The Characteristics of a Meaningful Life

On “Meaning in Life and Why It Matters” and a Call for Comments.

There are certain books so tedious and difficult to fully comprehend that I surprise even myself when I actually read them in their entirety. One such book I recently completed fits that billing: “Meaning in Life and Why It Matters,” by Susan R. Wolf, a well-established philosophy professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who formerly taught at Harvard University, the University of Maryland, and Johns Hopkins University. The book features a two-part Tanner Foundation lecture Wolf gave under the same title over two days at Princeton University in 2007. The lectures are followed by comments from four other eminent philosophers and psychologists, along with Wolfe’s responses to their comments.

Seeking Meaning in Old Age
Wolf’s title fits nicely within my current early-old-age mindset, where philosophical questions have gained more prominence and relevance. I’m exploring the parameters of what constitutes meaning in life – and it’s both exciting and disturbing. I’m already teetering towards moving to another topic because trying to discover an overarching, empirically profound, one-size-fits-all definition of meaning in life could very well be an impossible task. In some regards it’s a tortuous undertaking, and one has to be careful to not drive one’s self crazy by over analyzing.

I struggled to fully comprehend Wolf’s book with its multitude of theories and concepts professed by all the writers. At the end, I felt empty and confused. I had no bigger idea of what meaning in life entails, only a bunch of conceptual propositions on what it might be, depending on how you might think about it.

Nonetheless I insert my proposition:
In my mind, to have a meaningful life, three primary characteristics must be met:

  1. You’re doing what you love to do.
  2. Your efforts have a at least a basic and fundamental benefit for yourself and, at minimum, one other human being or more.
  3. Nobody is harmed by what you’re doing.

Simple enough? Not so fast.

The Life of a Puzzle Maker
What about the essence of what you love to do? Let’s say, for instance, that you love making puzzles. You spend hours upon hours making complex puzzles comprised of thousands of tiny pieces. Day after day, you love being in a kind of mindless, escapist flow of completing an entire puzzle. You then take that puzzle and glue matt it within a picture frame and hang it on a wall, like a piece of art. You do this time after time, and your entire house is now covered with colorful puzzle-art. People come into your house and are amazed and entertained by your accomplishment. Nobody is harmed in any way. If this were your daily, passionate grind in old age, would it constitute a meaningful life?

This is the kind of question, among many other similarly related questions, Wolf tackles in her two lectures, both loaded with repetitive obscure insights that for me were very difficult to get through. Numerous times I wanted to toss her book into the garbage, but then she’d include something extraordinarily perceptive and I’d continue. I got the same feeling when reading the comments from the other writers. Basically, in hindsight, it’s strongly advised to read this book slowly to grasp its meaning, which I did not do. I read it closely but perhaps to quickly with a hopeful eye toward being enlightened, and I came away flummoxed.

Who’s to Say Who or What is Meaningful?
My reference to the puzzle-maker is meant as an example of what I would personally consider to be a meaningless pursuit, which can easily be perceived as a conceited, elitist (chose any dastardly word) point of view. Who am I or anyone else to say that the puzzle maker’s efforts have no substantive meaning? Whatever floats your boat, as they say – right? Well, again, not so fast.

According to Wolf – who does not directly address notions of nihilism and existential anxiety in any depth in her book (two aspects related to the study of meaning that in my opinion are vitally important) – human motivation falls under two categories: egoistic or self-interest and dualistic or moved by something outside of the self. Essentially, we have one or both of these categories generating our actions.

She goes on to say that the aim of her two lectures was to explain “meaningfulness in life and present it in a way as to make it seem worth wanting, both for ourselves and for those about whom we care.” She adds, however, that her in-depth explanation “will be of little or no practical use” and that she can only offer “none but the most abstract sorts of advice about how to go about living such a life.”  How that matches up with the book’s title is incomprehensible. I probably should have stopped there, only a few pages in, but instead subjected myself to more philosophical punishment.

