While we all naturally want pleasure, there is something suspect about a lifestyle that is devoted entirely to its pursuit. Let us grant that Jack is truly happy with his Epicurean existence. There is no telling, though, how long those activities will sustain his interest. Part of the joy he experiences comes from the newness of his activities: He will be like Sisyphus pushing a gem-encrusted boulder up a hill, a task no less futile than pushing an ordinary rock. Further, the happiness that Jack does experience rests on a stroke of good fortune that may easily change. If his university cracks down on his laziness, he will have less leisure time for his hobbies.
If his ex-wife sues him for alimony, he will not be able to cover the costs of his activities. As he grows older, young women will be repulsed by his romantic advances. Thus, indulging in pleasure is not a stable road to happiness if it rests on so many factors beyond our control. Epicurus himself was restrained in the pleasures that he pursued. He lived on a small food diet, avoided luxuries, and strived for self-sufficiency. Thus, pursuing pleasure alone is no guarantee of a meaningful life, which Epicurus himself recognized.
Imagine that you are a captured soldier detained in a prisoner of war camp. Your captors, who are not particularly fond of the Geneva Convention, have provided you with grim and sometimes inhumane accommodations. Your cell block is unheated, your bedding is covered with fleas, your meals are unpredictable and, when they are served, the food is often rotten. About once a week you are interrogated by your captors, who psychologically intimidate you and sometimes beat you. You do not know how long your detention will last, or even if you will survive.
In these conditions, could you possibly be happy? First, you would have to condition yourself to ignore the physical harshness of your environment. Gathering all your mental strength, you might eventually get used to your cold room, unsanitary bedding and disgusting food. You would then have to accept that you are at the mercy of the unpredictable whims of your captors who can beat you and even kill you as they see fit.
Having no expectations at all about circumstances beyond your control, you might eventually be able to carve out some peace of mind. This is precisely the Stoic philosophy for achieving happiness. While life is not always as grizzly as a prisoner of war camp, sometimes it is that bad, and there is nothing we can do about it.
If we place our hopes in pleasures that are beyond our control, we will inevitably be frustrated and unhappy. The moral of the story is that we should learn to accept the life that is fated for us, and never reach beyond that. One of the great teachers of Stoicism was Epictetus 55— C. He offers a picturesque example to explain the Stoic solution. Think of life as a large banquet with many people sitting around a table waiting to be fed.
Starting at one end of the table, serving dishes of food are passed around, and guests take out portions onto their plates. You are near the end of the table and for all you know the serving dishes will be empty by the time they reach you. You should not keep glancing down the table in anticipation, Epictetus advises, but wait patiently for your turn. Better yet, he says, when a serving dish finally arrives, you should just pass it along without taking anything.
This is what our attitudes should be toward the things in life that we typically crave but which we can never count on, such as good jobs, a loving family, and luxuries. For this Stoic formula to succeed, we must learn to habitually distance ourselves from things that we desire, even when things are going our way. The goal is to acquire a constant mental state of detachment so that, in the event that circumstances sour, we will not be disappointed.
The Stoic path to happiness seems well suited for prisoners of war, slaves, and the financially destitute. It seems unnecessary to renounce all pleasures. Sometimes I will indeed be disappointed when a serving dish comes around empty, but this may well be counterbalanced by joys I will experience when another serving dish is full. For example, when hunting for a job, I will undoubtedly be disappointed if a company rejects my application, but I can reasonably expect that some company will eventually hire me, and it does not hurt to anticipate that with hope.
His Stoic recommendation is that we should emotionally distance ourselves from our spouses and children so that, when fate unpredictably tears them away from us, we will not be distressed. Here again, though, while the death of loved ones is devastating, it is nevertheless counterbalanced by the joy we receive from our attachment to them while they are alive.
This is an important joy in life that we would sacrifice if we followed his Stoic advice. Stoicism, then, seems to be an unnecessarily extreme and restricting avenue towards happiness, which we should adopt only as a last resort when things become overwhelmingly dismal.
