Finding Meaning

The problem with a belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, invisible being who inhabits some place not on Earth (usually the “sky”) is that it is based on the assumption that there is a God in the first place. There is no independent evidence to support this claim of existence, only an assumption.

Remove the assumption and the claim falls apart, the belief falls apart. It is never based in fact, just feelings.

I’ve posted on this before, but it is a subject that has been on my mind lately. I grew up with this assumption repeated to me many times. Which brings me to this quote:

In other words, no matter how obviously illogical, people will accept anything that has been repeated authoritatively to them from a young age.

I stumbled into this wonderful article and couldn’t help but share some things from it that I particularly liked. Much of what is quotes is from a book by Israeli philosopher Iddo Landau titled How to Find Meaning in an Imperfect World.

” This is not a self-help book. Instead, it’s full of clear ideas on how to think about the meaning of life.

The Wrong Questions?

When a judge asks a man, “Why did you beat your wife?” there’s a problem. The judge is assuming that the man did beat his wife. The question contains an assumption.

When approaching “the meaning of life” most questions about “meaning” contain assumptions too:

  • “What’s the meaning of life?” Assumes that there’s a single meaning.
  • “Does my life have meaning?” Assumes (or at least hints) at a “yes” or “no” answer.

Neither of the above assumptions is true, says Landau. Our lives can have many meanings — in fact, they should have many meanings. And meaning in life isn’t about “yes” or “no”… It’s about enough.

To understand this, we first need to shift our thinking from “meaning” to “value”.

From Meaning to Value

Landau argues that problems of meaning are really problems of insufficient value:

“…to see life as meaningless or as insufficiently meaningful is to see it as a life with an insufficient number of aspects of sufficient value. In other words, those who take life to be meaningless feel that there is a gap between their expectations and reality: a gap between the degree of value that life should have and the degree of value that it actually does have.”

When life feels meaningless, it may mean our expectations are too high (perfectionism).

But it also might mean that we really don’t have enough value in our lives — perhaps we are overly self-conscious, live alone, have no friends, hate our job, and are drowning in both loneliness and existential fear. (I know what all of that feels like. It’s not good.)

Now here’s why this shift from meaning to value is so powerful.

First, it’s a lot easier to ask “Are there enough valuable experiences in my life?” than it is to ask, “Is my life meaningful?” The question is less vague. Also, there’s a whole field called value theory that studies how we create and discover value — a lot of work is already done for us.

But for me, the most important thing about value-thinking is that it opens two paths. To find meaning, we can either:

  1. Add more value. We can identify activities that are (or might be) valuable to us — gardening, meditation, volunteering, etc. — and do more of them. Or, we can work in reverse, removing activities that reduce value (say, by ignoring angry reader complaints about typos).
  2. Change our thinking. We can also change the way we see what we already have. Perhaps our life already has sources of value, but we just aren’t looking at things in the right way. (Example: I know a Japanese man who thinks his beautiful wife and daughter are “destroying his life” because, in a struggle to support them, he has no time to do other things… Yet, I know he would be devastated if they disappeared.

With this in mind, let’s refine our thinking.

Visualizing Meaning

The way most of us see meaning in life looks something like this:

 With this mental picture, we see meaning as an all or nothing, on or off, yay or nay kind of problem. This is both intimidating and un-useful.

Instead, Landau suggests we are better off seeing things as a spectrum. Imagine a number line that runs from 0 (absolutely meaningless) to 100 (absolutely meaningful).

Right now, you are somewhere along that line:

Somewhere along this line, there’s also a psychological flag:

When we have enough value in our lives to pass this psychological flag, our lives start to feel meaningful.

Why I like this model better:

  • It shows we already have value. Most likely, your life is not devoid of value. Rather, you probably already have some valuable things in your life. You just have to work on moving up.
  • It’s less scary. It’s a lot less intimidating to move up a few inches than go from meaningless to meaningful.
  • The goal is clear. All we need to do is (a) move our flag or (b) get closer to the flag.
  • It allows for fluctuations. Value doesn’t stay constant over a lifetime, or even from moment to moment. With this model, we can imagine ourselves moving up and down the line as time passes.
  • It (sort of) considers psychology. The flag helps us visualize how our expectations also change. This is why people with high (and mistaken) standards can feel their life is empty.

I like the rest of this article, but won’t just copy and paste it in full. You can read the rest here.

To figure out how to add value to our life (instead of trying to find the “true meaning”), we can reflect on our past, study what has worked for others, read books, think about ethics and politics, and so on. We can also look at what we do daily and ask, “Is this really valuable to me?” If something is not valuable, maybe we should stop doing it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *