meaning in life

This is the true joy in life--the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
-George Bernard Shaw

 Like Shaw, many wise people have observed that a life of meaning makes us happy. O’Connor & Chamberlain (1996) have shown people who lack meaning in their life tend to have more mental/emotional difficulties, more addictions, and more suicidal thoughts. So, how do you find meaning? The Existentialists make several good points: (1) to have a deep investment in the meaning our own life we must have thought about it very seriously, it can’t be actions merely directed by parents or friends or teachers or ministers or anyone else. We must decide what has meaning for us (although we don’t have to be an entirely original thinker about what is meaningful). Until we settle on a purpose, our life is in danger of having little meaning except for self-gratification. (2) Unless we think of ourselves as self-directed--as making choices about our life rather being determined by the genes, the past, and our social environment--we can’t take great pride in the good we do. (3) It is pretty obvious that, given our personal limitations, individuals aren’t mystically assigned a clear mission that changes the universe 1000 years from now. So, in some sense, we have to decide on and “make” our own life’s meaning. People do, for example: I gave birth to and raised five fine children. I was a Christian minister for 50 years and preached over 3000 sermons and saved over 1500 souls. I worked in the coal minds from the time I was 16 until I got too sick to work when I was 67. And the “meaning” can be less noble: I did the best I could but never found any meaning in life. I started using drugs a 13, had AIDS by 16, and gave AIDS to 25 or 30 people before I died. I’ve been a really successful con all my life. Clearly, some lives have desirable “meaning,” other lives serve little purpose or evil purposes.

 Goodrick (1999), writing about finding meaning, makes some simple but sensible points. For one, he notes that fulfilling a noble purpose requires us to act, to DO SOMETHING, that is, to devote one’s time to the cause. Thus, he states the obvious: a meaningful life requires good behavioral self-control and time management. For example, it is hardly a meaningful life if you earnestly but only occasionally think your purpose is to serve God but otherwise very seldom think of God or do little to serve others. Goodrick believes that TV is the greatest hindrance to living a meaningful life; it is a time robber. Thus, for many, religion and TV may be the opiates of our time. Self-control is discussed in chapter 4.

 Second, while it is possible for a notable few to accomplish meaningful and commendable things while being depressed and self-disdaining, there is a much stronger relationship between accomplishing good goals and feeling happy, optimistic, and being self-accepting. Happiness and doing good may facilitate each other. A Jesuit philosopher, de Chardin (1966), studied happiness 40 years ago and concluded that it (a) usually involved work and discipline to self-improve and accomplish worthy goals, (b) efforts to avoid selfishness (in yourself and others), and (c) a diversion of our focus from our lives to the problems of others or of the world. Certainly, most people would prefer to do good things while being happy, rather than unhappy. See chapter 6 for ways to increase happiness.

 Third, Goodrick says that two integral parts of a meaningful life are (a) close, caring relationships and (b) worthwhile work. Being a good friend, a trusted helper, and an effective worker requires many skills which you can learn (see chapter 13). Meyers (1992) says happiness comes from sharing, loving relationships, not from material wealth. In fact, Goodrick argues that materialism leads to unhappiness because we never get enough and because striving for “things” robs us of the time and inclination to relate to and help others. He further buttresses his argument by citing Jesus and Buddha: Jesus--“Don’t gather a lot of materialistic possessions. Focus instead on spiritual values, giving to, caring for, and loving one another.” Buddha--”Unhappiness comes from wanting what you don’t have. So, stop wanting things to be different. Be happy with what comes to you.” There are several books on Living the Simple Life (St. James, 1998).

 I like Goodrick because he suggests doing hard, noble things, such as giving up much of our material wealth (big TV, expensive sound systems and cars, big houses, fashionable clothing, etc.), managing our time (spending 30% of one’s free time volunteering at a charity, 40% working for the church, 10% reading inspiring literature, 10% in artistic/creative activities), reading and relating so we learn to be happier with ourselves and more empathic, more forgiving, and more giving to others, and insist on work that contributes to others, not takes from them. A meaningful life is a tough, demanding life, not an easy one, no matter how wealthy the country you live in.

Examples of philosophies of life

 Start selecting your basic principles. Pull together your basic ideas from the above exercises and comments. I will give two examples of a philosophy of life. Both may appeal to you and should be useful. First, is a philosophy written by a student which emphasizes self-acceptance, being your true self, self-responsibility, and self-direction. It is comfort and happiness oriented (although the Golden Rule is mentioned).

A happiness philosophy

A helping philosophy

Writing your own philosophy of life

 You have studied enough now--Kohlberg's stages, Morris's Ways of Living (Table 3.1), Rokeach's Means and Ends (Tables 3.2 and 3.3), my comparison of happiness and helping, experts' opinions, and two sample philosophies--to write a first draft on your own philosophy of life. Take only 30 minutes or so. Start with a basic decision about which will take top priority in your life--your happiness or helping others. Both are valuable and must be considered. Then decide on other important values for you. Socrates and Plato thought that wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice were the cardinal virtues. Similarly, modern moralists have emphasized doing good, happiness, wise and just use of knowledge, appreciating beauty, affection (love and friendship), fair distribution of wealth, achievement and the good use of power, personal freedom and rights, and other values. At the other end of the continuum were the Christians' seven "deadly sins:" greed, lust, sloth, envy, gluttony, hate, and pride.

Seven sins: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice, politics without principle.
-Mahatma Gandhi

 Just describe the 2 or 3, maybe 4 or 5, major values that will determine the basic meaning and purpose of your life. Write them down--thoughts are too ephemeral. Write quickly, don't polish. Your philosophy will and should change as you grow. Remember: you are deciding on your ideals, your highest possible goals, your noblest spirit and dreams, your hoped-for accomplishments, your most inspired visions of your future. Don't worry at this point about how to achieve these ideals. That's the next step. Now, write your philosophy.

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