This my final (at least for now) post on this subject. I will attempt to pull together thousands of years of diverse thinking on the subject and distill what I think are the major themes that point toward the meaning of life.
I am not going to review my previous six posts on this subject here although I will reference some of their substance. I am also going to assume readers of this post have read the previous six posts. This post may be able to stand on its own but that is not one of my objectives in writing it.
Most of the theological, philosophical and scientific thinking we have reviewed has noted that in life we experience:
- Good and Evil, with the Good being desirable and the Evil not desirable
- Pleasure/Comfort and Pain/Suffering, with Pleasure/Comfort being desirable and Pain/Suffering not desirable
There is also a fairly consistent sense of striving or reaching toward:
- the Good; away from Evil;
- Pleasure/Comfort; away from Pain/Suffering;
- achieving our potential;
- achieving knowledge and wisdom;
- having control over our lives;
- being happy.
This striving is evident in the Eastern religions/philosophies that stress the accumulation of good karma to reach the point at which one can break free from the pull of earthly desires and the cycle of birth and rebirth and achieve enlightenment.
The striving is also evident in the Abrahamic religions and philosophical traditions in which our behaviors in this life are reflected in an afterlife of either happiness in association with a good God and other good souls, or an afterlife separated from the good filled with anguish that we did not use our time on earth as wisely as we might have.
Setting a religious focus aside, we have seen the striving occurs at both individual and collective (family, tribe, civic, societal, humankind) levels. While we may begin to seek out the meaning of life by looking at ourselves in the mirror, it doesn’t take a great deal of reflection to sort out that we need to look for the meaning of life in the lives of all sentient beings. We are all in this life experience together and in very real ways we depend on each other for food, shelter, clothing, security, love, intellectual stimulation and most of the other fundamental aspects of life. We cannot advance our own personal interests in a good way – in a way that makes us truly happy – without taking into consideration, and acting on, the advancement of the interests of others as well.
So what is it that makes us “happy”? In my youth, I was taught that the answer to the question “Who made you?” was “God made me.” The next question was “Why did God make you?” to which the approved answer was: “God made me to know, love and serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him forever in the next.” Now leaving aside the role of my parents in my creation and the question of whether or not I was to be allowed any happiness in this life, it is instructive to note that my anticipated state in the next life (assuming appropriate behavior in this life) was: Happiness. And this was not the “Smiley Face” or “Don’t worry, be happy!” kind of happiness; this would be an unbounded joy the likes of which could not even be imagined in this world.
Aristotle argued that the most desirable, and highest possible “good” is happiness. He noted happiness is not a means to something else; it is self-sufficient to make life satisfying. He also pointed out that while we may seek wealth, knowledge, fame, family, pleasure, power and the like thinking that, through their achievement, we will become happy, the human experience makes it clear that we can achieve any or all of these things and still feel there is something missing. We can still feel/be unhappy.
So what are the causes of unhappiness? Certainly lack of access to fundamentals of life such as food, water, clothing, shelter, safety, security and relationships can cause unhappiness and suffering and need to be addressed at the outset. But what causes unhappiness and suffering once those fundamentals have been dealt with? Buddha argued that it is our unhealthy desires and aversions that are the source of our suffering. In like manner, the Abrahamic religions point to the afflictive emotions of greed, anger, lust, gluttony, laziness, envy and pride as sources of unhappiness even among (and perhaps particularly among if we heed the Dao) the rich, powerful and privileged.
But if we assume the fundamentals of life have been addressed, how do we then achieve happiness? Recall that Aristotle believed that the answer could be found in “virtuous living” or living life as an excellent human being. His word for this was arete which many translate as “human excellence” with the connotation of always striving to achieve your highest potential. He saw virtue as a habit or capacity that we acquire by making good decisions – doing the right thing and viewing the wrong thing as unattractive. He taught we should do the right and virtuous thing even if it causes pain; and that we should avoid the wrong thing even if it offers us pleasure.
Aristotle describes many virtues as means between extremes. Four of his main virtues are:
Courage: the mean between rashness and cowardice.
Temperance: the mean between self-indulgence and asceticism.
Justice: everyone should get what he or she deserves.
Practical wisdom: making right judgments about what to do (not simply following rules).
Buddha thought we needed to live our lives in such a way that we can come to an understanding of the fundamental nature of reality. He taught we can do this by living a life of moderation and by following his Noble Eightfold Path:
- Right Views: we should keep ourselves free from prejudice, superstition and delusion and see correctly the true nature of life.
- Right Thoughts: we should turn away from the hypocrisies of this world and direct our minds toward truth, positive attitudes and actions.
- Right Speech: we should refrain from pointless and harmful talk and speak kindly and courteously to all.
- Right Conduct: we should assure our deeds are peaceable, benevolent, compassionate and pure.
- Right Livelihood: we should make our living in such a way as to entail no evil consequences and seek employment to which can give our complete enthusiasm and devotion.
- Right Effort: we should continually work to overcome ignorance and craving.
- Right Mindfulness: we should cherish good and pure thoughts.
- Right Meditation: we should reflect on the Oneness of all life (we are all in this together and we are all interdependent).
A brief note on mediation:
Meditation is a mental and physical course of action that a person uses to separate themselves from their thoughts and feelings in order to become fully aware. It is a way of taking control of the mind so that it becomes peaceful and focused, and the meditator becomes more aware.
The purpose of meditation is to stop the mind rushing about in an aimless (or even a purposeful) stream of thoughts. It should still and focus the mind. Anyone who has looked at a sunset or a beautiful painting and felt calm and inner joy, while their mind becomes clear and their perception sharpens, has had a taste of the realm of meditation.
Back to achieving happiness…
The Abrahamic religious and philosophical traditions, like Aristotle and the Buddha, also espouse virtuous thinking and behavior. Frequently mentioned (in inverse relation to the afflictive emotions) are: contentment (instead of greed), patience (instead of anger), chasteness (instead of lust), temperance (instead of gluttony), diligence (instead of laziness), compassion/charity (instead of envy), and humility (instead of pride). The message from these traditions: We need to restrain the afflictive emotions and cultivate virtue.
I think what the accumulated wisdom of all of these traditions is telling us is that happiness is not an outcome, but rather a way of thinking, a mind-set, an attitude, a contentment nourished by knowledge, wisdom and right behaviors. It is an inner peace that flows from our enlightened attitudes toward whatever life lays on our doorstep or plops in our lap and our (virtuous) actions in response.
It is in this sense that I suggest the meaning of life is to be found in striving to live a virtuous life (as described above) so that, as we assess our life’s progress from time to time, and as we look back on our life at the hour of our death, we can do so with contentment, happiness and even joy.
One additional question: do we need a God and/or religion to achieve happiness?
I think it can work either way. If belief in a God and a religious practice is helpful in achieving happiness, then that is a good thing. If the existence of a God is deemed unknowable or misguided, I think the same path to happiness is still available without reference to a deity.
On the subject of religion I will end with the following excerpt from Albert Einstein’s Credo of 1932:
The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavors in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is.
R. Kevin Price
© 2008-2012 R.K. Price