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Can it be that you only have 5 years left to live? Studies show only 1 hour daily is free to do what you want to do, and the rest you must do: Sleep, work, eat, email. On average, only 12% of our lifetime is actually free. Sound nice? No, but what's the alternative? Have you ever asked “What’s the point?” or “why am I here?”. That was the meaning of life you were trying to find. Using the latest evidence & facts at each step, this book reveals a surprising answer. When you’re finished you’ll know... - Why the answer to the meaning of life changes EVERY other question in your life. - Why those who live the answer are HAPPIER and live some of the LONGEST lives. - Why for centuries the answer has been ILLEGAL. (No it’s not a conspiracy theory) We exist but we rarely live as we react to what distracts and lie to hide painful facts. One of the results of this is that over 350 Million people are part of the world’s largest growing disability of depression. As you read you’ll discover the opposite and much more: -How to ELIMINATE 80% of distractions and rapidly increase your free time by 33% -How ONE action REDUCES stress quickly, letting you FULFILL the meaning of life daily -How to BULLETPROOF yourself from unpredictable economic change and job loss. Challenging the old Guys of philosophy, Gods of religion, frauds of Psychology, and get-rich-quick snake oil salesmen. Origin of Why?: The Proven Purpose and Meaning of Life adds to the tradition of Viktor Frankl, Simon Senik, Tim Ferriss and Gary Keller in opening the way you see the world.
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Origin of Why?
The Proven Purpose and Meaning of Life
Copyright © 2015 Vito Grigorov
To my mum and family. I learned not only from what you did, but also from what you did not do.
To the 5% who take action after reading,
“The meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.”
Have you ever wondered why you’re here?
You either have or will do it at some point. But why? Because we will die. Yes, technology will improve, and maybe one day we won’t face death. Perhaps life will seem like an endless sci-fi movie. But that day is not yet tomorrow. The clock is ticking. Today our short time demands that we ask and answer… what are we here for?
Many have asked this question before. Nobel Prize novelist Albert Camus was one of them. Trapped in Paris in June 1940, as Nazi forces were closing in, he started work on his book, The Myth of Sisyphus. It begins with a simple thought: “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest… comes afterwards.”2 Sisyphus was his answer- a Greek king forced by Zeus to forever roll a rock up a hill. No matter how many times he tried, the rock would always roll back down. Each day was the same as the one before. His life seemed to be a big joke. Can you see the same in your life? Camus thought that unless we found meaning in what we did every day, life would be that absurd.
Many books keep to the safety of retelling the same facts in different ways. I hope this is not one of them. Instead, we’re going to dig into the dirt to try to find some new truths.
As you read, you may think I have complete confidence in what’s written here. I haven’t. Many who devote their lives to something end up thinking it’s the key to everything, but the idea that the first version of a work is perfect, is likely wrong. No human creation stays the same forever. It eventually changes in some way. It may take an hour or a thousand years. If what’s written here is good enough, it will be further improved by others in the future. If you feel any hesitation when you’re reading, know that I also have felt it.
This book tries to leave something more lasting than the latest trends. It’s not about imposing my own views masked as magical truths on those who need to believe in something.
The question of the meaning of life is at the root of our existence. It’s likely the most important question we can ask. It’s time to try to answer it, and get others thinking about its impact on every part of life. But it’s also an awkward question. We see this when we realize that few answers have been given that are based on reason. Perhaps you believe there is no one single answer, or that the answer is different for each person. Such a bottomless approach doesn’t suit the world we live in. We cannot treat the millions of possible answers as equals. If people lived in caves fearing the sun’s light would melt them, we would never have come to know the world as we do today.
Truth is not bottomless. Truth is about the facts, and facts can be confirmed. The best way to do that is with healthy doubt that seeks to prove itself wrong. This is the scientific method. So, let me say sorry right now. There are no tooth-fairy mysteries here. People the world over speak and think differently yet it’s the language of science (quick definition… What must the world be like to give us what our senses observe?) that unites most. With it, our understanding of the world continues to evolve. With it, we will continue to discover and make new tools and skills that in the long run will leave us better off.
It took a telescope to show that the earth is not the center of the universe. It proved that for centuries most people were wrong. If we still believed that shadows are ghosts, or that fire happens when the gods are angry, we wouldn't have advanced to where we are today. Are there twenty-four hours in a day? Yes. Should killing an innocent person for the fun of it be punished? Yes. Most new truths are often laughed at, but those same truths are the ones that eventually gain respect and help us prosper, yet it takes time for new truths to be accepted, even once they have been proven to be true. Adding a few lemons to prevent sailor deaths from lack of vitamin C took centuries. No area of human knowledge is free from doubt. What’s in this book won’t be either.
My goal here is to explore with you a simple, scientific answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” The answer I will share touches all the everyday workings of the world. The result of accepting this answer will impact your every action.
Others have long known this. Religions have owned the idea of “life after death.” If you don’t want pitchforks in hell but to enter heaven, then do as those reading from the holy books tell you. In some parts of the world it’s best to pretend to believe these teachings, as it may be the only way to avoid jail or death.