One writer for the society skeptically examined the famed alien space craft sighting in Roswell, New Mexico. The real event, he explains, was simply a military balloon experiment, which decades later was transformed into a UFO legend. Those who hope to discover alien life are going to have to look where the aliens are -- which is if anywhere , somewhere else. Perhaps outer space would be a good place to start. By exposing the faults in controversial claims such as the Roswell incident, The Skeptics Society hopes to promote critical thinking and proper scientific inquiry.
The Society sees itself as following in a long skeptical tradition that began in ancient Greece, particularly the school of Skepticism founded by the philosopher Pyrrho — BCE. Pyrrho and his followers held that happiness is achieved through doubt. The sort of happiness that they envisioned was the mental tranquility that we experience when we suspend belief. When we hold extreme views, such as belief that aliens visited Roswell, we experience a mental disturbance, and we risk being pulled from one conviction to another.
If the aliens did appear there, what was their mission? If the government knew about the event, why are they covering it up? We quickly become tangled in a web of questions and concerns that do not have good answers. It is not only strange beliefs like this that disrupt us, but any strong conviction upsets our peace of mind when we hold rigidly to it, even the belief that the grass in my yard is green or that the table in my kitchen is round.
The solution, according to the skeptics, is to recognize that every belief is subject to doubt. The grass appears green to me because my eyes are constructed a specific way and light shines on it in a specific way.
God and Meaning
If these factors differed, then the grass would not appear green. So, I should suspend belief about whether the grass really is green. Skeptics argued that I should in fact suspend all beliefs that I hold, including those about the existence of God, external objects, and moral values. By doing so I will free my mind of the conflict that these beliefs produce, achieve mental tranquility, and become happy.
The skeptic is probably right that the more gullible we are, the more we set ourselves up for disappointment. By believing in UFOs, horoscopes or miracle cures, we go against respectable methods of inquiry and invite ridicule. If I persist in my strange beliefs, contrary to strong evidence against them, then I must brainwash myself in thinking that I am right and everyone else is wrong, which then separates me from others. There are two problems with this position.
First, suppose that the skeptic is right that even our most commonsensical beliefs can be called into question, such as the belief that the table in front of me is round. Commonsense beliefs like this may be beyond my control, regardless of how hard I try to suspend them. I am forced to act on the assumption that the table is round every time I place an object onto it or walk around it. Thus, while skepticism may succeed at the theoretical level, it is virtually impossible at a practical level.
Like Sisyphus, I can still be bored to tears with my assembly line job even if I doubt that the factory actually exists. Like Job, I can still suffer enormously if my family dies in a tornado, even if I doubt whether my family actually exists. We experience many painful emotions independently of our belief convictions, and skepticism has no solution for those. Some years ago a music festival was launched called Lollapalooza, which traveled the country attracting crowds of young people. Many of the musical groups were in the crude and abrasive Punk genre, often with instruments out of tune and vocals off pitch.
One band included a percussionist who grinded away on a chunk of sheet metal with an industrial disk sander. The festival was so successful that it became a yearly event and several non-musical performances were added, including a television-smashing pit. Most bizarre was a circus sideshow in which one performer ate broken glass, another impaled his cheeks with long skewers, and another lifted heavy weights from body piercings.
With its growing notoriety, Lollapalooza became a symbol for a growing youth counterculture that was frustrated with pointless social expectations and rebelled against established values. Many of our conceptions of human happiness are rooted in traditional social expectations, such as how we should dress, what counts as good music, what we should find entertaining, how we should view authority figures. These expectations are not only restrictive, but often misguided.
The social rebelliousness of recent youth cultures is in many ways an embodiment of the ancient Greek philosophical school of Cynicism. The aim of that ancient movement was to show contempt for traditional social structures and values, such as power, wealth and social status. A case in point is Diogenes of Sinope c.
As a young man, he was exiled from his home town for defacing coins, which were symbols of economic power and political authority. There is a famous, though fictitious story that Alexander the Great visited him to express his admiration. It is difficult to see how the benefits of the extreme Cynical lifestyle outweigh such self-imposed misery. Second, for more moderate cynics, what is edgy today becomes the convention of tomorrow. Rebellious perspectives on life quickly become fashionable — even commercially profitable.
