“What’s the meaning of life?” is a backwards question

Every once in a while, I’ll fall into an existential funk and ask myself.

What is the meaning of life?

That question never gave me a satisfying answer. All it did was make me realize “Oh, I’ve fallen into an existential funk.”

Asking “what’s the meaning of life?” is broad and directionless…

an open-ended question with infinite directions.

It’s a framing so broad that it dares to include all of humanity, as if there could be one meaning of life for everyone.

I found this heuristic clarifying—

Generics hide; specifics reveal.

(I’ve now written an article about the above heuristic).

By hiding behind a generic statement, I was abdicating personal responsibility. Effectively, throwing up my hands to the wind, shouting into the echo chamber of the universe.

To be specific meant that I had to personalize the question:

What is a life of meaning?

Now THAT is a more interesting question. I had it backwards the whole time, and should’ve flipped the script.

Meditating on what gives my life meaning puts the ball in my court. I get to decide.

These are the things that give my life meaning

  • Building new memories with loved ones
  • Deep and wide-ranging conversations
  • Enjoying food. (Coffee, ice cream and tacos)
  • Expressing what feels true to me. Often through writing.
  • Feeling like I matter to someone else 
  • Feeling like I made in impact in someone’s life

Reading this list, it occurred to me that what matters to me are also things I’m grateful for.

Maybe the shortcut through “what’s the meaning of life?” is to simply ask another question: “What am I grateful for?”

Another way to side-step “the meaning of life” question is to try a deductive route:

What does a life without meaning look like? What doesn’t matter to you? 

  • I like nice things, but I don’t really need the nicest things. If anything, the idea of having really nice things – let’s say a luxury car – just stresses me out
  • I don’t care to date endlessly. I’ve been through that phase before and it was fun for me at a time, but if I were single, I’d see endless swiping as a colossal waste of time. I want a meaningful relationship. 
  • I enjoy work, but I don’t think I have the capacity to be a workaholic. Something about “work hard play hard” doesn’t capture how I feel. I want to work and play with flow.

Having these thought exercises center me.

“What’s the meaning of life?” Is an outside-in approach.

It’s thinking that there’s some broad meaning for the universe, and if we just knew the answer, then we’d know how to align our lives to that higher purpose.

Asking “what matters to me?” shifts this focus to inside-out. We meditate on our own experiences and decide what’s personally meaningful to us.

It takes examining our values. It can be messy and chaotic.

They say “be the change you want to see in the world.” So it’s going to take work.

That’s why they call it personal development and not everybody’s development. That’s why I subscribe to personal meaning versus universal meaning.

And if our personal experiences happens to align to some higher purpose, great.

But we get to decide what matters.

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