Such ancient answers seem like an escape from the question. Given that they’re so old, they fail to explain and learn from the long journey we’ve taken as we evolved. Once, we were apes struggling to find food. Now, we build skyscrapers and fly to the moon. You and I are lucky to benefit from all those leaps. Many today think we have the chance to change the world, but we first need to know what is best to change in the short time we’re on this planet.
1. YOU HAVE 5 YEARS OF TIME LEFT BEFORE YOU DIE To fully live, you need control of your time, you need free time
As time is short, what’s most worthwhile and unique for us humans to do?
2. THE UNIQUE HUMAN FUNCTION IS TO INNOVATE Improve upon what we have
When done for many people, you fulfil…
3. THE MEANING OF LIFE To seek the greatest good for the greatest number
4. THE PURPOSE OF LIFE What you do to seek the meaning
Which is a result of your…
5. ACTIONS Movements that you can control
Which add mixed values to society…
6. VALUE Four Value factors form your Actions: Time, Money, Health, Intelligence Leading to either Value-creative actions / Value-destructive actions
Your actions affect how well you live as seen through…
7. PRODUCTIVITY When you do more with less Action
Which leads over time in a change in…
8. LIFE EXPECTANCY The average age of death in society
But how is this done?
9. INNOVATIONS Everything humans make fit into three groups:Productive, Unproductive, Counterproductive
But who seeks to make innovations the most?
10. ENTREPRENEUR They experiment to find productivity others have missed
Which results in…
11. INNOVATION COMBINATION Mixing innovations sparks new ones, creating the world around us
This happens because innovations must go through…
12. HISTORICAL SELECTION Society selects which innovations live or die. Leading to 6 turning points in history.
…With future turning points to come.
13. THE 7th TURNING POINT Automation replaces most jobs, entrepreneurship becomes one of the last paths left.
Each comic strip above shows up inside the book at the part it represents.
“We do not have knowledge of a thing until we have grasped its why, that is to say, its cause.”1
“The two most important days in your life, are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”
How many years do you have left to live?
There’s a scary question. Why even ask it? Because the answer will help you see why this book is important, especially as the answer is close to…
1826 days (5 years)
Yes. Five years. Worse than you thought? When we think of our lives, it’s easy to pick out people who are 80, 90, or 100 years old. We see them and wonder, “Gee, they’ve lived for a long time!” It makes life seem almost endless, especially when we’re younger, but we’re only fooling ourselves.
What does it really mean to “live?” It all starts with being free. There’s not much to life if you’re trapped in a cave, or forced to do things you don’t want to do. It’s why most nations’ worst punishment (other than execution), is locking people up in prison. Free time is at the root of that magical word “happiness,” which we will soon explore. As children at school, we dreamed of the holidays. Working adults do the same. We need time that we control to reach our goals in life, without distractions. We call this free time. On our deathbeds, we want to know that we tried our best to make our life worthsomething. Indeed, the greatest regret of those dying is that they lived the way others wanted them to.2
Free time is needed, if we want to make anything. Rome was not built in a day goes the saying and it takes time for things to change. Yet most of us run our lives on autopilot. In a plane that someone else is flying. The fuel tank is getting close to empty, and when it does the plane will fall. You know this is true for you when you find it hard to answer the question, “What have I done in all the years I’ve lived?” Life is time, and it’s ticking right now until we’re gone.
So, how much of your time is free? You might think it’s the same as the life expectancy of the nation you live in. Say it’s 77 years for your country. Do you think you have 77 years of free time?
To find out, let’s look at 24 hours of the daily life of Jen, our city office worker. She…
Sleeps the recommended 8 hours = 33% of daily time
Works a boring job over 8 hours = 33% of daily time
Dresses, prepares, and travels in 1 hour 40 min = 7% of daily time
Pt. 1 BUILDINGS OF LOST DREAMS
YOU HAVE 5 YEARS OF TIME LEFT BEFORE YOU DIE To fully live, you need control of your time, you need free time
73% of her time is Not Free. Let’s not forget though, if she was to add a life partner to the mix and later raise a family, the 27% of her time that was free would shrink smaller. Add to that the rest of life’s activities, like shopping for food, exercise, visiting friends and family, browsing the internet and TV, and our Jen may have close to 0% free time.
Unsurprisingly, if we didn’t need money, most people like Jen would not be working. At the end of this book we offer our tips for how you may take such a path. Surprisingly, it was Karl Marx, the 19th century socialist writer of Capital and The Communist Manifesto, who wrote that a worker does “not count the labor itself as a part of his life; it is rather a sacrifice of his life. It is a commodity that he has auctioned off to another.” As much as 87% of employees today live this reality with Gallup polling showing large drops in worker engagement for every decade polls were done since the 1950s.3
Recently, the Families and Work Institute found that over 50% of women surveyed had 90 minutes of free time per day, 29% had fewer than 45 minutes free, while 4% had no free time at all.4
What happens when we use this data as an average for Jen’s life? The graph below breaks it all down. Let’s give her 1 hour of free time for each workday in the year. Add 4 weeks’ holidays with around 9 hours free each of those days. Add to that 6 hours of generous free time every weekend day. We get a grand total of 7688 hours of free time. Remembering the total 8,760 hours in a year is all we have, it means that only 12% of Jen’s year, or1072 hours, (45 days’ worth of time) is free. Again, that’s a generous estimate. Breaking it down like this, we can see how every action takes away a percentage of our lives. Imagine Jen takes a holiday for 11 days, but later she regrets it as a waste of time. Those 11 days gone are almost one quarter of her free time for the entire year.
