Here are some possible answers to the question of what makes life worth living: (1) nothing; (2) religion; (3) happiness; (4) love, work, and play. Evidence from psychology and neuroscience supports the fourth answer.
(1) Nothing. A few despondent philosophers such as Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and David Benatar have cast doubts on whether life has any intrinsic meaning, and some people are driven to suicide by depression and negative events in their lives. But most people, fortunately, are able to find lots of reason to value their lives, and in surveys most people report themselves as pretty happy. So nihilism is not a plausible position.
(2) Religion. Surveys also indicate that many people report that religion and spirituality are major sources of meaning in their lives. Unfortunately, however, these sources are bogus if there is no evidence to support claims for particular religious beliefs. Religious faith may be reassuring, but cannot objectively tell you whether you should adhere to Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or some other religion. Faith cannot even tell you what version of Christianity (Catholic, Baptist, Morman, etc.) or Islam (Shia or Sunni) you ought to adopt. Hence religion and vague spiritual ideas like "everything happens for a reason" cannot provide a sound basis for living.
(3) Happiness. Psychological research has identified many ways in which people can increase the happiness in their lives, as in Sonja Lyubomirsky's fine book, The How of Happiness. But happiness is usually the result of having a meaningful life, not what makes life worth living in itself. There are people whose lives are meaningful even though they may not be very happy, for example when struggling with a challenging job while raising a special needs child. On the other hand, happiness can be cheaply achieved by slacker serenity, a mindless bliss resulting from having minimal goals, access to drugs, or unlimited time for meditation. You can have happiness without much meaning, and meaning without much happiness; so happiness is not the meaning of life.
(4) Love, work, and play. In my new book, The Brain and the Meaning of Life, I argue that these three activities make life worth living. Love includes friendships and family relationships as well as romantic ones. Work includes diverse productive activities such as community volunteering in addition to wage slavery. Play includes all forms of entertainment such as reading and watching movies, not just games. Surveys and other psychological studies indicate that love, work, and play do indeed enable people to have lives they value. Neuroscience provides a deeper understanding of how brain processes generate needs for relatedness, autonomy, and competence that can be satisfied by the successful pursuit of love, work, and play. Such satisfaction yields happiness, but even the pursuit is enough to give life meaning.
Blog post to come: 36 arguments for the existence of God.
Impossible To Inevitable: Dare To Dream Big - Part 3
OK, it's official! Warren Buffet said so. "We've fallen off a cliff". Now what? Is that the end of the story? Do we just pull up the covers and wait to die? Or, since we're in free fall, should we learn how to fly? Or how about giving wings to your dreams and letting them fly?
Now, more than ever, consider giving yourself permission to resurrect your dreams and go for them. I don't mean you should go get stupid, but I do mean it's time to begin listening to the still, small voice within that's been telling you "there 's more to life than playing the game the way you've always played it."
This week, we continue our journey to discover the impossible dreams hidden away inside, buried under the more urgent demands of the moment or lost long ago because you never dared to dream them.
Our intention is to discover, claim, grow and express those dreams and live them out loud. What if everyone was busy living their impossible dreams and empowering and inspiring others?
This week, we'll start fleshing out the ideas presented in the first two installments of this series. You'll find them here and here.
Many younger people tell me they don't have any dreams, or they haven't found any yet. They don't even know where to look. Others say they used to have dreams, but that was long ago, before life got in the way.
So, let's start by exploring: where do you look to find your dreams?
The answer to that question lays inside the answer to another important question:
What Makes A Life Worth Living?
This question drills down several layers beneath external conditions and put the inquiry smack dab in the middle of a gold mine. It invites you to enter the realm of what lives in your heart of hearts and soul of souls. There, more questions arise. The truth is, the gold to be mined lies in the questions themselves.
I love this Rilke quote:
Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language.
Back to the question: what makes a life worth living?
Is it just about surviving, making it through? Are we born with a destiny to fulfill or do we come to life as a blank slate? Does fate play a role in how our lives turn out or do we create them out of the choices we make?
From these questions, others arise:
Is an acorn destined to become an oak tree? Is a caterpillar destined to become a butterfly?
When I think about my own life and who I've become, I can see that even as a kid, I was always curious to know about other people and what made them who they are. My career as a teacher, trainer, coach, therapist, and public speaker began in my parents' garage when I was 7 years old. I used to borrow folding chairs from a neighbor, line them up in neat little rows and invite the kids in the neighborhood to come over and "share". I stood in front of the room and encouraged the kids to share about kid stuff, summer vacation activity, scouting, dancing lessons and the like. Even then, I wanted to get inside people's stories!
Sixty years later, I'm still at it, still enlivened by my work with people, and still compelled to explore the elegant mysteries of our human existence.
