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What’s The Meaning Of Life? 4 Ways Out Of Your Next Existential Crisis

Arthur Worsley
by Arthur Worsley
M.A. Psychology, Oxford. McKinsey Alum. Founder & Editor at TAoL.

The primary driving force in us all is a search for meaning. With meaning, we flourish; without it, we struggle at every step. Why? Because motivation requires motive. And the absence of motivation is a direct route to boredom, darkness and depression.

For thousands of years, thinkers have agonised over an ultimate ‘why’: Why do we exist? Why are we here? What does it all mean? Though seductive, it’s a path of mental gymnastics with two inexorable outcomes: that (a) ‘life is ultimately meaningless’ or that (b) ‘the meaning of life lies beyond our (human) comprehension’.

The good news for us practical folk is that neither outcome matters. In fact, a deep sense of personal meaning doesn’t require the existence of some grand prime-directive at all.


The Best Answers are the Simple Ones

How so? Because it turns out that our minds and bodies are happily energised by any combination of sufficiently convincing ‘whys’ – from the simplest (eating, drinking, going to the bathroom) to the most complex (defending freedom, raising a family, taking humanity to Mars).

Of course, not all ‘whys’ are equal. Some ‘whys’ have greater staying power – if our sole ‘why’ was to empty our bladders, we’d have a lot of existential vacuums to cope with between bathroom breaks. And whilst some ‘whys’ sit largely within our control, other ‘whys’ are more prone to the outside winds of fate and fortune.

But if we’re so easy to please – and motives are so plentiful – why does it sometimes feel so hard to get out of bed in the morning? How is it that we lose track of ‘why’? What is it that holds us back from seizing the day, every day?


The Trouble With Motives

In an ideal world, we would enjoy a strong and steady supply of endless motivation. A clear and compelling cognizance of why things are the way they are, of what is best to do and why to do it. And sometimes life does feel that way. We glide unstoppably through a few hours, days, weeks or years. Powerful, purposeful and resplendent in the mastery of our own destinies.

But then disaster strikes. Perhaps it’s a life-altering accident, a failed relationship or a mid-life crisis. Perhaps it’s empty-nest syndrome, a failed investment or even getting everything we’ve always wanted. All too suddenly we find ourselves eclipsed by an unexpected black-out. We step into a motivational void – perhaps moments, perhaps decades-long – that empties us of meaning and robs us of drive and momentum.

The problem with motive, it transpires, is not availability. It’s consistency.


Four Complementary Paths to Meaning

So what’s the answer? To tackle this problem, I’ve spent the last decade or so distilling a unified approach from the thoughts and writings of many great thinkers. I call it the REAP model – and it consists of four complementary paths to meaning:

  1. Reactive Meaning: Meaning through values;
  2. External Meaning: Meaning through people;
  3. Active Meaning: Meaning through purpose; and
  4. Passive Meaning: Meaning through understanding.

The secret? Though each path can provide an ample and sufficient source of personal meaning at any one time, it is the conscious combination of all four paths together that creates a fail-safe of consistent meaning and motivation over time.

I’ll be expanding on the ‘whats’ and ‘hows’ of each path in a series of upcoming articles. For now, here are some brief definitions:

1. Reactive Meaning: Meaning through values

From love, kindness and patience, to industry, excellence and integrity – our values, and the order we prioritise them, are the fundamental principles that pilot our behaviour.

Their great strength? Our values, once defined, lie totally within our control. They are the ‘whys’ that steer our actions when our choices are too many and the ‘whys’ that guide our reactions when our choices are too few.

2. External Meaning: Meaning through people

External meaning is the ‘why’ we get from dedicating ourselves to the happiness and wellbeing of others. It is the ‘why’ that powers parents, the ‘why’ that upholds sacrifice and the ‘why’ that spurs on service to a need beyond our own.

At its heart, external meaning is a manifestation of love. We can always choose love; its work is never done and its light is a constant companion to our thoughts and words and deeds.

3. Active Meaning: Meaning through purpose

Our current purpose is whatever goal we are focussing on right now. When working well, it provides us with a sturdy sense of immediate meaning.

But purpose’s variables are often beyond our control, it must constantly be redefined and kept moving to stay alive and it can frequently tangle itself in unsolvable knots. As we all soon discover, mastering its capricious complexity is a lifetime of work.

Our current purpose can be big (like curing cancer) or it can be small (like finding our next meal) or it can be a small thing that’s part of something bigger (like eating so we can get on with curing cancer). At some point, it can even lead us back to the other three paths of REAP.