Let’s take this a step further, and look at Jen’s entire life. The average life expectancy in her country, the United States, is about 79 years. Assuming that she continues spending time as she does now then…
25-year-old Jen has 7 years of free time left.* 40-year-old Jen has 5 years of free time left.* 60-year-old Jen has 2.5 years of free time left.*
*Numbers above have been rounded. (Life expectancy – current age = ___ x by percentage of free life = years of free time left).
The above is still generous as we’ll soon see, for we are guessing she’ll live till 79, but what if she doesn’t? As people near “retirement age,” they tend to lighten their workloads to get more free time. This may boost the number of days’ worth of free time they have, but for most, health problems and checkups start to eat up this newly found free time. Likewise, life expectancy is only an average age of death. If you want to be on the side of reality, deduct 10 years from the life expectancy number. Yes, we may live till 90, but we may also be hit by a car at 30. Let’s use Jen as an example in our graph below, which will then help you work out the percentage of your life that’s free. The same graph is shown twice below in both a small and large version so to be viewable on your device. If still not viewable follow this link: http://i.imgur.com/6KBf8Gu.png. Send a quick email to [email protected] and get this graph, ready for you to fill in, and all other bonus material.
FREE LIFE TIME GRAPH
For holiday weeks, the “Work” box may be empty, but most people make plans that fill up that time.
If you’re unsure of an activity, put it in the hours spent in “Miscellaneous”. This box covers all activities the others don’t. The “Basics” box covers all the daily habits we often forget about but which suck a good amount of our time.
To locate your country’s life expectancy, you can check it out at wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_life_expectancy. Keep in mind to edit the numbers in the table as your life and time changes for most accurate results.
No matter the number you arrive at, it’s likely lower than you’d hoped for. Do you now have a different outlook on time? Again, if you didn’t subtract 10 years from your estimate do it now. A trip down the stairs, a random car crash, or a bite of food can send you to your grave. No, this is not to scare you, but to be realistic. This should be a reminder to anyone young who’s reading this that the statistics show that you have less chance to be diseased, and so more chance to make a difference while alive. This time window is short and rare, and distractions will creep up to suck it away, robbing you of smiling and saying to yourself when on your deathbed, “I know I did my best.” Partners, parties, purchases and all the rest, if not chosen wisely, will melt year on year your chance to leave something behind.
For Jen, it turned out that many things didn’t matter as much as she used to think they did. Eating out, going on dates, binge watching TV shows. Now, she sees how as much as 80% of her actions were time crimes which wasted away her life. Does a similar pattern show up in your life?
Maybe now you’re also starting to see some of your usual activities are after all “wasteful”? Most of us can find something. What does that mean, exactly? Wasteful… compared to what? This question only makes sense if we know what a “meaningful” life looks like.
You may have been shocked when you saw the numbers above showing how little life there is left. That’s why knowing the meaning of life matters so much. Read on. Let’s not waste time guessing which direction to go. Let’s use a map instead.
Back in Middle Ages Europe, people wanted to know what summum bonum was. Translated from the Latin, it means “highest good”.5 John Locke, the 17th century libertarian philosopher, had this to say: “The philosophers of old did in vain inquire whether summum bonum consisted in riches, or bodily delights, or virtue, or contemplation.”6 Going back to 6th century BC China, the philosopher Lao-Tzu wrote, “The highest good is like water. Water gives life to the ten thousand things and yet does not compete with them.”7
This gives us a promising path to answering our question of the meaning of life, which in other words asks us to answer… for what main reason do you live? What is the highest good a human can live for? If the highest good exists, shouldn’t we devote the bulk of our limited time to it? “Man,” as French author of Nausea and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “is nothing else but the sum of his actions.”8 While David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, writes, “You can do anything, but not everything.”9 Yet, many of us step off the path that leads towards the meaning. We let distractions rule us. We invite the common ills that have plagued humans for centuries- hopelessness, aimlessness, depression, despair, dependency. If we don’t know the “why” of our life, nearly nothing will fill the emptiness long enough. Most of us get so caught up in our day-to-day tasks that we don’t think about our lives. Oscar Wilde, poet and author of The Picture of Dorian Gray, once said, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”10
This way of living life may not be familiar. It is not the way we relate to things around us, like a car. The car has a clear meaning. It lets us travel long distances. A mobile phone lets us talk with others. Food means we survive and thrive. Finding the meaning in things around us is quite simple. We mostly base it on usefulness. However, when we ask about the meaning of life itself, we hit a dead end. So, over the years, we have guessed at the same question in different ways. We ask, “Why are we here? What’s the point of my life? Where am I going?” But no direct answer comes our way. Today, even one of the world’s top learning institutions, Stanford University, has little to say on the matter. Stanford’s encyclopedic website even suggests that if no meaning to life has been agreed upon, perhaps “none exists.”11
If you ask most people about the meaning, they’ll also be at a loss. They may react as if you had asked about UFOs or the Loch Ness monster. Isn’t it meant to be unanswerable, like a myth or mystery? No.
