Archive for July, 2014

The meaning of happiness

July 22, 2014
Does meaning create happiness?

Does meaning create happiness?

People often say ‘I just want to be happy.’

It’s more unusual to hear ‘I just want my life to be meaningful,’ yet that’s what most of us seem to want for ourselves. We chase meaning without really knowing what it looks like. When we lose a sense of meaning, we feel something important is missing. We fear the void.

What is this thing we call meaning, and why do we need it so badly?

Is meaning a type of order that sits above the mundane functions of daily life? Perhaps it’s a contextual construction to offset routine and provide an arcane answer to the question ‘Is this all there is?’ Because that’s a question we don’t like to answer. And even if we never find more, perhaps accepting the question as valid suggests there is more to life than this.

Is that knowledge alone enough to make us happy? And alleviate the feared fruitlessness of daily life? Is it a metaphysical ‘get out of jail free card’ for the unrelenting sameness of existence? Does the idea of meaning make understanding it irrelevant? In short, can the idea of meaning actually make us happy?

On the surface that may seem crazy: to be happy because of the possibility of something, even though we may choose not to find it. Like the belief in life after death, is it enough to temper fear?

I believe that happiness and meaningfulness frequently overlap. Perhaps some degree of meaning is a prerequisite for happiness. If that were the case, people may pursue meaning only as a stepping stone towards happiness.

If that was the case would there be any reason to want meaning for its own sake?

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Is the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything in it 42?

July 14, 2014
Is the answer on the road?

Is the answer on the road?

Recently, after returning from an overseas trip, I found myself standing at a taxi rank on a sleet driven, cold Melbourne night. It was past midnight and the usual gaggle of yellow cabs was off in the city awaiting the club crowd. The 20-minute wait was bracing after 30 hours in a stuffy plane.

Finally the taxis started to flow, to the relief of the 60 or so people in the queue. My driver, when he arrived, was annoyed. He’d been looking for a fare for more than an hour and couldn’t understand why the controller hadn’t called through. He was on his way to McDonald’s for a coffee when he decided to tour the airport to see what was what.

He was a talker too. Wanted to know where I’d been and whether for business or pleasure. I gave him brief answers, not wishing to evoke conversation. He decided instead to tell me about the depressed market, working 7 days a week and how much he missed his family in India.

He questioned the worth of it all, or perhaps the futility, before asking ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ His pause suggested this was a real rather than rhetorical question. Having already told me he was a practicing Sikh, I thought he’d be in a better position to answer than me.

‘What do the 10 gurus have to say about it?’, I asked. ‘Would not a belief in a life of perpetual optimism be accompanied by a belief that life did, indeed, have meaning? Perhaps living for equality between all people is the purpose.’

Maybe he just enjoyed complaining about his life, maybe he was making conversation, or possibly it was a rhetorical question after all – because he changed tack and started to play with his radio.

We think of the quest for life’s meaning as a journey along a road, or through time, which leads us to the Oracle, a mysterious source with all the answers. But, like the Cheshire cat said to Alice, ‘If you don’t know where you’re going then it doesn’t really matter which way you go.’

Are we willing to take the chance and live a life without direction, hoping to find answers at the end, or does finding our purpose require more work, thought, trial and error? To put it differently, is there meaning to be found along the road?

If the meaning of life isn’t some esoteric piece of wisdom that, once discovered, unlocks the secrets of the universe and ends our quest for understanding, then what is it? And if it’s not, then how do we answer the similar question, ‘Why am I here?’ Are they the same thing? Is the meaning of life about where we came from or where we’re going? And how does what we do today influence our destination and how quickly we get there?

Big questions for a weary midnight taxi ride with a suddenly silent Sikh.

Let’s not over think it. Perhaps the answer is nothing more (or less) than 42 – as good an answer as any (from a clever but lighthearted book).

Did you know that 42 is also the number of illustrations in Alice in Wonderland?

My belief is stronger than your doubt

July 2, 2014
Breaking free of self doubt

Breaking free of self doubt

I had a very interesting weekend away recently. A friend, who I suspected was going through a difficult time, spent almost the entire two days putting me down. Enthusiastically, aggressively, relentlessly, maniacally: finding the correct description of the gusto he brought to the task is difficult.

The putdowns started with my recent modest weight gain. I admit that I’m somewhat touchy about it; it’s the chink in my armour. My friend pounced. All good-natured ribbing? Not really. After more than a hundred references to it (yes, really!) my wife uncharacteristically told him to drop it. He didn’t. His wife told him to stop it. He didn’t. So another description: obsessive.

At first I laughed, then I got annoyed, became weary and finally just felt sorry for him.

We love to think that what others say or think about us doesn’t matter. We say that it’s their problem, not ours. But it’s not true. I did care. Why? Because it questioned my self-belief and my carefully crafted perception of myself.

It made me doubt myself. And that was depressing.

The paradox is, the more we say it doesn’t matter, the more it does. We’ve all questioned our self-worth. That’s normal. So how do we maintain our self-belief in the face of sometimes relentless and overwhelming criticism? By understanding who we are and what we’ve achieved. Accept that we will, at times, have a bad day. Bounce back. Believe in yourself, overcome doubt and carry on.