The Monistic Mistake About the Meaning of Life
Is there a meaning of life or are there meanings of life?
Posted Dec 15, 2017
In a previous post I argued that meaning in life is based on value; to see a life as meaningful is to see it as having reached a sufficiently high degree of value. I presented several examples that suggest that when people claim that their lives are not meaningful, they mean that there isn't enough value in their lives. To make an insufficiently meaningful life into a more meaningful one, then, more value should either be imported into, or found in, that life.
On the basis of this close relation between meaning and value, I explained in another post why it is incorrect to hold, as many do, that their feeling that life is meaningless is a proof that it is really meaningless. People may well be wrong about the degree of meaning of their lives; some people's lives are more meaningful than they think, and they feel bad about the meaning of their lives with no good reason. Likewise, some people incorrectly suppose that if the degree of meaning in their lives is low, that is the end of the story. However, since value can often change, so can meaning, and it is a mistake to suppose that a low degree of meaning in our lives cannot be improved. In yet another post I discussed the perfectionist error about the meaning of life. In the present post I would like to discuss another mistake I believe many make about the meaning of their life.
Some people have told me that they take their lives to be meaningless because they have not succeeded in finding one stable source of meaningfulness throughout their lives. They believe that if the source of meaning in their lives changes from time to time, their lives cannot be meaningful. According to this view, in order to have a meaningful life, people have to stick to the same source of meaning all their life. They have to focus or specialize. However, we do not usually accept this notion when considering values. For example, we may be very interested in a certain issue or activity for some time, and then become interested in another issue or activity. When this happens we need not think that earlier we were not genuinely interested, or that there was something wrong in the things that previously interested us. They were interesting and fulfilling then, and now there are other things that are interesting and fulfilling for us. Likewise, sometimes people have different friends in different periods in their lives. But that does not mean that the friends of the past were not good friends, or that the friendship was not true, rewarding and valuable. Of course, if what is important to us changes every other day the valuing is probably shallow; but changes over longer periods of time do not indicate shallowness.
But since meaningfulness is related to and based on value, what gives meaning to life may also alter through a time, and this does not testify that there is anything wrong in the meaningfulness of one's life. It is perfectly plausible, for example, to find love as the main focus or source of meaning at one period, creative art in another part of life, and one's career in a third. There is nothing problematic about it. On the contrary, it is only to be expected that the foci of meaning in our lives will change as both we and our circumstances change.
It is especially important for people who have lost what used to give meaning to their lives to remember that sources of meaning can change. Because of accidents, sickness, economic changes and other crises that touch people or their loved ones, sources of meaningfulness are occasionally destroyed. Sometimes, when this happens, people feel that all value and meaning has left their lives, forever. But although it is difficult (and most sharply so right after the loss), often we can create or find meaning anew in other spheres of life.
Some people accept that sources of meaningfulness may change throughout life, but still hold that at each period of time there must be only one such source. Again, however, notice that we often do not think that there is anything problematic in relating to different spheres of value at the same time. We do not hold, for example, that there is anything wrong if someone enjoys both music and sculpture, or is excited and interested in both physics and biology. Nor do we consider it a problem if we hear that one is engaged in a career, a happy family life, philanthropic activity, and spiritual activity at the same time. As above, engaging with too many spheres of value at once may render the engagement with each shallow. But that is not true for engagement with a reasonable number of spheres. Doing so even has an important advantage: if one sphere or source of meaningfulness is harmed, one has others sources to rely on and, eventually, expand on, so that one is not left completely bereft of meaningfulness in one's life, needing to find or create a source of meaningfulness wholly anew. Moreover, in some cases having more than one source of meaning also creates synergy, so that the different aspects of meaningfulness in life enhance each other.
But this also suggests that it may be slightly misleading to talk, as we commonly do, about the "the meaning of life." As already argued by David Schmidtz, it may be more accurate to talk about the meanings (in plural) of life.
David Schmidtz, "The Meanings of Life," in Life, Death, & Meaning, ed. David Benatar, 2nd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 93–113.