Common Excuses for Not Thinking About the Meaning of Life:
1. The sun will explode in a few billion years, so nothing we do matters anyway!
Many debate this, but let’s say it’s true. It then completely ignores the reality of scientific progress. Thanks to human creativity, most of the world today is very different than it was 200 years ago. Who is to say that at the rate we’re progressing, that in just a million years, we won’t find a solution? Luckily for us, our world was not built by such pessimists. If it had been, we'd still be using crushed insects for anesthetic and crocodile dung as a contraceptive.12/13
2. We can’t discover the meaning of life, because the concept itself is meaningless!
Instead of seeking the truth, many have looked for a way out. They hide behind word definitions and even question what “meaning” is. Yet most people have a general idea of what the words refer to. Funding for research studies continues all the time even in areas where there are no agreed word definitions. There is no single standard for what the word “healthy” means, but that doesn’t stop billions of people trying to improve their health.
3. Life is controlled by a Matrix-like computer, making everything pointless!
Life could be a dream, or a hallucination. Sure, it could be a computer simulation, as in the Matrix movies. This would be a costly project, if it were only done to trick us. It is possible? Yes. But is it likely? No. Why waste all that computing power generating the evolutionary process over billions of years when a few thousand years as the holy books suggest would have been less costly?
4. Who cares? We will all eventually die, so live each day like it’s your last!
The idea of having fun goes back to the 4th century BC Greek philosopher Aristotle, whose ideas are best read in The Basic Works of Aristotle. He referred to the highest good as Eudaimonia, or “happiness”.14 This gave hedonists who didn’t bother reading him closely the excuse to live selfishly, thinking this is what life is all about. Sadly, they got the idea all wrong. Eudaimonia, more accurately translated as “human flourishing,” does not refer to personal enjoyment. Rather, it points to the public act of striving to make something unique. According to author Umair Haque, this value is measured “by what you’ve lived, what it’s worth to you, and what that’s worth to humanity”.15 Individual pleasures are a speck of sand on the beach of world history. The world only sees whatyou giveit, not what you take from it.
You and I can believe all we want, for instance that we are kind and good people, but as Rachel Dawes, childhood friend of Bruce Wayne (Batman) said in the movie Batman Begins, “It’s not who you are underneath, but what you do that defines you.” Actions speak louder than words. Karl Marx admitted that, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world… The point, however, is to change it.”16
Like those who misread Aristotle, many people today have plunged into the shallow search for pleasure. They crave the quick delight found in sex or drugs, and may claim that they are happy. Yet this is a happiness coming from an addiction, not by a testable process found in the real world. Aristotle reflects that, “It would, indeed, be strange if the end were amusement, and one were to take trouble and suffer hardship all one's life in order to amuse oneself.”17
No, if we are to find the meaning of life, we must deal with our existence as it is in the real world. We cannot hide in the comfort and bias of our minds. This book will aim to answer the question by applying the scientific method. As we search, we will try to disprove the results we find. Like a car or a watch, humanity may not seem to be easy to take apart to be understood. Yet once we start peeling the layers back, we will reveal the core beneath. The chapters in this book follow that peeling process, so they are best read from start to finish.
Most people don’t go looking for the truth. It’s not an easy path, and the answers you find may change how you look at life. This book may not be easy for you. I’d rather you know now than later that I’m not going to be sugar-coating anything. If you have the guts,keep reading, but if you want to keep living in a comfortable fantasy world not wanting to challenge yourself, then throw this book away right now. It gets harder the older we are to accept the new, yet those open to it will benefit the most. Like the unborn generations to come, unshackled from past beliefs, they have less blood to spill in changing themselves than their parents and grandparents. Now if you’re still keen, remember that most people don’t finish what they start, even when it would help them. I hope you’re one of the few that finish. If you care about the truth, then now is the time to prove it.
Lastly, before we begin our answer, allow me to answer another question. "Why should I read what you have to say?" The answer may surprise you. You should read this because…I’m a nobody and nobodies have more reason to tell you the truth as they have little to gain or lose by doing so. What is a nobody? It’s a person who depends little or not at all, on someone or something to let them do what they do. Fewer bosses to show off to, fewer professors to suck up to, fewer sad weaknesses like seeking fame. It’s when we let others make us think we're somebodies that we're less likely to do what may upset them. They may be those who pay us, who give to us, or who praise us. See what’s happening? If we allow it, we become more dependent on money, greed and fame. When our freedom and time are controlled by others we’re likely to stop taking creative risks, to stop being honest with others, and to stop speaking the truth. Who loses? You do!
A nobody tries to not let this happen. They don’t make what a crowd wants now for a quick buck, but they make what a crowd should soon want and shows them why. At first, it’s uncomfortable, it’s challenging, and it even angers the crowd. How come? Because you risk showing that there is another way to see the world. Many of the most influential works that are still making an impact to this day were left by those who lived as nobodies most of their lives. Johannes Gutenberg made the printing press, Gregor Mendel discovered genetics that later led to cures and medicines, and Leonardo da Vinci did more than the Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown tells you: sculpting, building and experimenting with innovations that would only be made centuries after his death. “But hold on, don’t you need a degree to do this?” you may ask. Well, do you hold any opinion on religion, politics, or anything else in life? Where then is your degree for each opinion you hold? Human progress depends less on degrees, and more on us not being afraid to be a nobody.
