After having lived a long life of content and peace, Bilbo Baggins in JRR Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” sets off for an adventure that redefines who he is completely. Hobbits, as a species pride themselves for being quiet people of the Shire who don’t like adventure and yet when Gandalf the wizard proposes that Bilbo joins a party of dwarfs seeking treasure from under a fiery dragon’s nose, Bilbo decides almost instantaneously and sets off towards danger and uncertainty. While these things may seem to happen more in fiction, we know that they do happen in real life as well. The question we have to ask is why – why would someone settled in life want to undertake a risky adventure like this, propel himself towards sure danger rather than safety?
Could it be the way to answer humanity’s eternal questions about the meaning of life? Why am I here? Do I have a purpose? What does my life mean? Who am I? What’s our place on this earth, in this universe? What is the ultimate truth? These are questions that that are as old as human-kind itself. These questions have been alive and hot for centuries or probably for millenia without any definitive answers, for such is the illusive nature of search for meaning of our lives.
Only recently, at an orientation session with a batch of new teachers at my school, when the floor was opened up for an Ask Me Anything session, this question came up: what is the meaning of life? And my immediate answer was 42.
Avid readers of science fiction will recognize this as the “can’t be more outrageous” answer to the search for meaning in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. An advanced civilization is interested in the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything, for which they approach a supercomputer called Deep Thought, which in turn builds a computational matrix that turns out to be “Earth”. The answer thrown up after a few million years of running this experiment is 42.
The whole book being a laugh riot, the answer 42 too is intended to be a joke on humanity’s obsession with finding the answer to the ultimate question, which may well be the search for meaning. The search probably started with individuals and small groups, but organized (and disorganized) religion complicated the matter glaringly. Religion or religious figures have, through the ages, attempted to monopolize this obsession by capitalizing on centuries of turmoil that humanity has gone through. Steven Pinker in his book Enlightenment Now: the case for reason, science, humanism and progress, demonstrates with multiple facts that despite what many people might believe, the world is a much safer and prosperous place today that it has ever been in the past.
But it has taken millenia for us to come this “golden era” and during the intervening period, the search for meaning has been at times obfuscated and at times driven by questions such as – Why I am suffering or why is family suffering? Why is there suffering at all? Why did this happen to me? Are people good or bad? Why do people die? What will happen to me when I die?
Organized religion often turned this quest for meaning insidiously into a quest for salvation, nirvana, a magnificent afterlife and other such concepts recognizing rather pragmatically that reality itself was too hard to bear or change. Religion further decreed that clearly that your life must therefore be dedicated to God and God’s work as that’s the only way to find the answers to the big questions in life. So for some service to God became their life’s objective – in practice, that often looked like serving the needs of the those in charge of organized religion (although in many cases service to God has been in serving the genuinely needy as well). For these people, that this dedication meant prosperity and power for them was just one convenient byproduct among the “many other sacrifices” that they were themselves willing to make in the name of God.
The question begs itself as to why an omnipotent God, the maker of this grand universe needs serving from insignificant humans. But the path to progress and enlightenment has been a slow one and by no means a complete one. So religion has and continues to find it’s allure among the masses as the sole provider of the answers to the ultimate questions of life, the universe and everything. When religion tells you with certainty, what’s right and wrong, what you should do to make sure that you get to heaven or nirvana or the promised glorious afterlife, then the search for meaning seems much easier. But let’s step out of that comfort zone to look at what this search would look like beyond religious domains.
The quest immediately gets tougher with no authority in place to tell you exactly what your life should mean. Where do you even start to look for meaning? An immediate reaction might even be that if there’s no higher being, eternal truth, then what’s the point of life? And in some sense that’s true. Without religion, there might well be no meaning of life, at least, no meaning that’s laid out externally for you. Some might even despair and say that doesn’t that mean that there’s no point of living.
Viktor Frankl is his book, Man’s Search For Meaning argues convincingly that he could find life worth living even in the direst of circumstances in the Nazi concentration camps where most of his family were killed, where so many were being worked to death, or just put to death directly in the gas chambers or indirectly through starvation and disease. He says that while the world outside can take all your freedoms from you, but no one take control what’s inside your head and that’s where you can choose what life means to you – whether it’s just the realization that life itself is precious or the love and affection that you find in relationships, or a mission that you choose that makes your life worth living, even if you can’t do anything about today.
