The Meaning of Life: How to Make One

What is the meaning of life?

You’ve probably heard this question before. You’ve probably asked this question before.

This page will tell you how to find an answer. Really.

Finding meaning in life is not hard. Actually, we all make meaning out of our lives, every moment of every day. The real question is, how do we do this, and how can we do it more consciously and beneficially?

How do we make meaning?

The short version: meaning comes from stories, stories come from values (your compass), and generalizations (maps), and generalizations come from facts. Now let’s break this down.

Stories

The meanings of our lives come from the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

The components of a story are

  1. Characters
  2. A beginning
  3. A middle
  4. An end

In your personal story, these elements are

  1. Who are you? (Your identity)
  2. Where do you come from?
  3. What are you doing now?
  4. Where are you going?

Values: Your Inner Compass

What ties all of these elements of a story together are values. The implicit question that’s missing from the list above is “Why?” A story takes a series of events and shines the light of value upon them. Values tell us why it’s important that we get from where we came from to where we’re going.  They are a compass which provides a reliable reference point for navigating your life, regardless of calm or stormy seas.  Without a compass to point to True North, maps are useless.

To explore your values, go to our lesson on What do you value and why?

Maps (Generalizations)

The world is huge.

It has lots of things in it. Each thing has some kind of relationship to each other thing. That’s a lot of lots of relationships (no, that’s not a typo).

Your brain is small.

There is no way you can fit all these things and relationships in it.

Here’s a video about just how much we don’t know about the Universe:

So, if the universe is so much bigger and more complicated than your brain, how do you understand the world? By generalizing. By making a map out of the information about the world that you get from experience.

But the fact is, any map inevitably leaves stuff out. In fact, that’s what makes a map useful. It’s also why we have different kinds of maps for different kinds of uses.

If I want to know the contours of the landscape, I’ll look at a topographical map. If I want to get around a city, I’ll look at a street map (OK, I’ll use my GPS, but that’s a more awkward analogy, so just go with me on the map thing.) It would be hard for me to get around a city with a topographical map, and it would be hard for me plan a cross-country ski trip with a street map. Having topographical contour-lines on my street map would actually make it less useful, because I’d have to distinguish the contour lines from the streets. We can’t say a contour map is a bad map because it doesn’t show streets, or that a street map is bad because it doesn’t show contours. But we also can’t expect one type of map to tell us everything we want to know about the territory.

Two questions we can ask about maps we encounter are:

  1. What is this map useful for and what is it not useful for?
  2. Does it match the territory I’ve seen?

To answer the second question, we need to check the facts.

Facts

Facts are the unglamorous foundation for all of the above. Maps are based on observations about the facts of a landscape. If those observations are wrong, then the map won’t tell you about real dangers or treasures that are there to encounter.

If your map is inaccurate, you might not get where you’re going, or worse yet, you might think you’re doing something that furthers your values, when in fact you’re doing something that goes against your values.

It is possible to live a meaningful life that is divorced from the facts. But ask yourself, would that really be OK with you?

If not, then you must always be willing to revise your maps and your stories when you learn new facts, and to check the facts you’re given.

When we find the facts that a given generalization are based on, we can ask:

  1. Are they true? Can I find a credible source to back them up?
  2. Are there enough of them to justify the generalization?

Questions

  • What is your story?
    • Who are you? (Your identity)
    • Where do you come from?
    • What are you doing now?
    • Where are you going?

    You may have more than one answer to these questions. Most people live many stories at once.

  • Where do your various stories about yourself come from? Your parents? Your teachers? Movies and TV? Do any of them seem like they come from you?
  • Which of the stories make you happy? Which make you unhappy? Why?

What’s Next?

Comments

  1. ramon says

    Another way that we make meaning is through shared experience, work and applied creative energy. Maybe projects and Experiences could be a section here.

    ~Ramon

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