The Meaning of Life

Prefer to read? Here's the script: 

I see myself in Mason Evans Jr., the main character in the movie Boyhood. If you haven’t seen it, the film is about, well boyhood—what it’s like to grow up—told through the story of boy growing up in Texas. One of the themes that really resonated with me was Mason’s struggle with an important question: “What’s it all about? What’s the meaning of life?”

Whenever I see the movie characters struggling with life issues, I have this weird desire to step into world and talk to them directly. So in today’s episode of Coach Cam TV I’m going to size this opportunity to do just that.

Dear Mason,

Let me start by saying you’re not alone in your struggle to make sense of life. At some point I think we’ve all had that nagging feeling that life is pointless, but it can really hit you in your teens. “What’s life all about? What does it all mean? Why am I here? How did I get here? What do I do now?” These questions are real and answering them is vital to a good life. So today I’m going to give you my answer. The trick is, you can’t answer the question with words, but one you must live your way into the answer.

The question of “What is the meaning of life?” is too big to be answered on its own, so let’s break it down into two smaller questions: “How did we get here?” And, “Now that we’re here, what should we do to live happy, fulfilling, and meaningful lives?”

The first question is usually answered one of two general ways: Either some God/gods/intelligence/spirit (or in the case of Scientology, alien) created everything we know by some act of grace. Or the reality we know today happened on its own without any outside input, a product of matter and energy interacting within the laws of physics to produce “this” [open arms wide]. These aren’t your only two options—for example, my high school biology teacher believed that God influenced the laws of nature to produce the world. Alan Watts believed that God was less like a king who created and controls everything, and more like the director and producer who is silently creating and manifesting all the movie of reality. Whichever direction you go, having a belief that resonates with you certainly helps.

The second question, “What should I do to live happy, meaningful life?” can be answered by understanding who we are as humans and what it takes for us to thrive. Thankfully, positive psychology has painted a pretty detailed picture. According to Jonathan Haidt, people are like plants. In the same way that plants need sunshine, water and fertile soil to thrive, people need love, work and a connection to something larger in order to thrive. You can’t go chasing happiness directly, you can only get the conditions right and then wait.

From the day you were born, you have relied on others for your survival. And if you’re doing life right, you will rely on others for your survival throughout your life. The happiest people we know are those with secure attachments with those we love, and research backs this up. We depend on our family and friends for our survival all throughout life. They feed us, entertain us, comfort us, and clothe us. For infants and the elderly this dependence is obvious, but in midlife many people lose sight of this basic need for connection and community.

And now onto the second condition: there are three kinds of work—a job, a career, and a calling. The first kind only pays the bills. The second makes you money, but brings the opportunity to move up a ladder. The third is work that is so aligned with who you are, that you love it more than yourself. Can you guess what kind path people are happiest doing? A calling – of course!

You spend a large part of your life working, so finding work you love is a huge factor in finding meaning within life. When you have just a job, you have to go to work to pay the bills to continue living, so you can get up in the morning to do it all over again. But when you find a calling, you get the privilege of getting up and going work to do it all over again. You become intimately connected with people and work that you love more than yourself. Your work becomes the foundation of your identity and self-esteem, unshakable by the events of life.

The third condition, a connection to something larger than yourself, can come from many different sources. For those who love their work, it is alone a connection to something larger. It gives them a sense of vital engagement, a deep love for what they do, where they’re so immersed in the work that they lose their sense of time. Your connection to something larger can come look a variety of different ways. For some, their religious community provides that connection, for others the community where they live fills the need. However it looks in your life, the point is to engage in something that draws you outside of yourself and into connection with other people and activities.

I used to struggle with the pointlessness of life for years, trying to out-think the mystery at the heart of reality. When I learned to instead look for meaning within life, my struggle melted away.  If there’s one thing I want you to learn it’s that you stop worry about the meaning of life when you find meaning within life. The key is, you can’t chasing happiness directly. You can only get the conditions right—through love, work, and connection—and then wait. You have to live your way into the answer.