The immediate impact of Cynicism in the ancient world was that writers incorporated its biting views of society into literary satire. This made for more interesting literature of the time, but its shock value eventually became less shocking. That must be discouraging for a true rebel. Third, both extreme and moderate Cynicism are overly negative approaches to life that thrive on publicly dismantling the accomplishments of others. It is hard to see how Cynics could be happy by continually having a chip on their shoulders.
Offering an occasional social criticism is one thing, but doing so as a way of life would be demoralizing for the critic, and very annoying for everyone else. For thousands of years, religious traditions around the world have taken on the task of explaining the meaning of life.
For whatever woes we have, there is some spiritual explanation that aims to redirect us. One of the more famous stories from both the Jewish Bible and Muslim Koran is that of Abraham, a nomadic herdsman who longed to have children in spite of the fact that his wife was infertile. Abraham agreed, he had his children as promised, and ultimately became the father of both the Jewish and Arabic people.
Conservative Judaism is a case in point. Reproduction is a way of achieving a type of immortality in the present world. I die, but my name, my legacy, and my family history live on through my children. Medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas argued that God implants instincts in human nature to help guide our conduct on earth, one of which is the drive to procreate.
A more secular understanding of this crucial urge is that it is the result of blind evolutionary forces which keeps animal species like ours from going extinct. Regardless of whether the desire to procreate originates from God or blind evolution, though, it is a fact of human nature that when we reach a certain age, we have a compelling desire to have children. When we succeed, we magically gain fulfillment and a larger sense of purpose beyond our individual lives. On the other hand, failing to have children sometimes results in a sense of incompleteness and, in old age, loneliness.
To combat this, childless couples often transform their pet dog or cat into surrogate children, and lavish love and attention on them to a degree that others find comical. Sometimes it works, other times it does not. So it seems that nature rewards us when we answer its call to produce offspring, and punishes us when we do not. First, having children invites a new set of miseries for parents. There are the constant worries about physical dangers to our children, from poorly designed highchairs to automobile accidents.
There is the endless battle to block the bad influences of sex, drugs and violence in the media and schools. There are the inevitable clashes with children during the terrible twos, the rebellious teens, and all years in between. We also suffer along with our children when they are harmed or upset, as reflected in a recent expression that parents are only as happy as their saddest child.
Marriages often suffer as a direct result of children, sometimes because of a decline in marital intimacy as privacy becomes impossible, other times because of fights over who should do which child-rearing chores. When things end in divorce, the presence of children can lead to vicious and all-consuming custody battles. It is an exaggeration to say that we gain immortality through our children who will outlive us by perhaps only 25 years. Our grandchildren might extend this by another Generations beyond that, though, will consist of people that we will never know, and who will have no memories of us apart from what is conveyed in a few faded photos.
Your genes may live on through your descendants, but they will become so diluted through successive generations that, even if your hair and eye color get passed down, nothing of your personality will survive. The illusory nature of this kind of immortality may become more evident when our children leave the nest, take on lives of their own and become almost strangers to us.
We are once again on our own to find meaning, this time, though, while our health declines and our friends die one after the other. Most faith traditions present some account of life after death. While the details vary, the core notion is that the essential part of my conscious identity survives the death of my body in a more perfect state of existence. I might exist in a three-dimensional form that resembles my current shape, but is constructed from a more flawless substance. Alternatively, I might exist as a purely spiritual thing that takes up no three-dimensional space.
In either case, the real me lives on after my body dies. The fact is that we never really do die. Upon the death of my body, my true self is released from its physical shackles and continues in another realm. I may not at first enthusiastically embrace the idea of physical death, which is understandable, like my reluctance to throw away an old comfortable pair of jeans for a new pair.
But when I fully grasp that my real self will be preserved through this transformation, my worries about death should fade. My efforts on earth are only a preparation for the world to come, and as long as I keep that in mind, life right now has a very clear and important point.
Next, life after death addresses the problem of cosmic insignificance. While right now I may be a mere speck in comparison to the unfathomable cosmos, ultimately the cosmos itself will die out while I will live on for eternity in heaven. From that perspective, it is the cosmos that will then appear to be a mere speck in comparison to the infinite duration of my life in the hereafter. If I suffer right now because of a bodily ailment like cancer, I am comforted by the fact that I will have no physical pain in the afterlife. If I suffer now because thieves have stolen my property, I can take comfort in the fact that the scales of justice will be balanced in the afterlife: If I suffer now because of the death of a loved one, I am comforted by the knowledge that I will see them shortly in the afterlife.
