Dare to dream?
October 2, 2010 6:02 PM   Subscribe

When I was a kid, I thought it was my purpose to grow up and achieve all the things for myself that I could. Now that I have grown up to be in my mid-twenties, I have been exposed to life experiences and philosophies/religions that have taken that mindset away from me...

This is disorientating. I want to recapture the ambition I had as a kid. One thing that would help is knowing if there is any inherent morality in pursing one's own dreams. For example, I could pursue my dream job, but why? because it makes me happy? what purpose does that ultimately have? What are the reasons that I should achieve anything for myself?
posted by drmr2 to Religion & Philosophy (23 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
You've become an existentialist. I'd recommend reading up on it. A good start, before getting into really serious stuff is, "Man's Search for Meaning" by Victor Frankl.

One thing to remember is that the point of life is not happiness.
posted by alex_skazat at 6:29 PM on October 2, 2010

You are still young, and it is a good thing you are realizing now that there is more to life than getting all you can. Nothing in this world provides lasting happiness aside from our relationships with others. Most philosophies and religions have come to that conclusion. Pursue your dreams, but reach out to family, friends and those less fortunate. Be kind. Channel your ambition into something worthwhile. The rewards will be there.
posted by lazydog at 6:31 PM on October 2, 2010

People work for one of two reasons: Because it's what interests them, or it helps finance what interests them. If you've got a dream job in mind, all the better. Pursue it. People who are interested in something are interesting, they enliven the people around them, they contribute to the emotional well-being of the species. Even folks who are interested in things I find profoundly boring, I'm glad they've got something they love, because people who don't have anything to love, people who have no interests, sap my will to live.

What are your ambitions?
posted by mittens at 6:31 PM on October 2, 2010

I think some of the answer depends a bit on what the dream is. If you want to be an inventor or an artist, that's one thing. If you desire to be Montgomery Burns, get a new dream. But I follow the lines of Hillel:
"If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?"
I think all three are important.
posted by history is a weapon at 6:32 PM on October 2, 2010

People will answer this question in terms of what gives their own lives meaning. That is not the same for everyone. It seems the dominant attitude is that the only things that really matter are our relationships with others, but some people don't get much out of those either, and it's possible that the real reason that feeling has become dominant is not that people really feel that way so much as that feeling that way (or pretending to) turns out to be useful to society.

Maybe you should ask this question somewhere where self-interest is generally viewed favorably. A free-market libertarian or an objectivist might have more to say on the subject that would be of use to you. However, please don't take any advice (including from here) without a certain amount of caution. People's opinions on things related to a "meaning of life" tend to be pretty intense, personal, and controversial. Even if you do ultimately find meaning in the pursuit of some dream of your own, don't forget to retain a certain amount of consideration for others as well.
posted by Xezlec at 6:56 PM on October 2, 2010

No one else can tell you what reasons will seem valid to you. And no-one can tell you much at all unless you're more specific about what those dreams you talk about are, and what these life experiences and philosophies are that you think have taken that mindset away from you.

In the end you need to be responsible for what does or does not truly matter to you.

If you've now come to see your former goals as shallow and selfish then you just have, and you go from there. If that's how you truly feel about them, it won't give you much satisfaction to achieve them.

If instead you have come to feel that the philosophies you've gotten into are mistaken, and your former mindset was a better way to live, then so be it.

For what it's worth, in practical terms you are more likely to excel at what you love, and so, other things being equal more likely to make some worthwhile contribution to the world working on your dreams. That does depend rather on what your dreams are though.
posted by philipy at 7:09 PM on October 2, 2010

Best answer: One thing that would help is knowing if there is any inherent morality in pursing one's own dreams. For example, I could pursue my dream job, but why? because it makes me happy? what purpose does that ultimately have?

Morality never has a base purpose. It always rests on axioms. (Axioms are foundational ideas that can't be proven and that are not resting on top of other ideas. If they were, they wouldn't be foundational. For instance, in Euclidean Geometry, points, lines and planes are givens. You can't ask for a geometrical proof that points exist. You just have to accept that they do, or there's no point in doing Geometry. Similarly, Science assumes a material world exists. You can't use Science to prove it exists.)

Religion-based moralities often use God's will, God's desires or God's law as axiomatic. Why shouldn't we kill? Because God doesn't want us to. Why doesn't God want us to? Oops. You can't go there. He just doesn't. (Maybe He doesn't want us to kill because He values life, but that just moves the target. WHY does He value life? He just does...) I am not dissing religion. Secular moralities rest on axioms, too.

