Penguin Random House
Source: Penguin Random House

There’s a scene in Nick Hornby’s novel About a Boy (later adapted into a film and TV series) in which the main adult character, Will (played in the film by Hugh Grant), meets the woman of his dreams (Rachel Weiss), which opens his eyes to the nature of his life in a way much more interesting than the standard-issue Hollywood rom-com, and which also touches on several topics of interest to this blog, such as self-loathing, meaning, purpose, and happiness. (This post references the novel and the film; I haven’t seen the recent TV series, so I can’t comment on how much of this applies to that version of the story.)

Will is what used to be called a “man of leisure,” the son of a songwriter whose massive Christmas hit provides a perpetual stream of royalties that relieves his son of the need to work for a living. Will drifts lazily but contentedly through life, socializing with casual friends, going to the movies, and dating while avoiding commitment. He proudly asserts that he has no purpose, perceives no meaning in life in general or in his life in particular, and bristles at any mention of “the point” of it all. In existentialist terms, he perceives the absurdity of life but simply accepts it, even embracing it, rather than moving past it and creating his own meaning in his life.

But Will starts to understand the downside of his chosen attitude toward life when he meets the mesmerizing Rachel at a party and realizes, to his dismay, that he has nothing to offer her. He describes himself to the reader and viewer as entirely uninteresting, and regards his decent looks and presentation as a façade that lures people in but ultimately disappoints them when they realize there’s nothing behind the pretty face and well-spoken manner. Once Will starts talking with Rachel, he stumbles on the question she inevitably asks him: “What do you do?” He finds himself at a complete loss; he has nothing to say because he does nothing of any substance with his life. After five minutes, Rachel turns away to speak to someone else, and Will realizes that his life of leisure and utter rejection of purpose or meaning has also doomed him to a life with no chance of lasting, deeper love and connection with another person.

I thought of two things while reading this (and re-watching the movie after finishing the book): the self-loathing aspect of Will’s regarding himself as uninteresting, and the way his life without purpose compromises his chances of making a deep connection with another person.

Self-Loathing and Feeling Uninteresting

Many of us have probably felt similar to Will in that we find ourselves much less interesting than the people we meet—especially people we’re attracted to and would like to spend time with. We’re probably more familiar with not being able to talk to people or get them to talk to you, but this is a problem that comes later: you think, as you begin to talk to someone, “what could I possibly say to her?” or “what would he possibly see in me?”

It’s similar to impostor syndrome, but not in reference to your job or career as usual: this is impostor syndrome in terms of not being as interesting as you think people expect. You’re talking to someone and suddenly you don’t remember how you got here or why this person wanted to talk with you—but you are certain you’re going to let them down the moment you open your mouth. What could you possibly have to say that could justify or reward their interest? What about you could possibly interest someone else, especially someone else that seems so fascinating to you?

At bottom, this is the same issue of self-doubt I’ve discussed many times here. The problem is that we “see” ourselves differently than others do, and those with issues of inadequacy or self-loathing are much harder on ourselves than others will likely be. We perceive so many faults in ourselves that others would never see, and as a result we can’t imagine what others would or do see in us.

To be sure, Will has a specific reason to think this way about himself: he has no response to the most common question people ask each other upon meeting. Even so, Will underestimates himself, and through his friendship with the other main character in the book and film, a 12-year-old boy named Marcus (played by Nicholas Hoult), he discovers there is more to himself than he thought, and he comes to realize what Rachel sees in him as well. This speaks to my point in many of my posts on self-loathing about trusting others’ impressions and feelings about us. We may not get it, but we need to trust that others do and resist the temptation to question this constantly.

Meaning, Purpose, and Attractiveness

Will’s particular problem is also interesting in itself: the fact that he has nothing meaningful in his life, nothing that would give it purpose, nothing that he is passionate about. Will may be happy in the sense of experiencing pleasure in my day-to-day activities, but he is not happy in the deeper sense of fulfillment that would come from a sense of meaning or purpose. This much is well known from the work of philosophers, psychologists, and poets alike. But what we can add to that, based on Will’s story, is that meaning and purpose help you not only to achieve a personal sense of fulfillment but also to make you more attractive to other people and make it easier to form deeper attachments with them.

It is often said that confidence, ambition, and goals make a person more attractive, but what lies at the core of all these things is having meaning or purpose in your life. Knowing what you’re doing and where you’re going with your life grants you the firm groundwork on which you can start to build confidence, develop ambition, and pursue goals. Without meaning or purpose in your life, however, these things come much harder; you simply drift through life, taking pleasure when it comes but not building a foundation for a deeper sense of fulfillment. The same applies to relationships: Will had long been fine with short-term physical liaisons based on his superficial attractiveness, but once he decides he wants more, he finds his frivolous lifestyle a drawback to finding a deeper connection.

While it can be very difficult, finding (or creating) a sense of meaning and purpose in your life, as Will eventually does, has tremendous benefits. Not only may it help make you happy in a deeper sense than provided by everyday pleasures, it can also help you to become more attractive to other people as a long-term romantic partner. It may even help counteract feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing, especially if these feelings are based on seeing yourself as uninteresting.

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