The apostle Paul sums up these benefits of life after death in a single sentence: What could be wrong with a solution that is so widespread? The first obstacle to the life after death solution concerns how strongly we actually believe in it. Let us set aside the issue of whether an afterlife realm really exists — a matter that is stubbornly resistant to absolute proof or disproof.
The more important issue concerns the level of conviction that the idea holds within us. Suppose that we passed a questionnaire out to all religious believers around the world with these two questions:. The Paris question would uniformly get a ten, but even among believers the afterlife question would not do as well. The idea of an afterlife is the kind of conviction that requires reinforcement on a regular basis, which is precisely what religious institutions do.
Sometimes it is, sometimes it is not. Suppose that you can get passed this first obstacle and you firmly believe in an afterlife, at least most of the time. Again, we must set aside the question of which if any religion is the true path. The more pressing question is how confident you are that you have picked the right one. Do you have nagging doubts that maybe the religious denomination across the street is a better gamble than yours? Further, most religions set out tough requirements for entrance into an afterlife — being morally upright, regularly following specific religious rituals, devotion to specific religious founders, earnestly believing a long set of doctrines.
Are you sure that you have done everything that required of you to gain salvation? While you might still enter the afterlife, a serious oversight might send you to hell rather than heaven. Insecurity about the fine print might burden believers with more unhappiness in this life, rather than relieve the worries that they already have about a meaningful life in the here and now. At best, the hope of life after death will have limited success in giving meaning to life, and, at worst, it may add to our earthly torment.
People of the earthly city are unhappy and experience despair since earthly notions of self-love are so distorted and misguided. On the other, there is a heavenly city which is a way of life that glorifies God and is ultimately achieved in the afterlife. This defines who they are, and gives a meaning to their lives which followers of the earthly city cannot experience. Upon leaving high school, every young Mormon man and woman is expected to serve as a missionary for two years, often taking them to the far corners of the world.
During this time they abstain from the leisure activities of watching movies, playing sports, and listening to popular music. Their single focus is to spread the message of God and baptize new believers. Through their devotion they become connected with a higher purpose which gives a special meaning to their lives. Regardless of the denomination, there are several common features that these religious missions exhibit, which make them larger-than-life experiences for believers. First, these are typically group-efforts among a community of believers, rather than simply isolated campaigns of individual people.
While theories about the nature and existence of God are a dime a dozen, not just any view of God will do. Leaders within these religious traditions formulate precise doctrines, and believers pledge exclusive devotion to them, thereby rejecting the views of rival religious groups. By embracing these sacred doctrines, believers see themselves as participating in a higher mission from God and not merely participating in routine human-created social activity.
Third, participating in this higher mission involves self-sacrifice. Yet, by enduring these hardships, believers feel a special accomplishment when they make progress. Like religious missions, these involve group efforts among like-minded people who are devoted to a specific higher calling and willingly endure hardship.
Some of these social causes are preserving the environment, eliminating poverty, defending political freedoms, ending minority oppression, or creating global harmony. Whether religious or secular, there is a serious price to pay when devoting oneself to a higher mission, namely, conformity. For a group to speak with a single voice, individual members must give up much of their private identities and follow the direction of the larger collection.
There is little room for dissenting opinions about the precise nature of the higher mission: Many believers are content to uncritically follow the directives of their traditions. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard argues that this is exactly as it should be. But for other believers, such conformity is not so easy. Ex-members of conservative religious groups regularly describe how restricting life was for them and how their leaders used various intimidation tactics to keep them in line. Their leaders, in turn, dismiss the disaffected members as mere trouble makers. Loyal members comply, outspoken critics are shown the door.
Religions of Eastern Civilization include Daoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and perhaps a dozen other traditions of varying sizes. In addition to these, though, we find solutions grounded in the more unique philosophical elements of the Eastern traditions themselves. We will look at only three highlights here. More precisely, it is the path of nature itself, which creates and guides everything we see. One day a prince stopped by to see his cook who was in the process of cutting beef.