Secular-based moralities just have different axioms. For instance, a secular moral system might be based on The Greatest Amount of Happiness For the Greatest Number of People. Why? Just because... It's an AXIOM. What's interesting is what you build on top of that axiom.

Some secular moralists use psychology and/or biology as the foundation. People naturally want to do A or B... People naturally thrive when they do X or Y... Okay, but why should we care what people naturally want? Why should we care what makes people naturally thrives. Just because ... because we do ...

Personally, I'm a pretty big fan of happiness-based moral systems. It's much easier for me to see that when I think about other people, as opposed to myself. I WANT happiness for my friends and loved ones. In a more abstract -- but still very real -- sense, I want happiness for everyone.

Is the world a better place if some guy I don't know, some guy who lives thousands of miles away from me in China, is happy than if he isn't. To me, the answer is definitely yes, as long as his happiness doesn't make someone else less happy.

When I apply the same thinking to myself, I get a little uncomfortable, because wishing for my own happiness seems conceited and selfish. But simple logic tells me that I'm not a special case. If the world is a better place when some stranger in another country is happy, then obviously it's better if I'm happy, too.

I think one of the reasons I balk at my own happiness, is that -- because I'm me -- I'm very aware of the many times me seeking my own happiness has caused someone else misery, either for real or in my head (e.g. times I haven't actually done something hurtfully selfish, but I've thought about doing it and realized the hurt it would cause). So I have an association between doing stuff for myself and hurting others. The trick is to not do that. Work hard to find ways to be happy without hurting others.

I was also raised to devalue emotions. As you say, "What's the point of being happy? What's the ultimate purpose of it?" Okay, but NOTHING has an ultimate purpose. One day the Sun will die. The human race will come to an end. So how about focusing on RIGHT NOW (or the foreseeable future) rather than the "ultimate purpose"? If you're happy (without gaining happiness at others' expense), you will make other people happy. Don't you like being around happy people? I don't mean life-of-the-party people or Pollyannas: I mean people who are content and excited by life.

One thing to remember is that the point of life is not happiness.

This makes me smile, because you wrote it as if it's a proven truth: like "one thing to remember is that water is made of hydrogen and oxygen."

I could respond by saying "the point of life IS happiness," and I'd be just as right (and just as wrong) as you.

The point of life according to whom? I don't think we have any devices that can measure or weigh the point of life. We do have various religions and philosophies, many of which disagree on what the point-of-life is.

So it's up for grabs.
posted by grumblebee at 7:46 PM on October 2, 2010 [24 favorites]

I don't suspect you'll find the purpose of happiness from the opinions of a bunch of people on the internet. This sort of deep philosophical question, IMO, can only be answered by lots of angst-ing, contemplation, and book-reading.
posted by vanitas at 7:52 PM on October 2, 2010

Would you want your friends and loved ones to be happy? (This counts for friends and loved ones you haven't met yet.)

They want you to be happy, too.

That's the purpose it serves.
posted by vienaragis at 9:34 PM on October 2, 2010

Best answer: I agree that Frankl is a great place to start. The Dalai Lama is not bad, either.

For myself, the moral thing is to respect my life as well as other lives. "To thine own self be true." For me an authentic life is arises from a balance of introspection and action. I feel responsible for examining my actions, questioning my motives, seeking respectful interactions with all others and honoring my own gifts and abilities. To refuse the path of creativity or accomplishment for myself would be as repressive and wrong as it would be if I blocked that path in another's life.

You keep on seeking and reading and acting on what you learn. Life is the journey. When you get stuck, stop and reflect, lick your wounds, then get up and continue the journey. We don't arrive, you know. What we do is journey and if we refuse, we shrivel up and are no good to anyone.
posted by Anitanola at 10:12 PM on October 2, 2010 [4 favorites]

For example, I could pursue my dream job, but why? because it makes me happy? ... What are the reasons that I should achieve anything for myself?

Human beings are social creatures, and your state of happiness or unhappiness will affect everybody who cares about you even a little bit.

As long your dream job doesn't involve damaging other people or their surroundings, the happiness it will bring you is good for everybody you come in contact with as well as for you.

what purpose does that ultimately have?

Ultimately? None whatsoever.

