People say we should find meaning in our lives, but how?
There is a lot of talk today about finding meaning, and I won’t argue with any of it. If you haven’t read Victor Frankl or Daniel Pink, you should: a life with all the riches in the world but without meaning is a life suffered. However, I think there’s a problem: the advice we’re given is to do whatever it is we are intrinsically motivated to do, and though that’s all the advice a lot of people need, there are lots of people for whom this isn’t enough guidance at all. They don’t know what they want. They don’t know what they are intrinsically motivated to do. And so their suffering can almost get worse by learning about the importance of meaning. If they didn’t know they needed a meaningful life and didn’t do something meaningful, that would be bad, but now they know they should live a meaningful life and aren’t, and that’s worse.
So how do you find meaning? Well, obviously people find different things meaningful to them, so there’s no general answer, but I’d like to suggest a different question you can ask yourself to help you if you’re stuck. Instead of asking “What do I find meaningful?” ask yourself “What do I find beautiful?”
A life that sees nothing as beautiful is a life without meaning. As a corollary, a life that is better trained to witness and observe beauty is a life that will have more meaning. It’s not by chance that both beauty and meaning are in the eye of the beholder.
Ask yourself: when you were in the presence of beauty, did you wonder if life had meaning? I’m not necessarily talking about while studying a work of art or while reading Camus — “art” and “beauty” are not similes — I’m talking about when you really beheld something beautiful. Think about that time: maybe it was when you won a State Championship in wrestling or when the family was all together for Thanksgiving or when you saw a certain sunset or when you finished a movie or finished reviewing a masterfully designed argument. Maybe it was when you finished planting your garden or finished a workout or walked to the mountains or spent the afternoon working on a car with a neighbor. Did life feel like it had meaning? Did life feel joyful and worth living?
“Beauty” might sound like a funny word to associate with a workout, but I’m not asking if it’s a funny association in general — is it a funny association to you? Imagine some of the most precious experiences in your life or things you do daily or get-togethers with friends. Now, going through each memory one by one, ask yourself “Is that beautiful?” Don’t ask “Was that meaningful?” because everything has meaning (the word “cat” means cat, for example, while a tree means a seed sprouted) — that question is too vague. Instead, ask about beauty: go through your life, think up different moments, and keep asking the question “Was that beautiful?” It is precisely because the question can feel odd that it can be useful: the question “Was that meaningful?” has become too common and so lost its power. Fortunately, questions of beauty have the same scope and range, for everything can be potentially beautiful, and so everything can be potentially meaningful.
What you find beautiful is what you don’t merely find meaningful, but what you find deeply and personally meaningful. That’s what you want. Not just meaning, but an “ultimate concern” (as Paul Tillich would say), and asking yourself about what you find beautiful is going to give you a much better chance of figuring it out. Perhaps this is why so many artists and creatives seem to have meaning in their life: beauty is a natural component of their lives, and meaning logically follows from this focus.
Whatever it is you find beautiful, go do more of it, and increase your ability to see beauty in that thing. Learn about it. Study how it is made and the process. Find out about the history. Find others who find it beautiful too. Do more of it. Dive in deep. And the deeper you dive, the more your aesthetic sensibilities will improve. And the more beauty you can take in, the more meaning you’ll find in your life.
(Do note that there is no guarantee that what you find beautiful will match up with your career options. If you are a lucky person who can start a career in what you find beautiful, more power to you, but I personally had to choose a job instead of a career in order to have time to do what I found beautiful and meaningful. Jobs provide more flexibility than careers, but they also can provide less pay and status. However, if you’re able to make time for what you find beautiful and meaningful, that will actually fill your job up with beauty and meaning, for it will feel it has a point of helping you make time for what matters to you. Though my jobs have lacked meaning directly, they have indirectly felt meaningful.)
Society today emphasizes finding meaning in life but not beauty, which means it emphasizes a location but not the road to it. As a result, it can seem random those who find meaning and those who don’t. Personally, I increasingly feel like meaning is something that the more directly you look for it, the harder it is to find. It’s like waiting for water to boil. The more you try to find meaning, the more difficult it becomes to feel like you have it. However, if you just move toward what you find beautiful and increase your capacity to see and create beauty, one day you’ll just find someone asking you “Is your life meaningful?” and thinking “Yes.” Meaning just kind of appears — it’s there.
Sure, feel free to ask yourself “What do I find meaningful?” — it might work for you — but if it doesn’t, don’t lose hope. Instead, ask yourself, “What do I find beautiful?” This might be the question that finally breaks the ice and helps you figure out what you should do. So if it helps, think of meaning as something found more by “looking at” versus “looking for.”
Why not ask “What is fun?” Couldn’t that and similar questions help? As I’m sure many of us have discovered, the problem with “fun” is that if that’s all something has going for it, it feels shallow and like a distraction from the reality of meaninglessness. However, experiences of beauty make us feel like there is something bigger out there than ourselves (that isn’t dependent on our nervous system), like transcendence is possible. Even if ultimately subjective (we can’t be certain either way), it doesn’t feel arbitrary, but deeply purposeful. It shifts our focus from asking “Am I happy?” to “Am I living for something more?” Certainly, transcendence can entail happiness, but the life ceases to be a question of pleasure and pain. Instead, life becomes a question about if it all adds up, and if I’m spending each day helping it all add up.
Meaning is something found indirectly more than directly, while beauty is the thing we can directly approach and seek without losing it. This is because beauty is something we can recognize as beautiful much easier than we can recognize something as our ultimate concern. It’s much easier to wonder if the Grand Canyon has meaning then it is to wonder if it’s beautiful — after all, we can see it — and yet if we find it beautiful, it’s meaningful too.
We just know what’s beautiful when we see what’s beautiful to us, and sure, maybe some people can just know what their meaning is in life. But for most of us, we know beauty before we know meaning, and if we recognize that beauty is the road to meaning as opposed to something unrelated to it, we’ll know what to do to live a meaningful life. We’ll try to walk down a road to arrive where we want to go instead of stand in place and think about our destination. We’ll seek beauty, which we’ve likely already found but perhaps left behind or stopped pursuing. Meaning is usually more of a return than an odyssey, but if we must start a new journey and seek new experiences, we’ll know to look for beauty instead of meaning. We’ll finally have the right guide.