Having established that it’s possible to find meaning without directions from religion, and even in the direst of circumstances, the next question that needs to be addressed is:
Who searches for meaning? Is every human searching for meaning, or is it restricted by some factors? Intuitively, for people who are struggling to make ends meet, the concerns of life are far more pragmatic than the search for meaning of life. The Maslow’s need hierarchy seems to be a relevant guide in this matter.
Pyramid of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs
(Image source: Commons, Wikimedia)
Philosophical musings are much harder to come by when hunger, disease, hygiene, lack of shelter, child care, persecution, physical safety are at stake. If you are living in Syria circa 2017-2018, questions of survival through the civil war are far more pertinent even though questions of the nature of life, or the meaning of suffering, may crop up, but a sustained effort to answer the “deeper” questions of life is just isn’t possible physically, mentally or emotionally. While someone like Viktor Frankl could do it under dire circumstances, but we must remember that Frankl was a physician and therapist before going being incarcerated and therefore the pyramid of needs would look different for him as they would for statesmen such as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi who despite long periods of their life in jail, were prolific thinkers and writers.
So for those working really hard to make ends meet, questions of philosophy are not going to be priorities. Similarly there would seem to be other conditions under which it would be difficult to undertake this spiritual pursuit of a non-religious nature, such as when:
- you are physically or mentally incapacitated yourself
- you’re taking care of someone who requires all your attention – although that itself can and does become meaning of life for some
- you’re undergoing some trauma due to abuse or a loss of a loved one
- you are caught up in the race of meeting materialistic goals such as X sum of money, or buying a certain kind of a house or car
- you are consumed with power games – whether at home, or at work such as in politics
- you are completely under the influence of a religion or any sort of cult that tells you that it’s only through them that you can find meaning in life
Considering that the above list is by no means an exhaustive list, we could conclude that it doesn’t leave a lot of seekers out there, making it a seem like a rather esoteric or even a hedonistic pursuit. But that conclusion would be rather premature. An interesting episode comes to my mind:
I happen to know a bunch of ladies, mostly housewives who got together to form an NGO that helps students of municipal schools in their education through direct and indirect interventions. When such a group does good work and that too consistently, it also becomes a genuine community of people with a common interest who also care for each other. An evidence of this care was when a bunch of them undertook a 1 day 1 night journey by plane and train for Surat to Chandigarh to visit a community member whose mother was ailing from cancer. What was their reason? To bring joy to their friend and her family even if it’s just for a day. Apart from the fact that it shows that these ladies are rich without day jobs that they need to go to, the more important point is that it’s their search for meaning through connection which they have formed through a common purpose. Connecting to each other, and helping each other grow and be happy is just as important than helping the school kids. That’s how they are seeking to add meaning to their lives other than running their households and other responsibilities that they have. This is the search for meaning through connection and through making a difference in other people’s lives (or contribution).
This example also reminds me of the groups of rich senior citizens who travel the world post retirement because that’s what the most meaningful pursuit that they can think of considering that work is over, children have grown up, and what’s the point after all of having worked so hard all those years, if the money is not going to be used before they die or become too old to travel. However, I would like to draw a distinction between this sort of travel with the one above because of the lack of any defined purpose or outcome.
A similar distinction can be drawn with youngsters who take a gap year before college or work to travel the world (this happens more in in the west than in the east); these youngsters aren’t just traveling to become global citizens for the sake of it, but are traveling to widen their understanding of their world and more importantly they aim to discover something about themselves that they aren’t yet sure of, whether it’s their vocation or their nature, or it’s overcoming a set of social paradigms or painful growing up experiences. Of course, this sort of travel is by no means restricted to youngsters; chronological age itself in immaterial. This is the search for meaning through self-exploration of roles and identities.
Running and cycling has picked up in India, a positive sign as it keeps people healthier than leading just a sedentary lifestyle which most of us today lead. However, there are those who go beyond running a few kms or cycling for 20-30 min. There are those who move on from half to full and then even to Ultra-marathons (50k+) in exotic locations across the world. There are those who go on big cycling tours through coastal Karnataka and Goa or even to Leh-Ladakh. Or consider those who take up trekking or mountaineering or such adventure or extreme pursuits rather seriously. Clearly this goes beyond the basic health need, in fact in some of these cases, the extreme challenges lead to injuries. On top of the fact that a lot of money is spent on the gear, traveling, boarding, nutrition, preparation and so on. To me this sort of quest also becomes the quest to find meaning in your life. Sure, it’s the more crazy sort of stuff – but then who am I to judge. After being very active physically for 7 years during my college years, I had stagnated physically from 2004 onwards despite the fact that I had time. In 2009, when I made my mission statement, I realized that I need to get physically active to be able to work towards my mission statement. I decided to do so by challenging myself by preparing and then running half-marathons (one on which is the featured image of this post), which I did over the next 3-4 years with a personal best of 1:52 at the Sabarmati Half-Marathon.
