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 of valid
and authoritative information. 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.
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
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
Thanks for stopping by,
“The more one
by giving himself
to a cause to
serve or a person
to love- the more
human he is and
the more he
- Viktor Frankl