The above is to show a point… not to compare this small attempt to the greats. The point is that with no crowd to please the nobody doesn’t waste time on things that don’t matter, but they use the short time they have, as all we humans have, to make more things. Boosting the chance that one of those things will live on to give value after the nobody’s bones turn to dust. It’s as if what they make is not for the distracted who are living today, but for the yet unborn generations to come. We humans aren’t timeless, but what we make can be. It’s what’s called original, unique, or special. It still matters centuries later. We can be somebodies and please today’s crowd. It’s exciting for a few months or years, but then forgotten, replaced by the next new thing.
Be a nobody, make the irreplaceable, and always ask, "Who will care in 100 years?"
As you read, you’ll see places that have bonus material that ask that you simply send a quick email to [email protected] If any thoughts/improvement tips come up when emailing, I’ll be most grateful to you for letting me know, as it will help me make future work better for readers. Likewise, if you enjoyed this book, our friend here has a message:
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Some housekeeping as we begin. The first-person pronoun “I” is nearly unseen. In its place, the inclusive “we” pops up, which includes me as the author, and you, the reader, as we take this journey together. Also “they” or “their” and other such words are used to be inclusive of everyone and all genders. As will be obvious, quotes from the past have been used, some from times when gender neutrality was not a concern.
Any dollar amounts where the currency is not made clear are in U.S. dollars. Also, though this book has been written with a broad audience in mind, many facts’ and figures’ sources are most related to developed nations.
Finally, every effort has been made to contact and appropriately acknowledge copyright owners for any third-party work appearing in this book.
“The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.”1
Winston Churchill (British Prime Minister, author of A Gathering Storm)
“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”2
William Shakespeare (playwright of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth and more)
Have you ever found yourself asking, “Why?” over and over again?
Maybe someone looked at you in a weird way, or an answer in a textbook was different than yours. It’s common to get stumped, to reach that dead end in our guessing where it doesn’t matter how many times we ask, “Why?”—our answer is still the same. When this happens, it may mean that the answer is not a means to an end but is an end in itself, possibly a truth.
How often do you take problems or concepts to their dead end to gain complete understanding of them? If we witness a car crash or the failure of a business, we rarely ask, “Why?” to dig deeper but we stop at the first answer that comes to mind.
He was a young psychiatrist from Vienna before he was forced to endure the horrors of Nazi concentration camps—mass graves, starvation, senseless beatings. His name was Viktor Frankl.3 All the while, a question troubled him—why did some prisoners live, while others died? Remember that most were given equal rations of food and many suffered the same horrible conditions. Seeking the answer, he gathered scraps of paper left by Nazi officers and ended up writing what would become the best-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning. The answer Frankl found was that “those who were oriented toward the future, toward a meaning that waited to be fulfilled—these persons were more likely to survive.” Similar answers were found in studies done on concentration camp survivors in Japan and Korea. We see it also in Louis Zamperini’s survival story at sea in WWII as told by Laura Hillenbrand in Unbroken. Frankl would go on to say, “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how’.”
What’s the first question of human existence? “What am I living for?” With no decent answer comes the opposite of life. Anxiety, suffering, depression all leading to an end result, suicide and death. Though billions of humans are different in their beliefs and backgrounds one standard is agreed on by the fact that anyone can witness it. That is, if you’re alive right now you have a reason to live that wins over the reason to die. That reason, as foggy as it may be, impacts every question you face in your life. From what foods you eat, will you have kids, where do you work, to what brand of dishwashing liquid you buy. People live life as buddhists, adrenaline junkies, wealth seekers, drug addicts and the list is endless. Whatever they and you are doing now, remember, it all began with the answer or lack of one, to the question “What am I living for?” Answers to such questions go by many names like worldviews, belief systems or ideologies. We will call the answer, a philosophy.
Throughout history, people have often turned to philosophy for advice on how to live life, as it’s the one subject that asks repetitive “Why?” questions. In the words of Errol Morris, filmmaker of A Brief History of Time, philosophy aims to know “the underlying order in the world,”4 or as Victor Cousin said, "It describes and establishes what is.”5 In doing so, it acts as the one subject from which all others spring. As Wilfred Sellars writes, “Philosophy in an important sense has no special subject-matter which stands to it as other subject matters stand to other special disciplines.” This is why we have the philosophy of science, the philosophy of politics… even the philosophy of philosophy! Sellars continues, “The aim of philosophy… is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term…It is therefore, the 'eye on the whole' which distinguishes the philosophical enterprise.”6
Philosophy for this reason gives us a unique way to come up with answers which may lead economists, historians, and even mathematicians to look at their work differently, even though their own fields limit such an exploration for these answers. Knowing this, it’s little surprise that philosophers, as a profession, lead the top 10 of the most influential people who ever lived as seen in MIT's pantheon list.
