Visualizing the Meaning of Life: The Drip Coffee Model

Recently, I found 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.

Let’s take a look.

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.

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.

However, I think there’s one weakness to this model — although it considers psychology, it doesn’t consider psychology enough.

The Drip Coffee Model

During the holocaust, some victims were able to maintain a sense of meaning while others were lost in despair. Although they had similar experiences, theirpsychology affected whether life was meaningful.

In other words, value is not just about objective experience. It’s also about your interpretation.

Landau covers this in his book, of course. Finding more value in life isn’t just about making more friends or seeing more sunsets. It’s also about recognizing the value in what you already have.

However, I don’t think he gives a good way to visualize this.

To help myself visualize, I came up with the drip coffee model:

First, imagine a coffee pot with a filter above it.

Now think of all the potentially valuable things in life — sunsets, late night conversations over wine, YouTube lectures, Beethoven’s symphonies, etc. These are the things you “pour” into your filter.

If enough of these things make it through the filter and into your coffee pot, life feels meaningful. If not enough stuff makes it into your pot, life feels meaningless.

To fill your pot, you can’t just worry about what you pour. You also need to worry about whether the stuff you’re pouring in gets through.

A Japanese friend of mine has a lovely wife and two beautiful children. Yet, recently he has started to think that his family is destroying his life. “I have no freedom to do the stuff I want to do,” he says. “I want more time for myself.”

His wife and daughter are no longer making it through his psychological filter. Gratitude exercises — or perhaps a disastrous event — may change his perception, but, for now, he is blind to the value of what he already has.

This is also why perfectionism is so toxic. You can see perfectionism as having a really, really, strict filter. Nothing except the highest of achievements make it through our psychological filters. As a side effect, we become blind to all the small-yet-valuable things in life.

How to Make Coffee

Now let’s try to apply this model to our lives. How can we fill our coffee pots?

Well, as I mentioned earlier, we can:

  1. Add value. Pour in more things of value.
  2. Appreciate what we have. Let more things through our filters and into the coffee pots.

To figure out how to add value, 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.

To appreciate what we have (and train our psychological filters), we can do mindfulness meditation, read stoic philosophy, have a chat with a Buddhist monk, start gratitude journaling, spend 48 hours fasting, and so on.

Iddo Landau says the goal of his book is to take the meaning of life “off its pedestal.” I think he’s done exactly that… Maybe “forty-two” wasn’t our only answer.

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Originally published here.