Short-term, i.e. within your own lifetime? Avoidance of avoidable suffering.
posted by flabdablet at 10:18 PM on October 2, 2010

When I was a kid, I thought it was my purpose to grow up and achieve all the things for myself that I could. Now that I have grown up to be in my mid-twenties, I have been exposed to life experiences and philosophies/religions that have taken that mindset away from me...

Read some Nietzsche, specifically Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil. If you're anything like me, you'll find plenty of support for the idea that there's "inherent morality in pursing one's own dreams" in his philosophy.

In the long run, though, you're going to have to provide your own reasons for why you should achieve anything for yourself. This is a personal thing, and no two people have precisely the same answer; this is as true of other-directed people as it is for those, like me, for whom "self-interest is generally viewed favorably". I can only tell you that you do not have to let go of the drive you once had; you do not have to look to anyone else in order to define your morals, values, and goals.

The fact that you've noticed that something vital has been taken from you is a very promising start. Good luck.
posted by vorfeed at 10:34 PM on October 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's no end to the really great books that would be responsive to your question, and folks have already suggested some good ones. If you're up for some more dense stuff, Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics might provide some insight on the "Why happiness?" and "What's the purpose of doing x?" parts of your question.

Sticking in the Aristotelian mood, but offering something more accessible, I am told that Martha Nussbaum's "Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics" is astonishingly good. I've not read it yet, but everything else she's written is astonishingly good, so it wouldn't be a surprise.
posted by Marty Marx at 11:51 PM on October 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I also recommend watching films on the subject.
posted by shii at 12:04 AM on October 3, 2010

Read John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism. Also, Thomas Hurka's Perfectionism.
posted by paultopia at 12:17 AM on October 3, 2010

What are the reasons that I should achieve anything for myself?

It is mighty difficult to accomplish much for others if you don't accomplish anything for yourself. Independent of monetary wealth and that sort of thing (though it certainly applies there, as well), you cannot help others unless you are in a position where you can do so. For most people, that means achieving a modicum of personal success in whatever way they define it. Moreover, the more truly "happy" one is, the more able they are to share that happiness with others.

posted by The Lady is a designer at 2:21 AM on October 3, 2010

One thing to remember is that the point of life is not happiness.

That doesn't mean it's not fun to be happy while engaging in the search for meaning.
posted by westerly at 4:43 AM on October 3, 2010

Do you read obituaries? Not the little paid death notices in the paper--the multi-paragraph or multi-page ones written by newspaper staff for public figures and celebrities. The first sentence of the obituary always contains the defining accomplishment of that person's life. When I find myself starting to rationalize not following my dreams, I think about what I want that first sentence of my obituary to say.

You do it for yourself, but not necessarily because it's immediately fulfilling and rewarding. You do it for your 85-year-old self looking back on all the things you could have done but didn't.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:56 AM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Pursuing your dreams often incidentally helps others in some way - as long as your dream is not to be a professional hit man or something.
posted by ultrabuff at 10:02 AM on October 3, 2010

There are already many excellent answers, so mine is probably superfluous, but I want to comment anyway. Indulge me.

Happiness does not always make for a successful goal in life, because the pursuit of happiness can be short-sighted. For example, inhaling cocaine will make you happy, at least for a period of time. In the long term, it will make you very unhappy, since drug addiction brings with it all kinds of unfortunate consequences relating to your health, finances, and possible incarceration for violating drug laws. However, an intelligent pursuit of happiness, with due concern for both the short and the long term, is a good idea. When we compare happiness to unhappiness, happiness is clearly the better condition to be in. Much the same can be said about wealth and poverty. You may not wish to make the pursuit of money the main objective of your life, but it is still clear that by having more money you increase your options in life, and wealth is a better condition than poverty. Some people find holiness in poverty, and certain Catholic orders take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but strangely enough, the Catholic Church itself remains extremely wealthy, however many poor members it may have. Even those who regard poverty as a holy condition, still recognize the usefulness of money.

Lots of people will be prepared to hand you a purpose for your life. We all have opinions as to what constitutes a good purpose. But in the end, it is your life, so it is your choice. The purpose of your life is whatever purpose or collection of purposes you choose. Personally I could suggest that you should be happy, be affluent, help yourself, and help others. Those are all excellent goals. Many people think that serving God (or some religious objective) should be on the list; I personally don't. But that too is a personal choice (and one that would be very complicated to analyse).
posted by grizzled at 10:07 AM on October 3, 2010

Best answer: I recall a teacher of Zen saying something along the lines of "When looking for a spiritual teacher, don't look for the person who has the best answers, look for the person who asks the best questions"

Life is short and ephemeral. The span of our lives, taken by any objective measurement, is tiny and insignificant. Here are the facts, we're born into this world, we're going to grow old and sick, and we're going to die. Those things cannot and will not ever change.

