Meaning in Life and Does It Matter?
Reflection on the meaning and significance of our lives
Every young person has at some point wondered whether what they are doing in life has meaning, and by extension, whether it is the “right” thing to do.
University of North Carolina’s Philosophy Professor Susan Wolf has been thinking about what makes a meaningful life for years. Her book, Meaning in Life and Why It Matters, contains her ideas on meaningfulness in addition to the thoughtful counterarguments provided by her colleagues.
The book answers these crucial questions:
- What makes a life ‘meaningful’?
- Can an activity that does not have a practical benefit to others be meaningful to you?
- Do you have to be ‘successful’ at an activity to make it meaningful?
- And finally, how important is it to ask this question in the first place?
Firstly, she lays the foundation of this discussion by making it clear that an interest in a meaningful life is not an interest in feeling a certain way, but instead to be a certain way. Namely, she argues, being respected and valued by others.
Therefore, it is commonly accepted that an element in a life worth living is one in which the individual contributes to something “larger than oneself”. The value has to exist “metaphorically in a public space”. In other words, your activity must produce something that is accessible to others, in order to be a part of a community that is larger than yourself.
She describes the importance of this aspect very eloquently when she wrote that living this way “harmonizes with the fact that one’s own perspective and existence have no privileged status in the universe.”
She proposes the Fitting Fulfillment View, where she controversially argues that there needs to be objective value in someone’s life — it isn’t enough that the person themselves enjoy the activity for it to be meaningful.
“One can be mistaken about whether a project or activity has the kind of value necessary to make it a potential provider of meaning.”
On the other hand, John Koethe, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, disagrees.
He quotes T. S. Eliot,
“For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
He counters Wolf’s argument using the example of artists. There are many artists whose artwork are only discovered or recognized posthumously. Were their lives meaningless prior to the discovery?
Koethe provides a wider definition of a meaningful life.
First, life can be meaningful via having one’s competence widely socially recognized. This aligns with Wolf’s definition.
Second, to contribute to something that is unique to a niche community. For example, you might not be rich publishing a book about anteaters, but because your contribution has been accepted in a community, your life is meaningful because of that.
Lastly, your life can be meaningful just by “helping an artistic enterprise you are engaged in, whatever the ultimate importance of your own work.” A monk who does not publish a book or give public talks still lives a meaningful life as they help contribute to a community’s tradition. Koethe quotes Ashberry,
“[The] one who marched along with, ‘made common cause’, yet had neither the gumption nor the desire to trick the thing into happening.”
But what about activities we did in the past that we now regret? Were those activities meaningless?
To this, Robert M. Adams — also a UNC Philosophy Professor — writes,
“If I love in such a way that purposes springing from my love make sense to me, and I act on those purposes and they seem to me worth acting on, then to that extent I think I may find my life meaningful in living it, regardless of how it may look in retrospect.”
This helps deal with the problem of Sisyphus Fulfilled, where Wolf provides the example of a woman who gives up her career, home, and friendships to serve a man who does not seem to “deserve her”.
I think we all have been in this sort of position in some regard, from being an impressionable political extremist during our teenage years, or devoting all our love and attention to a person who is no good for us.
Robert M. Adams, however, notes that in dealing with failure, there is a crucial difference between consolation and fulfillment.
Consolation says, “I’ve done my best, I don’t have to hate myself.” Meanwhile, fulfillment involves feeling happy even when we have to make necessary changes in our grand narratives.
Fulfillment can derive from knowing that you take ownership over your own life, even though things might not always end up the way you expect. In contrast, consolation involves a degree of feeling the loss of control, as if you are not the primary author of your life.
Should we ask the question in the first place?
Finally, Wolf does not only directly answer what qualities a meaningful life has, but also critically questions the practice of asking the question in the first place. She writes,
“Perhaps it will be thought that these concerns are confined to a class that is narrower still; namely, to those who are excessively intellectual or unusually reflective. If one has to struggle to get enough to eat for oneself and one’s family, to get shelter from the cold, to fight a painful disease, concern over whether one is engaged in projects of independent worth way seem a luxury.”
However, she asserts, this does not disqualify the importance of pondering about the meaningfulness of our activities. Nonetheless, she also quotes Bernard Williams, who says in relation to whether our life is worth living, that “it gets by far its best answer in never being asked at all.”
Furthermore, Nomy Arpaly invites readers to imagine someone who thinks, “I am going to help my wife because she is my wife and love for my wife is among the things that make my life meaningful.” This is not only weird, it also indicates the person thinking it might be self-preoccupied and potentially miserable.
Sometimes what makes our life meaningful is “a value consideration independent of any other, including ‘meaning’,” Arpaly writes.
If an activity is capable of giving us the flow-state whenever we engage in it, our mind does not go to weigh whether or not this activity is legitimately ‘meaningful’, but simply gravitate towards devouring books about it, collect related items, tailor our college and jobs for it, and engage with a community of like-minded people.
This is why people can be enthusiastic about hobbies like chess, horse-riding, and e-sports. They don’t produce anything tangible, and they aren’t “productive” in the objective sense, yet that does not change the fact that they are meaningful for a significant proportion of people.
“In a multifaceted life, not every activity need contribute to meaning, much less contribute greatly to meaning, in order for a commitment to it to be justified.”