What’s decidedly more crazy, is that that I play Ultimate Frisbee, a game barely played by 3000 players in India, twice almost every week and attend 5-6 tournaments in addition. In Surat, despite our efforts, we haven’t been able to recruit players other than those who go to school, which means I am more than double the age of all the players except 2-3 others. Of course, my justification for this level of involvement or craziness is that it keeps me motivated to remain fit, and while that’s a valid reason, I believe my pursuit, as are the others mentioned in the previous paragraph, are largely the search for meaning in life through challenge and accomplishment (and not achievement, accomplishment is internally defined, whereas achievement is often defined externally).
Then there are those who seek to find meaning in the work that they do. The typical Indian reading this piece will know that the holy grail of lakhs of middle class students is the pursuit of an IIT-IIM degree followed by a cushy job. There’s this gentleman I know, who indeed after an IIT degree, and a MBA from a top US B-School, was working with a top consulting firm in the world when he realized that his calling was somewhere else. He then packed his bags from the US and moved lock, stock and barrel to study Sanskrit, the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas in an ashram near Coimbatore for 5-7 years after which he moved to Surat to share his learnings through whatever means possible. He runs a Sunday Gita class open for anyone interested as well as finds other opportunities to share his learnings. He also does consulting work alongside to ensure that he has a steady income, but there wouldn’t be much doubt as to how he defines the meaning of his life. Similarly, there are others who are passionate about nature and do a lot of work in preserving wetlands, or green areas or flora and fauna. This is the search for meaning through your passion.
Although each of the types of search mentioned above applies in each of the cases, I have mentioned the more prominent type that applies for each of the examples above. For e.g. a lot of running groups also become communities which connect beyond the roads, but their primary motivation is to challenge themselves to do more, both physically and mentally. Further, I don’t think that I would have covered all the types of search for meaning, but most other pursuits of meaning would fall into one or more of these categories. Being a part of club such as Rotary or Lions or a community-based association which does both social work and fraternizing also adds meaning to a person’s life through connection (howsoever tenuous that connection might be) and in varying amounts by making a difference to other people’s lives.
For e.g. parenting when taken up as a very conscious pursuit rather than just meeting the societal norm or just a matter of how things flow in general (which is the case with most of us), is a pursuit that definitely gives meaning to such people, as a search for meaning through connection (a related question that I want to explore in another post is why is it that we have children?).
While we have looked at situations that show evidence of a search for meaning in life, let’s also take a look at examples which while seeming so, may not actually be the pursuit of meaning in life. What criteria might we use to understand which pursuits are genuine search for meaning and which ones aren’t? Does the amount of satisfaction or motivation that one derives from a pursuit define it’s worth? Is the length or consistency of a search shows it’s worth?
The most obvious pursuit that people whose basic physiological and safety needs are met is the pursuit of specific financial and material goals. Yet a lot of these people are also the people who dream of retiring at 40 (or 50 or 60 or whatever). If the pursuit of a financial material goal in itself was satisfying enough, then it’s not likely to put your off, or put you under permanent stress and is therefore an unlikely candidate for a way to build meaning in your life. There’s nothing wrong with these pursuing these goals in itself as they are in some ways necessities for a better life (house, health, education, vacations, entertainment etc.) for self and family. However, it seems that neither the pursuit of the financial / material goals, nor the work itself behind it that’s ensuring the earning, is meaningful enough to be counted as a search for meaning. These pursuits seem to lack either challenge or accomplishment (of an internally defined nature) or passion or connection or making a difference or more depending on the work that you actually do and how & where you do it.