In any case, purpose is the ‘why’ that answers the question – ‘I’m doing this now because I want to do or have…’.

4. Passive Meaning: Meaning through understanding

Passive meaning is a vicarious ‘why’. A ‘why’ that comes not from understanding our actions on the world, but of their consequences and beyond.

Why does it rain? What are they saying? Why did Harry meet Sally? What caused them to fall in love?

Sometimes we earn these ‘whys’ through learning. We combine data from our own and reported experiences, steadily building ever more complex models of the world around us, trying to distil order and rules in its chaos.

Sometimes we find it in worlds beyond our own, immersing ourselves in understanding the motives and narratives of others, losing ourselves in the pre-digested causality of story-telling.

Whatever the source, passive meaning is the ‘why’ that comes from connecting the dots, from watching A lead to B lead to C, from looking at the world and saying ‘I get it’.


Four Paths, Three Choices

But how do we choose and live by our values? Or love our enemies as we love our friends? How do we define and move towards our goals? Or begin to decode the complex world around us?

For each path, we face three choices:

  1. Don’t think about it;
  2. Get someone else to think about it; or
  3. Roll up our sleeves and work it out for ourselves.

I’ll expand on the implications for each path in their own separate articles. But let’s briefly consider our choices below:

1. Don’t think about it.

This is absolutely a viable option. All of us have implicit versions of these paths already worked out. Many of us lead mostly happy and meaningful lives without ever considering them explicitly. But there are three reasons you may want to reconsider:

The first is if you currently feel bored or depressed. In this case, a dose of meaning is exactly what you need. Not convinced? Ask yourself what you have to lose. At the very least you’ll have something interesting to think about for a few hours.

The second is as an insurance policy. Life is full of instances where once solid pillars of meaning crumble abruptly beneath us. Some thinking now, while the going’s good, may just keep you afloat – especially if you or your loved ones begin to stumble.

And the third? Better decision making. Conflicts between our values, emotions, purposes and perception can fast become major sources of friction and strife. A clear perspective on each path now can help us foresee and avoid decisions that might otherwise take years of discomfort to detect and diffuse.

2. Get someone else to think about it.

This is also a perfectly viable option. In fact, religion and philosophy have flourished for millennia by offering precisely this service. Over thousands of years, some of humanity’s greatest minds have sought to explain the universe or define and refine their own ‘just-add-belief’ templates of values and purpose. Their thinking has not only laid the foundations of modern civilisation, it has also brought purpose, meaning and community into the lives of billions.

Of course, they’re not always perfect – particularly where institutions and egos get involved. But for those of us short on time and happy to overlook some anachronistic quirks there are worse options to consider. At the very least, there’s a huge amount to learn should we decide to plump for option…

3. Roll up our sleeves and work it out for ourselves.

Working it out for ourselves isn’t about trying to reinvent thousands of years of human thought. Working it out for ourselves is a compelling path that starts with a single: ‘Why?’ And ends on the shoulders of giants, straining for a view of what makes us tick.

It can be as simple as jotting down a few values and resolutions at the start of each year; or as complex as a life-long journey of questioning, learning, building, testing and tinkering. In any case, a small amount of conscious and occasional thought around each of REAP‘s four paths can quickly deliver surprising rewards.

Not sure where to start? Not to worry; I’ll be covering some of the best tips and tools I’ve gathered from hundreds of hours of reading in the series of articles ahead.


A New Kind of Universal Meaning

In reality, the best solutions will likely be combinations of the choices above. You might adopt the values of a religion or philosophy but decide to define your own unique purpose and goals; or dedicate your life to the goals of your community, company or country but do so with a moral code defined on your own terms.

As a good friend once told me, ‘being human is complicated’. But the REAP model reminds us that a life of meaning and purpose is something accessible to us all. You don’t need to be a poet, priest or philosopher; you don’t need to be a saint, celebrity or CEO. Instead, finding deep fulfillment can be as simple as staying true to your principles and being there for the people around you.

Even so, there will always be times when our values are questioned, or when we lose someone we love; there will always be times when our goals are frustrated, or when we just can’t make sense of the world around us. The REAP model reminds us, even in the roughest of seas, that the best course does not always lead directly through the storm. It reminds us, even when everything seems lost, that there are always more sources of strength at our disposal. And it reminds us, even when life gets complicated, that there is always an answer to the question ‘Why?’

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