The Acorn Theory
In his book, The Soul's Code, Dr. James Hillman, founder of archetypal psychology, asserts, "each person enters the world "called", like an oak tree, to fulfill their soul's agenda.
"When all the souls had chosen their lives, they went before Lachesis. And she sent with each as the guardian of his life and the fulfiller of his choice, the daimon that he had chosen."
PLATO- Republic Book X
Hillman suggests every human being is born with a defining image, that our soul's agenda is encoded in us before we even take birth and that we come into human form to carry out that agenda.
"Fate, providence and destiny play significant roles in determining the main plot of our lives", says Hillman. He warns that today, the awareness of coming with a "calling" is lost amidst the din of modern life and in the process, "the essential mystery at the heart of each human life" gets ignored.
What if your destiny was encoded in the DNA of your soul before you were born? And what if your big dreams are the natural unfolding of that destiny, wanting to be lived through you?
What if all the upsets and breakdowns of your life, all the seeming detours and backtracking were essential and necessary parts of your process, all intended to prepare you to fulfill your destiny?
With the pressing needs of life in these times, it's easy to lose sight of what inspires or calls us. It seems to require all of one's energy to just get through the "ordinary" demands of life. Who has the luxury of time and the resources to go for their big dreams?
And yet, without a dream that calls to you, life becomes flat and robotic. It's not getting through the mechanics of life that makes it worth living. What makes life worth living is the sense that a unique purpose awaits you. What if your dream is waiting for you to discover it, claim it, grow it, and live it?
Where to begin?
Look to your childhood for clues. What were the things you did because they were natural to do, in fact, maybe you couldn't do otherwise?
Consider the story of Sarah Hughes, who at 16, won the gold-medal in women's figure skating at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. The underdog behind teammates Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen, and the Russian, Irina Slutskaya, Hughes pulled off the upset of a lifetime.
Sarah began skating at the age of 3. When she was 5, her father took a home movie of her and asked: " What do you want to be when you grow up?" The adorable 5 yr. old did not miss a beat when she responded, "I can't wait to win the gold medal at the Olympics".
Did you hear that? She didn't say, "I hope I win the gold medal", she said, "I can't wait to win the gold medal". It was already a done deal. She already had herself standing on the podium, singing the national anthem. And she was 5! It took eleven more years to bring her dream into form. Eleven years of hard work and sacrifice. Eleven years of devotion and commitment.
Going into the final skate in fourth place after the short program, and skating second in rotation, Sarah had nothing to lose. She went out and set the ice on fire, skating one of the most technically difficult programs in Olympic history, landing 7 triple jumps, including 2 triple/triple combinations!
Sarah, the underdog, ended up winning the gold; electrifying the world with her magical performance. When interviewed afterwards, she remarked:
"When I started my program... there was a big clock in the corner and I looked and it said nine o'clock exactly. And it was funny, because when I was standing on the podium, it said exactly 10 p.m., and this whole hour had changed my life."
Please enjoy this one-minute video of Sarah's story:
Sarah skated to win. Michelle Kwan skated not to lose.
How about you? How are you "skating" your life?
Look to what matters to you, look to what you love, look to what flows out of you like honey. There, you'll find the spark of imagination to fan into your impossible dream. Then trust it, and follow it. More on following your bliss next week.
Map Your Way To Your Dreams
In workshops I lead on this topic, I have participants make a Dream Map. You need a piece of poster board, some magazines to cut up, scissors, glue and some crayons or colored marking pens. Then have fun finding pictures that represent your dream and make a collage.
This is an intuitive process, so take your time. Let the images speak to you. Let them guide you where to place them on the paper. Use crayons or colored marking pens to write on your map and draw lines that connect each image.
A map to your dream will materialize right before your eyes! Place it where you'll see it every day. You'll be attracting the energies that align with your dream, so be prepared for new possibilities to open and ready to take action on them.
Declaring your dreams and being witnessed by a community of kindred spirits is what we're up to with The Impossible Dreamers group on Facebook. It won't cost you anything to declare your dream so jump in and join the Dream Team! You can also send me a friend request, just please indicate you're a reader so I'll know who you are.
I'm looking forward to our continued discoveries along this path, so stay tuned and come back next week. If you'd like to receive notification in your inbox when new updates are posted here, just click on the orange RSS feed icon at the top of this post and voila! You've just become a "subscriber".
What's going on with your big dreams? I've heard some pretty amazing stories I'll be sharing in upcoming posts. You can bring us up to date on your own impossible dreams by leaving a comment in the section below this post, also feel free to contact me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm a "loyal responder" so check back later if you'd like to hear back from me.
Many thanks for being an important part of this vibrant community of readers and impossible dream makers. It wouldn't be the same without you!
Follow Dr. Judith Rich on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dr_judithrich