What about the fellows with a slight to a large paunch who get together every weekend to watch cricket matches or formula one races or binge watch a Netflix series or have the “quintessential boys poker night” or club or pub or indulge in other such “hedonistic pursuits” rather religiously? Clearly the intention of these is entertainment. For e.g. I watch Sci-Fi, action and animated English movies either with a group of friends or else with my son and his friends (age appropriate like the Marvel movies or the Incredibles). Common sense would tell us that such activities can at best be about connection, and the other attributes of meaning are mostly missing. Even these connections would be rather tenuous as they tend to be shallow emotionally rather than the deeper caring sort of bond.
What about playing a board game at home with the family? Connection possibly – but only when backed up by care shown through words and actions, being there when needed and other aspects necessary to hold together a family. The familial part of life can be a foundation stone for the search for meaning in life, but it alone may not be enough for most people especially during their active work years. The same holds true for hobbies and other pursuits such as running, cycling, playing sports or mountaineering mentioned above. They too can add a significant amount of meaning to a person’s life, but can’t alone give complete fulfillment simply because most of us spend most of our waking hours working.
This implies that somehow we must work towards finding meaning in the work that we do. Some of us may have the talent, the courage, the opportunity, the stability to make our passion our work, or making thereby finding meaning in our work in large parts (even when pursuing your passion, there will be small to large parts of it that will be unappealing work from any individual’s perspective). Perhaps sportspersons, entrepreneurs, musicians and travel bloggers would fall into this category. However, the reality is that the large majority of humanity doesn’t have much of an apparent or real choice but to do the work that they find rather mundane or boring. And for those who aren’t driven any longer by financial goals, the work can especially become a big drain on us, both mentally and emotionally.
One option is pursue hobbies or activities that will challenge you or build connection and make a difference in other’s lives. But if we must spend so much of ourselves in doing what we do, isn’t there a way to find meaning in our work?
Let’s turn to the concept of Flow that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi narrates in his book, Flow, the psychology of optimal experience, or how to achieve happiness. In the numerous studies that he and fellow researchers did all over the world, they interviewed people from all walks of life to understand when are they happiest; those experiences of when they are happiest was coined as “flow experiences” by the author. You would find the more expected flow experiences such as sports, arts, music, playing chess, rock climbing, reading. But there were also examples of flow experience from people doing far more mundane stuff.
One such story is of one Joe Kramer, a welder who worked in the 1960s in a railroad factory in Chicago, US. Despite not taking up multiple promotion offers, Joe was happy with his work and was also valued as the most important member of the factory by not peers and supervisors because over the years he mastered how to do the job of every person in the workshop. He was always ready for challenges whether there was a problem with complex machines or he was required to take up someone’s else role. In addition, he built an intricate rock garden with rainbows and fountains next to his house by solving problems after problems on his own. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls such a personality as an autotelic personality, or someone with the ability to create flow experiences even in the most barren environment – an almost inhumane workplace or a weed-infested urban neighbourhood.
If you think about it, young children who aren’t dulled by excessive screen time (TV, mobiles, computers, video games etc.) are by nature autotelic personalities – they find flow experiences in mundane games and activities rather easily, but they seem to lose the ability as they grow up due to poor pedagogical practices and “worldly” expectations of success. What this however means is that all of us have the inherent capability to build flow experiences even in the most mundane stuff that we do – whether work or household chores (although the latter might be a big stretch if you know what I mean).
So if you are going to do mundane work, then to find meaning in it, you need to convert as much of it as possible into flow experiences. How might you do so? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi lays out the following ideas:
- Challenge yourself to do better for the sake of doing better; hone existing skills or learn new ones where needed; build new systems for higher productivity; build your interpersonal skills; mentor someone;
- Get in control of your work and time by setting goals for yourself (in alignment with the organizational needs)
- Move to roles or take on tasks that you find intrinsically rewarding
- Make systems that will ensure that you get honest and immediate feedback on your work, whether from yourself or from peers or supervisor, and then accept that feedback and improve
You may ask – is it possible build flow-like experiences in every role and job? Probably not in every role, but in most jobs. However, if you find after all your efforts that you still aren’t able to build flow-like experiences, then reevaluate whether you are in the right career or company in the first place.