Certainly, nobody has a monopoly on the appropriate or inappropriate characterizations of meaningfulness. Wolf, however, in her bizarre way (in my opinion), proposes a conception of meaningfulness in life as arising from “loving objects worthy of love and engaging with them in a positive way,” adding that “a life is meaningful insofar as it is actively and lovingly engaged in projects of worth.” This kind of thinking, she adds, involves “subjective and objective elements, inextricably linked.” Her final statement, which she repeats verbatim or paraphrases throughout both lectures, almost ad nauseam, is “meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness, and one is able to do something good or positive about it.”

What is Objectively Valuable?
For starters, I could not find a satisfying definition of what she meant by objective attractiveness or what kind of projects could be called worthy. Subjective attraction, on the other hand, was quite easy to understand as simply something that one loves doing, or the egoist/self-interest perspective. It wasn’t until I searched around for resources outside of her book that I found two succinct, easy-to-comprehend articles that helped me obtain a much better understanding of what Wolf meant by objective attractiveness. Both were written by John G. Messerly, philosophy professor at UT Austin; writer of a great philosophy-oriented website called Reason and Meaning: Philosophical perspectives on life, death, and the meaning of life; and author of several of his own books about life’s meaning.

In the first article, Messerly noted that Wolf’s conception of meaningfulness is basically a combination or linking of the best features aligned with fulfilling yourself (subjective fulfillment), as well as dedicating your actions to something larger than yourself (objective fulfillment). This is explained as kind of a middle way between following your passions and performing a duty – what Wolf identified as the fulfillment view. In this view, Wolfe argues “that subjective fulfillment depends on being engaged in the objectively worthwhile – counting cracks on the sidewalk will not do but pursuing medical research could.”

He then linked to another article in which he explained a point of view presented by Steven Cahn, philosophy professor at CUNY Graduate Center. Cahn pretty much called Wolf’s concepts meaningless, arguing that “it does not make sense to judge a life meaningful or meaningless . . . even if some activity is mindless and futile does that mean it is meaningless?” He concluded that “lives that don’t harm others should be appreciated as relatively meaningful.”

In essence, “the concept of meaning is ultimately unintelligible without some notion of objective value,” according to Wolf, “despite the fact that we cannot specify this value with much precision.”

Where does this leave my puzzle maker, who, in my opinion, is not pursuing anything that is worthy of love. Yet, in his own personal way, puzzle-art making provides him with plenty enough love and meaning in life. And who am I to judge his love of puzzle making as worthless? Does it meet Wolf’s definition of a project of worth? I don’t know if Wolf adequately answered these questions in my mind, although she certainly seemed to try mightily.

In all fairness to Wolf, she composed two incredibly insightful lectures that addressed wide parameters of what constitutes a meaningful life. After reading both lectures twice, I became mentally fatigued, which catalyzed no further desire – perhaps lazily – to sum up Wolf’s many other intelligent and worthy  insights.

A Call for Comments
I do believe, however, that the puzzle maker meets the three primary characteristics of a meaningful life I mentioned earlier, although I personally find his puzzle-making pursuits to be utterly meaningless. Yet, he’s doing something he loves; it has a benefit to himself and a few other folks who enjoy looking at his framed puzzles when they visit his home; and (most importantly) nobody is in the least bit harmed by his puzzle making. It just took me a long time trying to figure out Wolf’s overly philosophical rambling and a little more than 1,500 words here to come to that conclusion, which, in the end, perhaps was not a meaningful conclusion nor an enterprise worth pursuing in the first place.

Nonetheless, perhaps this seemingly meaningless effort that has taken form in this article can be saved if some of the readers out there enter into a substantial discussion/debate about all this in the comments section below. Can we pin down what constitutes meaning in life and why it matters?

Is the puzzle maker’s life meaningful? If yes, how so? If no, why not?

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