Attempting to Piece Together the Meaning of Life Puzzle

Efforts to Know More.

My self-guided research on the philosophy, psychology, sociology and spirituality of aging has taken me along numerous streams. Perhaps I should not say self-guided, however. Many of those streams are discovered in the reference sections of the papers and books I’ve been reading, as well as, of course, where the search engines take me. Yet, there’s no mentor or teacher involved. So, it’s also fair to say that the work is substantially autodidactic, which means self-guided.

As of late, my research has been dwelling on a close examination of what constitutes meaning in life, as professed by a good number of professional philosophers and psychologists. When you putz around articles and books on meaning, one person comes up more than anyone else: Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning. First published in 1946, it’s required reading for anyone who wants to explore the topic of meaning in life.

After Frankl, one of my personal favorites as it relates specifically to this topic is Paul T.P. Wong, who was an avid interpreter of Frankl’s concepts on meaning, among many other psychological, philosophical and spiritual concepts he writes extensively about. Most of Wong’s writings are available for free at his website.

Frankl and Wong are only two of many astute professionals who focus on meaning in life. There are also many outstanding books that address the meaning of life – way too many to list here. Such books have been growing in popularity in recent years. One book I enjoyed on this topic was The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, by Emily Esfahani Smith.

Early Insights
So, what have I learned thus far about how people view well-being and meaning in their lives? I have come to believe there are basically two camps: People who are individualistic/self-centered and people who are selfless/transcendent. People who are pleasure-oriented versus people who are goal-oriented is a different way of saying this. Or, in the academic literature it is often described as eudaimonic well-being versus hedonic well-being.

A lot of the literature promotes selflessness and transcendence as surefire ways to boost meaning and purpose in your life. And, of course, there’s plenty of literature on how having meaning and purpose in your life contributes to better health and increased longevity.

There’s also support for honoring an individualistic and self-centered way of life to achieve well-being and meaning. While the selfless way is the most honorable from a community-oriented perspective, there are elements of the individualist lifestyle, such as positive solitude and paying closer attention to your inner voice, that can also contribute greatly to well-being and meaning in life. In short, I don’t think it’s an either/or situation but more of a blending of the two.

“The more one forgets himself- by giving himself to a cause to serve or a person to love- the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself,” wrote Frankl. “To be happy, we must not be too concerned with others,” wrote Albert Camus. The way to achieve high levels of well-being and meaning, in my opinion, is somewhere between these two points of view. I wish I could say that is the simple answer, but it’s much more complex.

The Happiness Factor
Happiness is a by-product of well-being and having meaning in life, but happiness, in my opinion, is a word without real substance. I don’t use it very much because I feel it is something that is mostly fleeting – in other words, not permanent. The majority of philosophical, psychological, sociological and spiritual literature clearly stipulates that appeasing your self-centered mind to chase happiness brings only temporary good feelings; while pointing your arrow toward selflessness and transcendence brings more long-term good feelings and more holistic, overall life satisfaction.

Emily Esfahani Smith points out that “chasing happiness actually makes people unhappy.” She adds the following quote from nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

Thanks for stopping by,

George

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