Meaning in life

Frank Martela, a Finnish philosopher and psychologist, has written a book entitled A wonderful life. Insights on Finding a Meaningful Existence. In the book he addresses questions such as: "Is life about finding happiness?" and "What can the basis for meaning still be in a time when religion is less and less the self-evident framework?" He invites the reader to think differently about meaning and comes up with some simple ideas for experiencing meaning.

The reflective person asks why

Martela explains that we distinguish ourselves from other animals because of our great capacity for reflection. Reflection is the ability to look at ourselves and our lives from a third person perspective. Instead of reacting directly to what is happening, we can step out of the situation and think about what is happening. We can think about the past and make predictions and plans for the future.

This great reflective capacity has enabled us to do and build all kinds of creative and smart things. It has also meant that we can ask ourselves the why question. This is the question of justification. The type of question: "What's the point of all this?" or "Why am I doing all this?" Answering these questions can be tricky.

The enchanted world is losing ground

In the past, the answers to these types of questions were dictated by a solid cultural framework. Martela quotes the sociologist Max Weber as saying that the world was enchanted in the pre-modern era. The existence of gods and spirits was not experienced as a belief but as a certainty. Everything that happened was interpreted through the lens of a supposed divine plan. The meaning of life was seen as a given.

Martela argues that science arose from religion. The goal of scientists like Kepler and Newton was to understand God's plan. But with the rise of science, religion gradually began to lose its omnipotence. Logic and empirical research led to answers that increasingly replaced religiously prescribed answers. The child (science) began to suffocate the parent (religion).

An example: René Descartes used radical doubt as a method of proving the existence of God. But, says Martela, his method included a time bomb. Using logic as a means of proving God, Descartes placed logical reasoning above God. If logic could be used to prove the existence of God, it could also be used to disprove His existence. And many began to do so.

Gradually, the influence of religion in the world has diminished and is diminishing further. Everyone is increasingly used to the separation of church and state, to the existence of religious diversity and to the existence of agnosticism and atheism. And believers and non-believers alike rely heavily on scientific explanations for how the world works.

How, then, can we answer the why question?

With the loss of the cultural framework of the enchanted world, we are faced with the task of finding answers to the why question ourselves. This turns out not to be so easy. We now know that as human beings we are pretty insignificant in a sense. We have come to understand the relativity of our existence from the perspective of the vast size of the universe and from a historical perspective. Moreover, we know that we will all die and many no longer see the existence of an afterlife as realistic. From these perspectives you might think that everything is temporary, meaningless and random.

Happiness is not a good cause

Martela argues that since the 1960s many people in Western societies have come to see happiness as an individual goal and an individual responsibility. Happiness has become a cultural norm and a natural goal in life. This cultural norm is reinforced by all kinds of messages in the media and in advertising that constantly remind us that we should be happy. Martela recognizes that it is nice to feel happy, but he says that striving for happiness has downsides and is not a good answer to the question of meaning.

He begins by saying that happiness is not the obvious goal as people in other parts of the world and in other eras do not see / saw happiness as the main goal. He also says that striving for happiness can be counterproductive. Because wherever you are in life, you always realize that more happiness would be possible. This can undermine your ability to enjoy what you have. A focus on your own happiness can also damage your social relationships. Furthermore, being happy as a cultural norm can make it more difficult to get through life's tough moments. In our society, feeling unhappy can become a double burden: you feel bad and you feel guilty for not living up to the cultural norm of being happy.

Martela states that we are complex and that we care about much more than being happy. Happiness can be seen as a by-product of achieving something valuable instead of that which is so valuable in itself. And the intrinsically valuable is valuable even if it is not accompanied by luck. Even being unhappy for making a great effort or making a sacrifice for something very important to you can give you a sense of meaning.

Meaning IN life

Martela proposes that we should not try to answer the general question of what is the meaning OF life. Meaning revolves around the individual experience. From a universal, non-human perspective, human life has no meaning. Only from our own individual perspective can there be meaning.

He explains that finding meaning in your own life is easier than it may seem. To feel like your life is worth living, you need to focus on activities and goals that you find worthwhile because you think they are fun or important, that you use and strengthen your skills, that you connect with other people and build intimate relationships and that you mean something to other people. The basic needs from self-determination theory can be recognized in these recommendations. This is not surprising, since Martela himself is a researcher in this field.

We shouldn't see life as a project, but as a story. Seeing life as a project makes life instrumental. Its value is no longer in its life but in what it achieves. Instead, you better see your life as a unique story, in which you derive meaning from how you deal with what is happening. In that sense, life is like music. We enjoy music while it is there even though we know the music will eventually stop.


Coert Visser said…
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► Recent research suggests that the experience of meaning in life (MIL) consists of three components: mattering (feeling significant), purpose (pursuing meaningful goals), and coherence (experiencing order and understandability in one's life). Within this model, the feeling of significance has previously been understood as 'cosmic mattering', the idea that you are important on the scale of the universe. This new research adds another dimension: 'interpersonal mattering', the feeling of being important to other people.

The studies indicate that this sense of interpersonal significance has a significant impact on MIL, alongside the influences of cosmic mattering, purpose, and coherence. An experimental study showed that enhancing someone's sense of interpersonal significance leads to an increased feeling of MIL. This underscores the importance of interpersonal relationships and the feeling of being valued by others as essential contributions to experiencing a meaningful life, equally important or even more so than the feeling of significance on a universal scale.