Many years ago when I began cutting meat, all I saw was a large chunk of flesh, which I chopped away at. In time I noticed the natural crevices in the meat and, in a spirit-like manner, allowed my knife to glide through them with ease. By doing this I avoided tough ligaments and large bones. An ordinary cook changes his knife every month because he hacks.
A good cook changes his every year because he cuts cleanly. Picture a stick floating down a river. When it bumps into a rock, it does not bash its way through the obstruction; instead, it gently moves around it and continues down its course. Daoism has a range of specific recommendations for how we should tend to our lives. For example, we should abandon needless rules of law, morality, and etiquette and instead spontaneously follow the simple inclinations that nature has implanted in us. When we are hungry, nature will direct us to acquire food.
If other people are hungry, nature will direct us to assist them. We should even avoid expanding our knowledge through study since this will obstruct the wisdom that nature has already placed within us. By following the Dao, our entire social environments will be transformed.
Gone will be the hustle and bustle of big cities, our reliance on intrusive technology, and the endless conflicts between each other. We will instead live more tranquil lives in natural surroundings, and work more directly with nature to meet our immediate needs. If I become gravely ill, I should recognize this as part of the natural cycle of things from growth to decay. The prospect of dying itself should not agitate me since from my raw elements nature will bring forth new life in the continuing cycle of birth and death.
By understanding and experiencing the Dao, I see my place in the natural course of things, yield to its power, and peacefully accept whatever happens to me. It is hard to be critical of a philosophy whose central theme is to return to nature, which is an intuition that resonates within many of us. But Daoism relies on an extreme conception of human nature that is difficult to accept.
Let us grant that humans are products of natural forces and we are ultimately at the mercy of natural cycles of growth and decay. Still, humans come into existence with very few natural inclinations to guide us through life. Our survival skills have been honed through thousands of years of trial and error, and passed down from one generation to another.
Without this pool of acquired knowledge to draw from, even the simplest task of finding our next meal would be insurmountable. Our actual lot in life does not seem to be as passive as Daoism suggests, and any happiness we experience must be achieved while we aggressively acquire the knowledge that we need to survive. He encapsulated his position in Four Noble Truths. The first truth is that life is suffering. From the moment that we are born until we die, everything we do involves suffering — physical pains, emotional traumas, endless frustrations and disappointments.
The second noble truth is that the source of all suffering is desire. We crave almost anything that might bring us pleasure, including sensuality, personal opinions, cherished traditions; and these yearnings become so intense that they rise to the level of addictions. The third is that the cure for suffering is the elimination of desire. If suffering is caused by desire, then it stands to reason that by eradicating desire we thereby end suffering. The fourth is what he calls the eightfold path , which is a series of eight techniques for eliminating desire.
The specific paths involve the proper cultivation of our understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. Buddha modeled the Four Noble Truths after the method used by physicians of his day for treating illnesses, namely, identify the disease and its cause, determine whether it is curable, and then prescribed the cure. Virtually all of Buddhist philosophy and theology is an extended commentary on the Four Noble Truths.
CHAPTER 1: THE MEANING OF LIFE
But it is the third truth, eliminating desire, that concerns us here. Extinguishing our desires, though, involves much more than losing our various cravings: I must lose my individual identity and even my self-consciousness as a distinct being. As long as I experience life in the usual way, I will be tainting everything through my private, self-indulgent identity. By eliminating my identity, I eliminate all the suffering that I have created through my desires. There are questions about this solution, though, which Buddhists themselves raise.
As long as I remain alive, I will always be experiencing my self-identity. It seems strange to say that the goal of life is to be completely annihilated through death. Second, while most Buddhists feel that nirvana can be achieved while we are still alive, the concept of nirvana-in-this-life is almost impossible to describe, and very difficult to achieve.
I myself feel and also tell other Buddhists that the question of nirvana will come later. There is not much hurry. But if in day to day life you lead a good life, honestly, with love, with compassion, with less selfishness, then automatically it will lead to nirvana. Opposite to this, if we talk about nirvana, talk about philosophy, but do not bother much about day to day practice, then you may reach a strange nirvana but will not reach the correct nirvana because your daily practice is nothing.
In short, nirvana is shrouded in mystery, and the best I can do is follow the recommended paths for achieving it, while closing my eyes to what nirvana actually is.
