How To Live A Meaningful Life
“The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not? That is the telling question of his life.”
The answer to this question for those who came before us was clear.
It was an emphatic yes.
For with a God, our connection to the infinite was obvious.
With this relationship, a set of beliefs and values were laid out that made ‘knowing what to do’ with your life very obvious.
But with the advent of science, the existence of a God in the sense that many Western traditions define one has evaporated for most.
And with it, the guidance on how one should act in the world.
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”
When Nietzsche announced the death of God, it wasn't a joyous proclamation; it was a fearful declaration that we had left ourselves without direction in the world.
“What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving to now? Where are we moving to? Away from all suns? Are we not continually falling? And backwards, sidewards, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an up and a down? Aren't we straying as though through an infinite nothing?”
His response was that to reorient ourselves in the world, we would need to ‘become God’s‘ and invent our own values to give us direction and meaning in our lives.
But maybe we do not need to invent new values.
Maybe we just need to discover the ones already within us to orient ourselves in the world.
Direction And The Ideal
To have a direction in life, we must have something to aim at, to orient ourselves.
For each of us, it will be an ‘Ideal’.
An ideal version of who we are, or more specifically, who we might become.
And it is the movement toward that ‘ideal’ that gives us a sense of meaning.
A meaningful life is the constant process of ‘becoming who you are’, of moving closer to that ideal.
Values are our conception of the ‘ideal’.
They are an idea about what an ideal world or life is. They align us with who we are and what we are about.
To define that ideal is to define one’s values.
This is to ‘Know Thyself’ in the words of Socrates.
The problem is our concept of the ideal; our values have become blurred.
Not because we have poor values but because our deepest values have become obscured.
We know this. And we suffer as a consequence.
As Charles Bukowski says:
“Can you remember who you were, before the world told you who you should be?”
It is clear that having ANY values is better than having no values.
A life of no values is a life of nihilism.
A life in which there is no meaning.
But, not all values are created equal.
Values can be divided into two categories1:
Extrinsic values are based on rewards and praise. That is, the value comes from outside of the activity or external from you.
Think Money. Status. Fame.
These concepts are pursued as a means to another end.
Money, status and fame are pursued to obtain other gains.
The value does not lie in the concept, e.g. money; it lies in what the money can get you.
Intrinsic values are ways of orienting yourself in the world that allow you to do activities or make choices that are intrinsically satisfying to pursue.
The value or goal arises in and of itself. Not as a consequence of a secondary gain.
Intrinsic values mean prioritising aspects such as:
Personal growth. Autonomy. Doing the right thing. Helping others.
The value accrues from within these concepts themselves and not because they can be leveraged for added gain.
The intrinsic values examples I use are just samples, and they will be different for each person.
‘Becoming who you’ are or orienting yourself toward an ideal means pursuing your own intrinsic values.
The problem is that “extrinsic values shout, and intrinsic values whisper.”
And our modern world is screaming at us to prioritise external values over internal values.
The research shows that pursuing extrinsic values over our intrinsic values leads to a significant reduction in well-being.
Meaning Over Happiness.
An added challenge is that when we pursue or achieve our extrinsic values or goals, we typically experience happiness.
But this sense of positive emotion is often fleeting and hollow.
The cheap rush of dopamine leaves us yearning for ‘more’.
Pursuing intrinsic values can be deeply satisfying but is often associated with pain and suffering.
But these feelings are often associated with deep feelings of meaning.
When we look back at our lives, we recall the times that were often the most challenging as the most meaningful.
“One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.”
More than happiness, we need meaning.
It is in the pursuit of our intrinsic values that we will find meaning.
It is in the chasing of our extrinsic values that we will discover temporary shallow ‘happiness’.
But how do you find your intrinsic values?
The first thing to realise is the modern world is a deluge of extrinsic value priorities.
Swipe. Consume. Repeat.
Wonder why you do not feel fulfilled?
Remember, extrinsic values shout, and intrinsic values whisper.
We cannot escape the modern world but must give ourselves space to listen to those whispers.
There are things you know that you don’t yet know.
You know that name on the tip of your tongue, but you cannot recall it until someone says it, and you respond, “Yes! That’s it!”.
Intrinsic values are like that.
Deep down, you know.
And when you encounter those values, you deeply resonate with them.
Pay attention to that.
As Alan Watts says: “What would you do if money were no object?”
Those are your values.
Of course, money is an object for all of us. But paying attention to what you discover here is the gold of your intrinsic values.
Give yourself uninterrupted time and space—a luxury in our modern world.
Go for a walk in the woods. With no phone. No music. No podcast. No headphones.
As Nietzsche says: “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”
I can guarantee you the probability that you have recently given your mind uninterrupted time to think for a sustained period is low.
Give yourself space. And listen.
There are things you know that you don’t yet know.
But they will announce themselves to you.
The problem is that what you hear will scare you.
Remember, intrinsic values often signal pain because they hold us to our highest standards.
We know that we are not yet all we could become. Yet.
And we feel its judgement because it is our own.
However, as the American Monastic Thomas Merton wrote:
“What you fear is an indication of what you seek”
It is when you do what you fear. And maybe even encounter suffering by doing so that you will find meaning.
And maybe if you do it long enough and often enough, you will reach a point in life where the question of ‘What is the meaning of life?’ begins to fade.
And there is just your life.
As an honest expression of who you are.
Always moving towards who you might become.
That is how you live a meaningful life.
Further Examining the American Dream: Differential Correlates of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22(3), 280-287.