As far as living our lives go, we really have just two options:

Option 1 - We can rail against the quality of life and theorize and conjecture ourselves into all sorts of shapes and sizes, we can believe any number of wild ideas, some more outlandish than others. We can try, in vain, to grasp at reality with the powers of our reasoning, but we will only ever fall short of really understanding anything.

Option 2 - We can accept the truth; our current situation is fundamentally unknowable, so move on.

Option 1 has only made be a bitter existential mess, option 2 has brought me great bliss.

One might ask, "Okay, so I've accepted I cannot know reality, I cannot answer these deep metaphysical questions which torment my consciousness. I am actively turning away from thinking pointless circular thoughts, and if I catch myself in such loops, I will break out. I've moved on...but moved on to where? What do I do now?"

Why don't we start with what we do know, rather than what we don't. We can't know the meaning of life, but we can know the experience of life. What is life like to you? What does your heart say about existence? What do you want out of these few short years you'll have on this planet?

Obviously, this is a tough question to confront, but atleast it has an answer.

Sometimes we are just stringing words together, as is the nature of human beings, when, totally unintentionally, they fundamentally alter someones entire life. My ex once asked me what I wanted for dinner. I responded, "I dunno," which totally rocked her world. "How can you not know what you want?" I have made it my personal mission to find out an answer to the question "What do I want?"

Spend sometime everyday checking in with yourself, figure out "how you want to be" and not "what do you want to be," and don't try and express the ineffable, its just a waste of time.

Oh, and find some kind of teacher who asks great questions and doesn't waste peoples times with silly answers.

The Buddha has been the biggest influence in my life, but your mileage may vary. Lao Tzu is another amazing out of the box thinker.
posted by satori_movement at 10:33 AM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for all of the wonderful responses so far. All of them add to sorting out the whole picture. They are very encouraging.
posted by drmr2 at 4:05 PM on October 5, 2010

If you have a dream job, pursue it. The very fact that life is short means there is no benefit whatsoever in making yourself miserable by denying your own joy. Odds are good that you will be better at that dream job anyway.

Remember that nearly every job, even ones that initially seem frivolous, are serving a purpose. I once talked to someone who worked at a bank. She loved her job. When I asked her why, she said it was because she liked helping people. It had never occurred to me that bankers help people. Up to that point I'd thought about it in obvious terms -- doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, etc. -- these were all occupations associated with helping people. But people also need loans, they need food, they need to get their car repaired, they need to let people know about their business, they need to get rid of their trash. So bankers, grocery store owners, car mechanics, advertisers, and sanitation workers all help people too. Unless your dream job is something like assassin (helping rich people get rid of unsavory political figures) or oil lobbyist (informing congresspeople on legislative issues surrounding oil extraction and protecting jobs in that sector) odds are good that you will help many people in your job, no matter how self-serving that job may seem right now.

One thing to remember is that the point of life is not happiness.


The point of life is to get to where you are doing what you are supposed to be doing, have built up a network of friends, and have found peace in your general surroundings. Every time I do this, I feel real happiness. Not the passing pleasure from eating ice cream (or, um, other things) but genuine contentment, satisfaction, and a sense of well being. Every time I have felt that kind of happiness, I know I am going in the right direction. When I'm miserable, distressed, anxious -- that's when I know I'm a bit astray.

I love teaching. I remember the first time I ever taught a small group of students when volunteering as a tutor at an adult learning center. I left the school absolutely charged, almost explosively happy. I'm not a teacher now but I'm a programmer for an educational organization and get to work with teachers and students all the time. Right now I'm working on a project that will potentially reach thousands of schoolchildren in the U.S. and I'm thrilled.

Try asking aloud the question: "What's the purpose of being here on the planet?" Don't give yourself any time to think about it, just answer with the thing that comes to the front. For me, the answer will be "To teach and learn from one another". That's my personal answer; someone else might say "To heal" or "To make other people laugh". Somewhere in you is the answer to that question.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:20 AM on December 29, 2010

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