Sadly, many today see philosophy as outdated and useless. Using complex words and jargon makes it sound like it’s from an alien civilization. Religions have priests to help explain any unclear messages in their holy books, but philosophy lacks such teachers. It also doesn't help that philosophers use unrealistic thought experiments that are unlikely to ever happen in the real world to make their point. For example, “If you don’t hit and kill the mother with a baby in her pram then thirty people in the bus you’re driving will die, what do you do?” Such questions have only black and white answers, which forget other real world options, like hitting the brakes to stop or beeping the horn to warn the mother.
However, for those who think philosophy has no effect on their lives, it’s wise, even if you’re not fond of her books, to listen to what author Ayn Rand had to say, “You might claim—most people do—that you have never been influenced by philosophy. I will ask you to check that claim. Have you ever thought or said the following? 'Don't be so sure—nobody can be certain of anything.' You got that notion from 18th century philosopher David Hume and many, many others, even though you might never have heard of him. Or, 'This may be good in theory, but it doesn't work in practice.' You got that from Plato.”7 Jeff Olson, co-author of The Slight Edge, breaks it down further: “Your habits come from your daily activities compounded over time. And your activities are the result of the choices you make in the moment. Your choices come from your habits of thought, which are the product of your thinking, which comes from the view you have of the world and your place in it—your philosophy.”8
Even economics was once linked to the philosophy departments in colleges and universities the world over, being called “Political Philosophy.” As prominent economist of the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes, writes, “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”9 German poet Heinrich Heine once chillingly wrote, “Philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor's study could destroy a civilization.”10 We've since come dangerously close to achieving this in another area of study, formerly known as “natural philosophy,” and which we now call, “science”.
As with economics, though, there is now a barrier between the subjects. As philosopher Massimo Pigliucci says, “A scientist is still separate from a philosopher as science can only explain what is, while it takes philosophy to say what should be done with what is.”11
Let’s now put philosophy to good use. When we were young, we started life in the driver’s seat with only a third of our daily tank used up by basic activities, like sleeping and eating. We then start driving, with little idea of what the destination (the meaning of life) will look like. Along the way, we have doubts about the road we’ve taken (our purpose in life), and sometimes we skid off the road to get to other roads. A car crash (life-changing event) may make us see how fragile life can be, leading us to seek another road. All the while, we burn fuel (time), causing us to stop before we get to the destination.
Now, if you’re wondering what the difference between “purpose of life” and “meaning of life” is, that’s a good question. They may seem like the same thing, but they’re not.
Meaning is the “final cause”, “main reason” or “highest good” that we live for, of which there is only one.
“Purpose,” on the other hand, as Charles H. Parkhurst writes, “is what gives your life meaning.”12 It’s our way of reaching the meaning. Purpose can and should be different for each person.
In what’s to come, some quotes will mistake these two, so be mindful of this difference.
If you hear someone say that the meaning of life, for them, is to become a banker or scientist or world record holder, they’ve fallen into this common trap. Those are all purposes, whereas meaning, to quote Jack Canfield, co-author of The Success Principle ™ is “the why behind everything you do.”13 Why be a banker? Why be a scientist? Here we can lean on our trusty “Why?” questions until we reach a dead-end answer. Let’s explore this with an imaginary lawyer:
Q: Why did you want to become a lawyer? A: It’s something my grandfather did, and I saw he made a decent living, it got me interested. Q: Why does a decent living matter to you? A: I could afford to do what I want, have a large house, swimming pool, kids…Q: Why is that so important to you? A: Well, don’t most people want something like that? Q: Why would most people want that? A: Isn’t that what life is about to most people? Q: If you’re correct, then is it the meaning of life?A: Um, maybe not the meaning, but a part of life, I guess…
See how, after a few “whys,” our lawyer hit a dead end? He’s unsure of linking what he does with the meaning of life. Moments like these are rare, as Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Eat, Pray, Love shows.
We can only truly judge a purpose by how it fulfils the meaning. So, knowing the meaning is crucial as otherwise we may be busy, but going nowhere. With meaning, all our busyness moves us towards a direction.
1. PURSUIT: Does the meaning explain our reason for seeking our chosen purpose?
Once we know the meaning, it will become the map from which we can choose the purpose that will best seek it. Below, we will draw the criteria, adding to the first point above, from which we locate our meaning of life sentence. But first…
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”14
What would you guess is the most common deathbed wish? It isn’t for one more puff of a cigarette or even to see family. No, it’s, “I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, rather than what others expected of me.”15 Sadly, as we saw with Jen, many of us may be suffering that same silent desperation. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, four out of ten Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose.16
Best-selling author Robert Greene of 48 Laws of Power, offers a possible cause for this. “What we lack most in the modern world is a sense of a larger purpose to our lives. In the past, it was organized religion that often supplied this. But most of us now live in a secularized world. We human animals are unique—we must build our own world. We do not simply react to events out of biological scripting. But without a sense of direction provided to us, we tend to flounder. We don’t know how to fill up and structure our time.”17
Does this sound like you? How do you view the meaning of life? A test made from the teachings of Viktor Frankl can show where you are right now in your life. Send a quick email to [email protected] to get this test and other bonus material.