The religion has many different gods, devotional practices and philosophies, which believers can freely select from, kind of like a religious a la carte menu. Rather, it offers four distinct goals of life, which people should embrace in varying degrees during different periods of their lives.
The first goal of life is pleasure in its assorted emotional and physical forms: One of the more infamous Hindu writings, the Kama Sutra , is actually a handbook on sexual activity, vividly describing dozens of techniques. We are naturally inclined to pursue pleasures, and in their proper setting it is fully appropriate for us to fulfill our desires. The second goal is material success. Like pleasure, we are naturally inclined to acquire wealth and power, which not only keeps us from being impoverished but gives us a sense of accomplishment.
The goals of pleasure and material success are most fitting for younger couples who are raising families. As we mature, we embrace the third goal, namely moral harmony , which helps regulate our desires for pleasure and success, but also sparks our social responsibility towards other people. The fourth goal is religious enlightenment where believers become spiritually released from the constraints of human life and attain ultimate happiness. This final goal is best pursued when our family responsibilities are behind us and we can go off in seclusion and practice meditation without distraction.
There is nothing particularly original with any of these four goals individually. The unique insight of Hinduism, though, is that we are complex creatures who change over the years, and there is no single goal that will give us meaning at every stage of our lives. But this is precisely what many philosophers have done. In keeping with Hindu tradition, perhaps we should approach the meaning of life as we would an a la carte menu: While Hinduism suggests four specific ones, each of which is an excellent menu item, we could add all of the other solutions that we have discussed so far, Greek, Western religious and Eastern religious.
If I ever become a prisoner of war, then I might want to pick the Stoic option of resigning myself to fate. If life becomes too frenzied for me, I might want to pick the Daoist option of following the way of nature. The point is to seek a solution that best addresses a specific life circumstance or problem. While the subject of the meaning of life is philosophically interesting in its own right, there are three larger lessons that it teaches us about the subject of philosophy.
First, this subject is a good introduction to the various fields of philosophical exploration. Furthermore, meaningfulness is actualized through positive functioning, satisfaction with life, the enjoyment of work, happiness, positive affect and hope. Meaningfulness can also be translated into physical health and a generalized well-being. Social exclusion results in a perceived loss of meaningfulness in life. Furthermore, the four needs for meaning sense of purpose, efficacy, value and sense of positive self-worth were found to be mediators in the perception of meaningfulness of life.
When an individual thinks themself to be socially excluded, one's sense of purpose, efficacy, value, and self-worth are all indirectly diminished. Recent systematic reviews addressing meaning in life found that higher meaning in life is associated to better physical health in general,   lower distress among cancer patients,  and higher subjective well-being in China. A study found an association between the discovery of meaning and a lower rate of AIDS -related mortality. When confronted with the stress of such a death those men, who were able to find meaning in the loss, were subject to less rapid declines in CD4 T cell levels.
Furthermore, the subjects who went through cognitive processing in response to the bereavement were more likely to find meaning in the death of the close friend. Thus in experiencing a stressful life event if one is able to engage successfully in finding meaning there is a potential link to positive immunological benefits and health outcomes.
A happy life and a meaningful life are strongly correlated attitudes. According to a research, living a meaningful life is one of the several enduring pathways to happiness. Yet, the role a person adopts in the relationships makes an important difference. A meaningful life is associated with positive functioning: Psychological adjustment in the event of a stressor has been linked with meanings finding whether in the form of benefit seeking or making sense of the loss.
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Based on systematic reviews, there are various promising therapies and interventions that focus on increasing meaning or purpose in life. Many of these interventions been created for patients with advanced disease. While there are benefits to making meaning out of life, there is still not one definitive way in which one can establish such a meaning.
Those who were successful in creating a meaningful life enjoyed benefits such as higher levels of positive affect, life satisfaction, etc. It is with a meaningful life that one is able to find connections to people, places, things and leave a mark on society; it renders a good life a meaningful one.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Oxford handbook of positive psychology 2nd ed. Handbook of positive psychology.
The Journal of Positive Psychology. Retrieved 1 April Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. Birth and Death of Meaning: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Problem of Man. Free Press of Glencoe. The stories we live by: