Finding a Valid Hypothesis for “What is the Meaning of Life?”


“No one can live happily who has regard to himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility; you must live for your neighbor, if you would live for yourself.”


This bit of wisdom is from a member of a group of ancient philosophers — Plato, Cicero, Seneca. The Stoics, as they called themselves because they used to discuss their subjects on the porch (Stoa in Greek), or the public square, debated the question of what constitutes a good person.

A philosopher, statesman, and dramatist, and tutor and then adviser to the emperor Nero, Seneca wrote it as part of the 124 Epistles in c. 65 AD. Their legacy and influence stood the test of time. That is because, as award-winning psychologist Jonathan Haidt says in The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom:

The ancient philosophers were often good psychologists […] but when modern philosophy began to devote itself to the study of logic and rationality, it gradually lost interest in psychology and lost touch with the passionate, contextualized nature of human life.

It is impossible to analyze “the meaning of life” in the abstract, or in general, or for some mythical and perfectly rational being. Only by knowing the kind of beings are actually are, with the complex mental and emotional architecture that we happen to posses, can anyone ever begin to ask about what would count as a meaningful life.

He goes on to say that philosophy has become more psychological and passionate in recent years. 

In a supremely readable and enjoyable book, Haidt takes us on a tour of select ancient wisdom to help us arrive at the conclusion that we can now answer what might be called the Holy Question “What is the meaning of life?” though we have known the answer for a hundred years. That's because many of the remaining pieces to that puzzle have fallen into place over the last ten.

Books and movies that try to answer the question, so so only in jest:

In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a gigantic computer built to answer the Holy Question spits out its solution after 7.5 million years of computation: “forty-two.”

In the closing scene of the movie Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, the answer to the Holy Question is handed to the actor Michael Palin (in drag), who read it aloud: “Try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live in harmony with people from all creeds and nations.”

These answers are funny precisely because they take the form of good answers, yet their content is empty and mundane. These parodies invite us to laugh at ourselves and ask: What was I expecting? What kind of answer could have satisfied me?

Philosophy does teach we should analyze the question, “to clarify what is being asked before giving an answer,” says Haidt. Some possible methods to find it out meaning:

  • definition — distinguish the meaning of the word “life” from life itself
  • symbolism or substitution — life does not stand for anything; it is life itself we seek to understand
  • plea for help in making sense of something (ref. to people's intentions and beliefs) — what do I need to know in order to understand something an act where I did not catch its cause

We don't know what we don't know, which makes it hard as we try to frame the question well. However, when we ask the question of the meaning of life, what we hope for is some enlightenment:

Once the Holy Question has been re-framed to mean “tell me something enlightening about life,” the answer must involve the kind of revelations human beings find enlightening.

There appear to be two specific sub-questions to which people want answers, and for which they find answers enlightening:

1. the question of the purpose of life “Why are we here?”

2. the question of purpose within life “What should I do to have a good, happy, fulfilling, and meaningful life?”

We hope for a set of principles or goals to guide our actions and give our choices meaning and value. The two questions are distinct, says Haidt, because:

The first asks about life from the outside, it looks at people, the Earth, and the stars as objects“Why do they all exist?” — and is properly addressed by theologians, physicists, and biologists.

The second question is about life from the inside, as a subject“How can I find a sense of meaning and purpose?” — and is properly addressed by theologians, philosophers, and psychologists.

The second question can also be examined by scientific means. The Happiness Hypothesis Haidt forms is an examination of this second question. He reaches this point after explaining why we have too much wisdom, and drawing on:

… ten ancient ideas and a great variety of modern research findings to tell the best story I can about the causes of human flourishing, and the obstacles to well being that we place in our paths.

Each chapter includes an account of how the human mind works — by way of ancient truths like the fact that the mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict (the rider and the elephant), and that life is the creation of our mind — and then an account of our social lives.

The two truths for our social lives are that of the Golden Rule or Reciprocity as the most important tool to get along with people, and that we are all, by nature, hypocrites, which makes it hard to follow the Golden Rule well.

These tools — and the ancient stories contained in the book to illustrate their power — are at our disposal to help us engage with the question(s) as they arise, improve them, and connect them to our lives.


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