Ever thought to yourself, “I don’t know what I want to do?” It’s happened to all of us. Often it strikes soon after finishing school, when students seek to take just about any job, mostly the best-paying one, which can then put them on a treadmill to an unfulfilled life. The limitless dreams of childhood collapse under the daily mud crawl of routine, creating an inner conflict that Tony Robbins, world-class speaker and author of Money Master the Game, describes as when “life doesn’t match your blueprint and you feel powerless to change it.”18
Studies over many decades have found that knowing the meaning and purpose of one’s life is vital to the well-being of a person. The lack of it is one of the most common problems explored by psychotherapy, psychoanalysis and other methods. Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist, found that there wasn’t “sufficient meaning” in the lives of most of his patients.19 Today it’s less surprising that this is a problem with new science showing that the human mind is “obsessed with purpose,” as Richard Dawkins, biologist and author of The God Delusion, said.20
1. Depression and all other related illnesses.
Depression is a broad problem usually overused as an umbrella word to explain a range of unwanted states of mind. It’s likely you’ve heard someone you know describe themselves or others as depressed. It has been linked to rising suicide rates that today claim a life every forty seconds.21
Betty Friedan wrote in her bestseller, The Feminine Mystique, about “the problem that has no name”. This problem was happening strangely to middle and upper class women. As one woman said, “I ask myself why I am so dissatisfied. I’ve got my health, fine children, a lovely new home, enough money… Then you wake up one morning, and there's nothing to look forward to.”22 According to the World Health Organization, a shocking three hundred and fifty million people are touched by depression, making it the number one cause of disability in the world.23
A recent study found a “definite relationship of meaning in life with depression and psychological health”. The lower the score in meaning of life tests, the higher the rate of depression, and vice versa. A study of mature people showed over time that 33% of people with low “subjective well-being,” died, compared to only 9% with the highest levels of well-being.24
In response to the problem she found, Freidan wrote, “The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself as a person is by creative work of her own.” With the growth of depression, it’s no surprise that only one in four people polled believe they’re living to their creative potential. When creativity is missing, boredom sets in, which is why repetitive work saps so much from human life.25
2. Addictions, neuroticism, and materialistic behavior.
People who don’t know the meaning can find strange ways to make up for it, like buying all they see, desperately searching for a partner who’ll solve all their problems, or binge eating or drinking until they nearly pass out.26
Drugs and alcohol, the twin disciples of the devil, addict tens of millions of people this way. Narconomics by Tom Wainwright explores how governments spend billions to try to combat drug based addiction, yet studies have found that knowing the meaning of life can give us the real solution.27 In a study by Stanley Krippner, every single addict said that “things seemed meaningless”. A similar study by Annmarie von Forstmeyer found that 90% of alcoholics suffered from an “abysmal feeling of meaninglessness”.28
Boredom is used to describe the same feeling. Studies have found that bored people have a 40% higher death rate than non-bored people.29 Without meaning, boredom breeds the need to escape, which leads some to fill their lives with the superficial scum of degrading reality TV and sensationalist gossip pages. This “trash media” is made to make us feel like we're missing out on something. The ad break shows us the product to buy to fix it. This conflict of interest leads to unrealistically fake beauty standards for men and women, as mostly all images are touched up. The money spent trying to remove a frown line by those who have been culturally brainwashed could feed a war-ravaged village for months. This media manipulation plays its part in turning women surveyed into walking bundles of insecurities, with 98% saying they were not beautiful.30 As Howard Beale said in the movie, Network, “You're beginning to believe the illusions we're spinning here, you're beginning to believe that the tube is reality and your own lives are unreal… You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube. This is mass madness, you maniacs… you people are the real thing, we are the illusion.”31
What problems have you faced which go back to not knowing the meaning of life?
This “hedonic well-being,” offers only a short-term feeling and sucks people onto an addictive, ever-shrinking rope of materialistic and bodily pleasures which eventually snaps. To avoid falling off, the person constantly chases that next shot of excitement- from laughing at slapstick comedy, popping pills or gossiping like a giggling goose. A vampire needs more blood to survive, these people need more thrills to live. As author Annie Dillard of Pilgrim of Tinker Creek writes, “The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more.”32 These people become the space wasters of society, seeking loudly on the outside what they fear finding silently on the inside. A fear to sit silently for between 6-15 minutes has been shown in a study to be so hard for some that they’d rather give themselves mild electric shocks.33
3. Loss of a healthy and longer life.
In addition to better health and well-being, those in touch with a meaning show lower rates of Alzheimer’s, anxiety, neuroticism and other medical conditions.34/35 Even heart disease, the most common killer in the U.S., is less common—by about 50%—in those who know their life’s meaning.36 According to the lead doctor for the study, “If you find purpose in life, if you find your life is meaningful, and if you have goal-directed behavior, you are likely to live longer.” Seeing each day as a connected string toward reaching a greater goal gives us the inner drive to keep going even when problems pop up.
“What is the use of living, if it be not to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone?”37
Know it or not, you are right now living some meaning of life, though if asked, you might not think of it this way. When you think about lifestyle choices, your view of the world, or simply how things seem to you, they are all filtered through a meaning of life sentence you’ve told to yourself. Even if you think you haven’t, you’re likely living some autopilot meaning of someone else’s. Otherwise without this you’d have committed suicide long ago.
