Some people seem to spend their whole lives dissatisfied, in search of a purpose. But philosopher Iddo Landau suggests that all of us have everything we need for a meaningful existence. According to Landau, a philosophy professor, people are mistaken when they feel their lives are meaningless. The error is based on their failure to recognize what does matter, instead of becoming overly focused on what they believe is missing from their existence. He writes:
To my surprise, most of the people with whom I have talked about the meaning of life have told me that they did not think that their lives were meaningful enough. Many even presented their lives as outright meaningless. But I have often found the reasons my interlocutors gave for their views problematic. Many, I thought, did not pose relevant questions that might have changed their views, or take the actions that might have improved their condition. (Some of them, after our discussions, agreed with me.) Most of the people who complained about life’s meaninglessness even found it difficult to explain what they took the notion to mean.
In other words, Landau thinks that people who feel purposeless actually misunderstand what meaning is. He is among many thinkers over the ages who’ve wrestled with the difficult question, “What is a meaningful life?”
Reframing Your Mindset
For those who feel purposeless, Landau suggests a reframing is in order. He writes, “A meaningful life is one in which there is a sufficient number of aspects of sufficient value, and a meaningless life is one in which there is not a sufficient number of aspects of sufficient value.”
Basically, he’s saying meaning is like an equation—add or subtract value variables, and you get more or less meaning. So, say you feel purposeless because you’re not as accomplished in your profession as you dreamed of being. You could theoretically derive meaning from other endeavors, like relationships, volunteer work, travel, or creative activities, to name just a few. It may also be that the things you already do really are meaningful and that you’re not valuing them sufficiently because you’re focused on a single factor for value.
Landau argues that anyone who believes life can be meaningless also assumes the importance of value. In other words, if you think life can be meaningless, then you believe that there is such a thing as value. You’re not neutral on the topic. As such, we can also increase or decrease the value of our lives with practice, effort, action, and thought. For a life to be valuable, or meaningful, it needn’t be unique. Believing that specialness is tied to meaning is another mistake many people make, in Landau’s view. This misconception, he believes, “leads some people to unnecessarily see their lives as insufficiently meaningful and to miss ways of enhancing meaning in life.”
He notes too that things change all the time: We move, meet new people, have fresh experiences, encounter new ideas, and age. As we change, our values transform, and so does our sense of purpose, which we must continually work on.
You Are, Therefore You Matter
Some might say that Landau’s being simplistic. Surely there must be more to existence than simply assigning a value to what we already have and thinking differently if we fail to recognize purpose in our lives. It can be disconcerting, perhaps, to have such an easy answer. And detractors might argue that nothing can matter, given the immensity of the universe and the brevity of our lives. But this assumes our purpose is fixed, rigid, and assigned externally, and not flexible or a product of the mind.
The Question is the Answer
There are other approaches, too. Casey Woodling, another professor, proposes that the question of meaningfulness itself offers an answer. “What makes a human life have meaning or significance is not the mere living of a life, but reflecting on the living of a life,” he writes. Pursuing ends and goals—fitness, family, financial success, academic accomplishment—is all fine and good, yet that’s not really meaningful, in Woodling’s view. Reflecting on why we pursue those goals is significant, however. By taking a reflective perspective, significance itself accrues. “This comes close to Socrates’ famous saying that the unexamined life is not worth living,” Woodling writes, “I would venture to say that the unexamined life has no meaning.”
Mystery is Meaning
Instead of reflection, a deep understanding of the essence of existence is mysterious. We, like rivers and trees, are part of “the way,” which is made of everything and makes everything and cannot ever truly be known or spoken of. From this perspective, life isn’t comprehensible, but it is inherently meaningful—whatever position we occupy in society, however little or much we may do. Life matters because we exist within and among living things, as part of an enduring and incomprehensible chain of existence. Sometimes life is brutal, but the meaning is derived from perseverance. The Tao says, “One who persists is a person of purpose.”