A word of caution here – it’s important to understand that activities that build flow experiences don’t all lead to meaning, although they may very much be engaging. For e.g. I find reading a flow-experience where I can lose sense of time and am completely engrossed. However, does it mean that if I could read all the time without worrying about work or anything else, I would also find meaning in it? Not likely. Despite finding the activity itself engrossing, reading for me won’t meet these conditions in a significant or consistent manner:
- Meaning through self-exploration of roles and identities
- Meaning through connection with people, whether family, friends or a community with common interests
- Meaning through challenge at a personal level or a professional level
- Meaning through accomplishment (defined internally)
- Meaning by contribution or making a difference in the lives of others (big or small)
Someone might be very contented in what they do and how they do it meaning that there’s no or very little difference between their aspirations and the reality. However if that’s not the case for an individual, then not every flow activity will lead to building meaning. On the other hand we have established earlier that not everyone can be or wants to be a seeker. So how might you know if you are searching for meaning in life?
The lack of contentedness in life with status quo seems to be a strong indicator to be ripe to begin the search for meaning for an individual. A need to show the world and yourself who you are or what you can really do could be another. The need to accomplish something significant, or to make a difference in other’s lives could be another. If you are one of those who have one of these bugs, then you may have these questions:
How do I go about finding meaning in my life?
There are no fixed ways, but an excellent start would be to explore in greater detail what you already know you are interested in. But if you still want to dig deeper, then death is great tool. Well not literally but hypothetically whereby you imagine your own death . Take up these two scenarios:
- What if you knew you were going to die in 24 hours? What are those things that you need to do that you have been procrastinating? Who are those people who you would really want to speak to, ask for forgiveness, give forgiveness, express your gratitude to? What are those things that you wish you would have done?
- Imagine you have died after living a long life. At your funeral, 5 people from different spheres of your life are going to say a eulogy for you. What would you like them to say about you?
Are there some necessary conditions that I need to meet before I set out on this quest?
The fact that some people choose the search for meaning through unconventional careers and callings even before they pursue financial goals even when their income may not be fixed or miniscule shows that courage seems to be a prerequisite. The courage to pursue what you find meaning in. Willingness to learn and to change seems to be another necessity without which you wouldn’t be able to change status quo. The willingness to work hard towards whatever you find interesting would probably complete the prerequisites.
Are seekers better off than others in some way?
Are they spiritually higher in the ladder? Difficult to define spirituality only in terms of the search for meaning, as there are many other aspects to it. Is there a financial / social advantage? Au contraire, seekers often forgo financial and social standing, at least to start off with. So basically, if you want to start seeking because someone else is doing it, or because you expect some definite gains, then this quest is perhaps not the right one for you; the drive for this quest has to be from intrinsic rather than extrinsic.
When will this quest end?
Quoting Richard Bach: “Here’s a test to find out if your mission on Earth is finished. If you’re alive, it isn’t.”
The search for meaning is dynamic and fluid. It will change with time, with circumstances, with you understanding yourself better. Perhaps because we speak of finding the purpose of our life, we think that we have but one purpose, but that’s not likely to be the case. There can be more than one purpose to your life. Famous amongst those who have a successful second innings is the famous chef and cookbook writer Ms. Julia Childs. She began her career by serving the Secret Intelligence division in the US Navy for quite some time, before she published her first and famous cookbook, Mastering the art of French cooking, at the age of 49. My favorite example is Mr. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who started off his career as a lawyer, but realized that his calling was activism which he pursued for 21 years in South Africa. Only at the age of 46 did he set foot in India to lead the struggle for Indian independence in what you could almost call his 3rd innings.
More recently, although pursuing the same career, Serena Williams seems to have taken up excelling at tennis post-motherhood as a personal challenge as well as to send a message to the world, that even new mothers can excel at a physically demanding sport. While she may have been a highly motivated tennis player before her maternity break seeking to break barriers, her purpose might be different now – something that adds a new dimension to her search for meaning in life, which clearly isn’t driven by money or grand slams because she already has a lot of both of them.
Of course, what motivates you may or may not be a part of your search for meaning. As we’ve seen, motivation to achieve a financial goal or a worldly status is not likely to be driven by a search for a meaningful life. However, a search for meaning itself is almost always going to be motivating you do take action consistently and to challenge yourself. To me more than anything else, the fact the search for meaning itself makes life so much more meaningful and satisfying is enough to recommend to anyone who’s been able to get to the end of this rather humongous but I hope meaningful post 🙂
But before you embark on our quest for meaning of life, I will leave you with a hypothetical question:
Imagine that you were living in an utopian world where you didn’t have to work to make a living and that all of society’s big problems were solved, and on top of that that you were immortal? How would that change how you define the meaning of life?
A shorter version of this post was used as for a TEDx talk: transcript available here