Take food for example. Though nature has never posted a sign telling us to eat fruit instead of rocks, we all get the idea. Likewise, even though nature doesn’t openly tell us what the meaning of life is, we should accept that there can exist a right and wrong meaning.
According to Kate, Ned seems normal. He doesn’t appear to have mental health issues, and he survives on charity handouts by his own wish.
While it’s true that he doesn’t physically harm anyone, most people would say that the purpose he has chosen lacks meaning. What is the point of picking up leaves, anyway? Almost no one in society benefits from it. We don’t have leaf collecting listed with science or engineering as a possible future path for a child. Instead, we support children to seek something more “valuable” (a critical but murky word we will explore). To devote one’s life to looking at leaves would be wasting the potential we all have to do more for society.
Some, inspired by writings of John Stuart Mill, such as On Liberty and Utilitarianism, might say that if someone feels happy doing what they do, let them do it. If they are not hurting anyone, we have little reason to say that what they do is worthless when compared to other people. Does it matter what other people think about the meaning of someone’s life? Doesn’t Ned’s own experience decide the value of his leaf collecting?
This all sounds good, but it forgets an important point. To accurately judge his own meaning, Ned must have a decent understanding of other activities that people consider “meaningful.” Only then would he be able to see why others call what he does “trivial.” Few would argue that a human should strive to become the best that they can be, yet we aren’t seeing that with Ned if we compare him to others.
Ned, of course, would disagree. “Isn’t what I think what matters most here?” he might ask. It’s a dangerous line of thinking, for if it were true, criminals could easily defend all the horrors they inflict on other people. Though Ned isn’t physically harming anyone, he is harming society by not contributing to it as much as he could be. His way of living would be fine if he were stranded alone on an unknown island, but not in a society with other people.
Living among others gives you rights, but with them come responsibilities. The ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, famously made this point when he killed himself instead of running away when a seemingly corrupt court sentenced him to death. We aren't promoting blind faith in the government here, for laws and policies can always be improved. When a person has a choice though, to either live in one society or another, they should know the responsibilities that come with that choice.
Yet here lies the challenge. We may let Ned go on his merry way picking up leaves, but if asked for our views by, say, a news reporter, we’d likely say that action should be taken to prevent children from becoming leaf-pickers.
What if there was a scientific way to show the consequences of Ned’s actions?
2. EVIDENCE: Can the meaning be agreed to by others and its results found in the real world?
Even though we have lists of vague answers to our question “What is the meaning of life?” by some of society’s most prominent individuals, a decent direct answer still seems hard to pin down. Popular ones include, “life is a mystery,” “life is absurd,” “life is a joke,” and, “life is meaningless.” Pretty uninspiring, and if true, would mean the suicide rates worldwide will likely continue to grow.
In our younger years, we may have thought the meaning was, “To be cool, I’ll drink and test out drugs.” After graduation, that often changes to, “I need to get promoted at work so I can earn more money to buy more things.” As we’ve found out, these aren’t meanings. They are purposes that others, such as the media, try to turn into meaning.
Do you see how these turn our focus inward? Thinking of yourself as the center of your meaning often leads to the neglect of others. Ned does this, and though he might delude himself into happiness, his disregard for others is what leads us to see his meaning as useless. He does not seek to give anything back to society and cares less about the people in it.
What’s the meaning of life you've led so far if put into a sentence?
Sure, focusing on yourself is needed at times, but it’s not healthy if done all the time. Think about it. When you make someone else happy, you can’t help but feel happy as well. People who live for something other than themselves know this. They're the ones able to go through the ups and downs of daily life without letting it get them down. This is because when you seek to improve the lives of others, the worries of your own life shrink in importance. You feel you have a larger mission above and beyond the smaller things.
Let’s look at some single sentence meanings found online, which many people live their lives by:
“Getting rich.” The obvious question here is, “What are you getting rich for?”
“To become an expert at _____” We’d ask, “What’s the end goal of learning all that?”
“Falling in love.” Not only is this meaning focused on you rather than the rest of the world, it begs the question of what is next? It lets us keep asking, “Why?” over and over. Depending on another person for your happiness shows that you have unresolved inner questions that you think a stranger will answer for you.
All the above cannot be ends in themselves. For the meaning of life answer to make sense, it needs to not allow for more “what’s next?” questions, but by the same token it needs to be open ended in its possibilities.
3. FINAL: Is the meaning of life sentence an end in itself? Does asking, “What’s next?” make little sense?
Biased emotions like happiness can’t lead us to a more precise meaning of life, as happiness for one person may be agony for another. Any “truth” searched inside us will never be universal for all. The universal can only be found outside our minds, and in the real world around us. The more people agree on something, the closer it crawls towards truth. Otherwise it’s as good as a personal fantasy.
Studies of mental health can shine a light on this for us. They refer to life’s meaning as that which is “positively oriented toward final value beyond one's animal self,” and that which can “fulfil a life goal that’s constructive and vital to the advancement of humankind.”38
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