“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.”

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

“What’s the meaning of life?” is an outside-in approach that’s so broad, it dares to include all of humanity. As if there could be one meaning of life for everyone.

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The question assumes that if we just knew the “meaning of the universe,” then we’d have a higher purpose to align ourselves to.

My approach wasn’t working for me. So I used a clarifying heuristic:

Generics hide; specifics reveal.

By hiding behind a generic statement, I was giving up personal responsibility. Shouting into the echo chamber of the universe.

To get specific, I had to personalize the question:

What is a life of meaning…to me?

Now THAT is a more interesting question. I had it backwards the whole time.

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Asking “ what matters to me?” shifts this focus inside-out.

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This requires us to examine our values and decide what’s personally meaningful to us.

These are some of the things that give my life meaning:

  • Deep and wide-ranging conversations
  • Building new memories with loved ones
  • The enjoyment of food. Coffee, ice cream and tacos, anyone?
  • 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
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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?”

If you’re in an existential funk (hello 2020!), I hope these thought exercises help center you, as they have for me.

So I’m not going to ask “what’s the meaning of life?” anymore. I’m going to focus my energy on questions like:

  • What gives my life a sense of meaning?
  • What doesn’t matters to me?
  • What do I want to create?

It’s called personal development and not everybody’s development.

So I’m going to subscribe to personal meaning instead of universal meaning.

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

But we get to decide what matters.

Other notes

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?

  • Lifestyle — 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
  • Dating — I’ve gone through single periods swiping endlessly, and it was a colossal waste of time. I want meaningful relationships.
  • Work — 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.

Originally published at https://ozchen.com on September 19, 2020.

Writing about personal finance OzChen.com and UX Design on UXBeginner.com

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