How can I find the meaning to life?
December 11, 2003 11:45 AM   Subscribe

Do you know what you want out of life? How do you know? How did you figure it out? What tools and techniques are available to figure out the meaning of your life?
posted by webword to Religion & Philosophy (29 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I keep asking those same questions, and never seem to get anywhere. Too busy trying to feed kids and stave off bankruptcy, I suppose.

Good luck in your search, though. Let me know if anyone has the answers.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 11:47 AM on December 11, 2003

I know exactly what I want out of life, but I'm still at something of a loss as to how to get it all. What is it? I want to spend my day doing things because I enjoy them or are interested in them and with substantially less of my attention on things that must be done for some external reason. It seems a little selfish, but not unreasonably so to me.

How I came to know this is simple: I'm a lazy bastard by nature and motivated only by extreme crisis or by interest and whim.
posted by majick at 11:54 AM on December 11, 2003

Response by poster: By the way, just to make this more solid, let's assume that you lost your job and you really need to figure this out. Or, maybe you just got divorced and it is the right time to figure it out. Think of the question as being practical, not theoretical. In other words, right now, what would you do to figure out what you want out of life because you are being forced to figure it out. It makes the "exercise" more interesting I think...
posted by webword at 11:56 AM on December 11, 2003

Crossing into my 4th decade helped a lot. I don't know when or why exactly, but somewhere around my 30th birthday, I just turned around and things were a lot clearer.
posted by dness2 at 11:57 AM on December 11, 2003

It could help to take some college courses to see what really interests you.
posted by Keyser Soze at 12:05 PM on December 11, 2003

Identify your values: what MEANS something to you?

Identify your happines: what makes you HAPPY?

Integrate the two -- find a career/avocation/job that is best aligned (not necessarily perfect) with those two things.

Some examples of the first: ideas, technology, medicine, education, communications, etc.

Some examples of the second: public speaking, solitary work (computer?), bringing joy to others, informing others, solving complex problems.

I know - it sounds so easy in theory, eh?
posted by davidmsc at 12:07 PM on December 11, 2003

Read. Learn. Teach.

Walk the earth like Kung Fu.

You may think I'm joking, but I'm not.
posted by bonehead at 12:23 PM on December 11, 2003

To me, a large part of the Meaning of Life is just this: Give Meaning to Life. The things that can be the most rewarding to you are often the same things that define, enlighten and enrich yourself and those around you.

This isn't meant to be trite, it's meant as a context-changer (if you need it), don't view "the Meaning of Life" as "what does this all mean to me", see it more as "what can I add to the Human Condition". Switch from passive to active.
posted by kokogiak at 12:24 PM on December 11, 2003 [2 favorites]

I don't think it's really valuable to force yourself to figure out what's right; at least it wasn't in my experience. I spent most of my life agonizing over the fact that I didn't have a "direction" or "purpose" per se, and I feel quite fortunate that I just happened to stumble across such a thing in my late 20s (fairly recently). Finding what I want to make of myself was a total accident and a great relief; even the fact that it's going to take a hell of a lot of work to turn a passion into something workable doesn't matter. I see where I want to be and I'm willing to deal with the work, (hopefully temporary) poverty, and whatever else it takes to do it. But could I have gotten myself to this point by saying "hey, I'm divorced; I better figure something out"? No way. You'll find it if you follow your passions; till then, just deal with things as you see fit. YMMV.
posted by transient at 12:24 PM on December 11, 2003

Your question is why we have religion, example The Bible.
Tools?, you're the tool, your brain knowing what you want then learning the skills. We all have a talent focus on your interests, skipping the wealth factor and occupy your time by it. Thus having a true "occupation" it will reward you various ways. Excuse me as I go "get a life."
posted by thomcatspike at 12:33 PM on December 11, 2003

I heard Nick Saban (head coach of the LSU football team that is playing in this year's national championship) speak this summer before the start of the season. He spoke about one of his primary functions as a head coach: to discipline and motivate the players. To provide the proper perspective for his focus, he outlined the following quadrant: (1) things you like to do, but don't have to do; (2) things you like to do, and have to do; (3) things you don't like to do, and don't have to do; and (4) things you don't like to do, but have to do. He noted that the first three things essentially take care of themselves in life, but category (4) is a stumbling block for people because it requires discipline to accomplish these tasks.

