The Philosophy of Meaning

"Foolish are those who...have no aim to which they can direct every impulse and, indeed, every thought." -Marcus Aurelius

There are few words in the English language so charged as the word, "meaning.” What’s the meaning of life? What’s the meaning of [insert any confusing life event here]? The fact that we ask these questions tells us more about ourselves than the answers to them do. It reveals a desire for there to be more to it all—or perhaps even more revelatory, the need to believe that there is. This is why we find ourselves at various stages of our lives, careers and relationships thinking, what’s the point of this? Where is this going? Our minds overwhelmed with regret or frustration, we spiral into lamenting our decisions. I’d like to put forth an alternative to this lamentation and say that these moments are, instead, causes for celebration—for they serve as the breeding grounds for increased self-awareness. They remind us that in some way, in some area, we’re not quite living in sync with what's meaningful to us. Thus, the more quickly we can discover this discrepancy, the more quickly we can recalibrate.

“When the force of circumstances causes you, in some sense, to lose your equilibrium, return to yourself with all speed, and never lose the rhythm for any longer than you must; for you will be more in control of the measure if you return to it again and again.” -Marcus Aurelius

A person who’s identified what’s meaningful to them is able to quickly and accurately assess what’s not. They’re able to return to themselves with all speed, allowing that sense of direction to inform their next move.

Toward the end of Flow, author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (see this post for pronunciation) offers the idea that, “the meaning of life is meaning.” At first, this feels dissatisfying. We want something concrete and actionable, especially having committed to the all-too-rare feat that is finishing a book today. As much as we advocate for the freedom of not being told what we should believe or pursue, an honest look at our seeker-like ways would reveal a desire, at some level, for an objective truth. It makes sense that we’d want this—an objective truth or meaning that exists outside of us frees us from the task of having to identify one for ourselves. This concept, at its root, is why we gravitate toward groups, or tend to adopt whatever seems to be the most widely-held opinion. It’s why we tend to suppress our opinion should it happen to be of the minority. It’s not cowardly so much as it is... Human. This is why the rare individual who transcends this groupthink default seems almost, super-human. We describe them as bold and daring and "marching to the beat of their own drum."

Or perhaps better-said, marching to the beat of their own meaning. With that in mind, the following perspective on the proverbial meaning-of-life matter might resonate with us: the meaning of life is what’s meaningful to you.

And so, in the words of Marcus Aurelius, what is that aim (that mission, that hope) to which you can direct every impulse, and, indeed, every thought? That’s your meaning. The question isn’t, “what’s the meaning of life?” so much as it is, “what’s the meaning of my life?"

“For this is your duty, to act well the part that is given to you; but to select that part, belongs to another.” -Epictetus

It now makes sense to highlight the following: when it comes to meaning, there is no objective answer. Like beauty, it tends to be in the eye of the beholder. One meaning does not fit all. What brings meaning to the scientist may differ from what brings meaning to the singer. And so too will the Christian’s and the atheist’s pursuits of meaning diverge. The tension, though, arises when we project the unique consequences of our own sources of meaningfulness onto those with entirely different purviews. This is precisely why our differences in conviction must be met with grace and understanding. It’s not the convictions themselves that warrant praise, but rather, that the convictions are held—that the person has established an aim toward which to direct their life. This person has decided on their meaning.

“Perhaps a man who is worthy of the name should put aside this question of how long he will live, and not cling to life, but...turn his attention to this instead, to how he can live the best life possible in the time that is granted to him.” -Marcus Aurelius

Now here’s the kicker: you can be excellent at something, and at the same time, find it completely meaningless. It’s the dangerous yet familiar dichotomy that so many of us find ourselves in (and one that we can adjust for the good of ourselves and the good of others). The existence of said-dichotomy merely echoes how essential it is to accurately identify what's meaningful to us, and order our lives accordingly.

And order our lives accordingly. That means that we find ways to leverage our duties in a way that advances what’s meaningful to us. It means that if we don’t find meaning in our work, we use work as a means of getting closer to what matters. We give back. We invest in our relationships. We fill our free time with the little things that give our psyche big returns. We build and we create. Ultimately, we lean on philosophy to grant us the perspective necessary to lead meaningful lives wherever we are, in whatever we’re doing. Our 9-to-5s are then seen as more of an opportunity than an obligation.

Let's now state what might be obvious. Sometimes the things we do will have no intrinsic meaning. Sometimes we have to bring meaning to what we do. If we can’t be invigorated, we have to invigorate. We know from our own dark experiences (and the tragic ones of others) that having nothing meaningful to direct your life toward can lead to misery beyond comprehension. It’s why even the most outwardly successful among us can be the most inwardly depressed. Tony Robbins calls this, “the achievement lie.”

“Success without fulfillment is meaningless. It’s not about achievement, it’s about what fulfills you.” -Tony Robbins

It’s about identifying that thing you can direct everything towards; that thing that, as Marcus Aurelius would say, makes you imperturbable in the face of unwanted circumstances. The thing that when the thrill of your job wears off, allows you to trudge forward ever-still. Put simply, it's the thing that most people don't have.

Using the experience of Holocaust survivor and modern day-Stoic Victor Frankl as a reference, psychologist Richard Logan writes that, "the most important trait of survivors is a 'nonself-conscious individualism,' or a strongly directed purpose that is not self-seeking. People who have that quality are bent on doing their best in all circumstances, yet they are not concerned primarily with advancing their own interests."

May our pursuits be so authentic that even when the stakes are much lower, we're described as such.

Let's take a moment for clarity. Similar to what we discussed about end goals, your life's unique mission doesn’t have to be grand or Mother Teresa-esque to count. You already count. We need less people trying to change the whole world and more people trying to change their little worlds. Because the latter is what actually changes the world. The latter achieves that rare balance of being equal parts practical and equal parts admirable. 

There's this unfortunate tendency to think that if we're not wearing some sort of metaphorical cape every day, then somehow we're not leading meaningful lives. How limiting. Don't fall into the trap of judging the merit of your life's work on the basis of whether others will see it as meaningful. You alone determine that. The janitor who brings zeal and excellence to his work day-in and day-out, who takes pride in a job well-done and in practically serving others, who dutifully provides for and protects his family, has led a meaningful life. Let's reject whatever lay within that tempts us to think otherwise.

Despite its glorification among millennials in-particular, you don’t have to start a movement. Rather, strive to be in such relentless pursuit of what's meaningful to you that you are the movement. The person who’s decided what’s uniquely meaningful to them, and ordered their lives accordingly, has answered the very call of being human. 

What's incredible about practical philosophy is that it's just that—practical. With that standard, what is the answer to the oft-asked question of how to lead a meaningful life? By filling it, quite literally, with as much of what's meaningful to you as possible.

“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” -Viktor E. Frankl