Although the categorization might seem trite, it has really provided some perspective. If you can find something that maximizes the first two categories and learn to efficiently handle the fourth category you will be a much happier person. Obviously everything doesn't fit into such neat categories, but I think it might be a helpful starting point for evaluating possible life changes.
posted by ajr at 12:36 PM on December 11, 2003

I live davidmsc's advice.

To me, the most important thing one can do in life is be happy (so long as that happiness does not come at the expense of others). So many of my friends — we're now pushing our mid-thirties — have spent the past fifteen years floundering without direction. There's nothing wrong with this, except that they're unhappy. They never bother to learn what will make them happy, so they can't pursue happiness.

As for The Meaning of Life: why must life have a meaning?
posted by jdroth at 12:52 PM on December 11, 2003

Make a list of the most important things in your life. These can be concepts (strength, compassion, nature, etc) or more concrete things (your job, your family, your house, etc), whatever you like. You can order them, if you want, or just let them blob together on the page. When you're done, pick one or two that you think you could improve your relationship with, and next to them, write down some ways you can work on those. Then pick a few of the easier ways and a few harder ones, and commit yourself to them for a while. Chances are, as you work on the things that are important to you, you'll find a lot of pleasure and meaning in one or more of them. When you find something like that, stick with it as a permanent goal, but don't forget to keep going back to the list and working on your other interests. That way, you won't stagnate.

This method helped me a lot a few years ago, when I was feeling kind of directionless and empty. After thinking over my priorities, I got into a new field of study that's been "the meaning of my life" since then. Maybe it'll help for you, too... and even if not, you'll have a nice list of your priorities in life, always a useful thing to have.
posted by vorfeed at 12:55 PM on December 11, 2003 [1 favorite]

I agree with jdroth. Don't bother about the meaning of life. I'm pretty sure there isn't one.

Just do your best to enjoy it. I do.
posted by ginz at 1:04 PM on December 11, 2003 [1 favorite]

A crisis is a great time to re-evaluate things, and gives you the perfect, outside-of-yourself perspective that can lead to real insight. But my advice is very simple:

Imagine the best life possible for yourself. Then work like hell to make it happen.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 1:36 PM on December 11, 2003 [1 favorite]

That is the source of all dissatisfaction: wanting something. You have to stop wanting things.
posted by mokey at 2:25 PM on December 11, 2003 [1 favorite]

Here are some tools that helped me decide about my own preferences and aptitudes. Good luck!
posted by iffley at 2:37 PM on December 11, 2003

Add: your goals, if you won't take the time to write them down: then youwill likely never accomplish them.
posted by thomcatspike at 2:38 PM on December 11, 2003

mokey: agree, long true happiness is not having all but being content with nil.
posted by thomcatspike at 2:41 PM on December 11, 2003

Don't bother about the meaning of life. I'm pretty sure there isn't one.
Life has no meaning but what you give it.
posted by dg at 3:08 PM on December 11, 2003

Knowing what you want is probably more difficult than getting it most of the time.

My only advice is not to confuse what you want with the following:

1) What everyone else wants for themselves
2) What everyone else wants for you
3) Doing what everyone tells you you're good at

Look for activities that leave you with more energy than when you started.
posted by scarabic at 3:23 PM on December 11, 2003 [1 favorite]

iffley, in one test I got ENTP, in the other ISTP. Which am I? Does it really make any difference?

In the end you have to do what you know you have to do. In my case I have had several careers, culminating in burnout as an IT manager at 39. I now work for myself, and manage to pursue my interests in music, web/interface design and even make some money out of them.

Who knows what the future holds - perhaps I'll become a conductor!
posted by cbrody at 3:55 PM on December 11, 2003

First of all, throw away the idea that this question can't be answered. The thing you need to decide is whether you can deal with the answer once you have it. What if the things you need to be happy and fulfilled are daily workouts and a PHD in math? In that case you've found out that to be happy to have to completely abandon most everything to pursue happiness. you also need to worry about finding that what you need is something you can't have. Most of us do not have the time, finances, or intellect to get a PHD in math.

So, you want the answer. You want to know what you *need* to be happy and fulfilled.

First make a list of everything that you think you need to be happy. Make it very long. Spend a few days doing it. Add things you've always wanted to do, things you feel you need, things you know will make you happy but seem impossible. Put it aside for a week. Then go back and add more stuff to it. Let it sit out of sight for another week.

Now start at the top of the list and cross out everything that is fleeting, and everything that will get you killed or put you in jail. Masturbation is fleeting, so is ice cream. Cross off masturbation and ice cream. Leave the things that are impossible. Put it aside for a few days. But think about it. What do you need? What makes you happy? What does it mean for you to be fulfilled?

Go back over the list and revise the entries. Add things you forgot. Change the wording to make the items more in line with what you've decided happiness means to you. So, on your list you might have "sunsets". Change that to, "Letting my worries drift off at the end of the day by watching the sunset." Combine items that really go together.

Set it aside again, and when you feel ready, start crossing things off the list. Your goal will be to end up with a list of ten things. The ten things that would you think would make you the happiest. Hopefully these will be things like a great job, or a wonderful companion, and not things like bunches of money, or lots of sex.

before you cross of any items that you think are impossible, think hard about whether you do indeed need it. If you truly need something impossible to be happy, leave it on the list. Put it aside, think about it. Come back and redo it if you need to.

Now change each item so that it reads as an action or an accomplishment. What will you need to do if sunsets makes the final cut? You'll need to maximize the opportunities where you'll be exposed to great sunsets.

Now you have The List. Don't show it to anyone.

Now just get yourself on that path. Start making decisions so that you're moving closer to the items on your list - The items you now know you need to be happy and fulfilled.
posted by y6y6y6 at 4:21 PM on December 11, 2003 [5 favorites]

Most days all I want out of life is a nice lunch.
posted by briank at 6:16 PM on December 11, 2003

Masturbation is fleeting

Sure it is, until the next time.
posted by wackybrit at 6:25 PM on December 11, 2003 [1 favorite]

Identify your values: what MEANS something to you?
Identify your happines: what makes you HAPPY?
Integrate the two -- find a career/avocation/job that is best aligned (not necessarily perfect) with those two things.

I like this, but I would add ...
Identify your talents: take stock of the talents you think you have, then ask a couple of trusted friends what they think your talents are. You will probably be surprised by some of the responses you get.
posted by whatnot at 9:24 PM on December 11, 2003

Look for activities that leave you with more energy than when you started.

Excellent! My consistently reliable gauge is, what makes me forget time?
posted by yoga at 6:33 AM on December 12, 2003

By that standard, MeFi is the meaning of life.
posted by fuzz at 8:09 AM on December 12, 2003

I have operated on a few simple principles for more than two decades now, with good success.

First, do no harm. Or as little as possible.
Second, do not suffer fools or Bad People. They will rob you of your life.
Third, make choices with an eye to minimize future regret. In other words, imagine you were on your deathbed looking back - live your life to make that old bastard as peaceful as possible about dying.
Fourth, learn and wander. We may or may not be hairless monkeys, but there is wisdom out there. It may be an evil world, but there is beauty. Find it.

There is no meaning -- in anything -- but what our minds create. To search for meaning is to make the same mistake as those who search for happiness : both meaning and happiness are mental constructs superimposed by your mind on top of the actual conditions of your life. Seeking them in externals will drive you mad if you're smart, or guarantee you failure if you're persistent.

In my humble.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:07 PM on December 12, 2003 [4 favorites]

« Older Getting Exercise   |   What does it mean to "eq" a recording? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.