Monday, March 14, 2011

The Meaning of Life

Imagine that you have a choice. You can set out to discover the meaning of life or you can go out to find the Fountain of Youth. If that were your choice, which would you choose?

The correct answer is: neither.

Ever since Michael Lerner made a fetish out of meaning, most sensible people have decided that they have better things to do with their time than to search out meaning.

Not because the concept is intrinsically warped, but because we all know that it is better to live a meaningful life than to find the meaning of life.

We all have a pretty good idea of what makes for a meaningful life. When your life has purpose, focus, and direction… and when it serves a larger community, then it is meaningful.

If you dedicate your life to personal pleasure, it will be less meaningful. You may get a lot of laughs out of it, but you will not be affirming your purposeful connection to other people.

A soldier who loses his life in battle has lived a meaningful, albeit far too short, life. So does the individual who contributes to the public good by doing a good job as an auto salesman, a chiropractor, or a manufacturer.

Human life becomes meaningful when people contribute to society, by their work and their effort. It involves giving more than you take.

As it happens, most people do not see things this way. They have learned through different sources that the meaning of life lies in retirement, preferably passed in an earthly paradise will serve as a way station on the way to Heaven.

By making Heaven their role model, many people have come to believe that happiness must lie in the earthly conditions that most closely resemble it. From the little that people imagine they know about Heaven, it is a place without work.

Of course, this assumes that life on earth should be conducted according to the same rules as pertain in eternal life. A dubious assumption, to say the least.

In the Middle Ages people assumed that finding the Holy Grail would facilitate their access to eternal life. A few centuries later Ponce de Leon went looking for the Fountain of Youth in Florida. The Spanish explorer could not have known that he was setting the stage for a mass migration of Northerners toward the American South.

Ponce de Leon seems to have been the first to believe that he could attain longevity by drinking the right mineral water. He was not the last.

Obviously, a long life is not necessarily a meaningful life. We can imagine someone growing old by having fun, indulging in non-stop debauchery, but we would not count his life as meaningful.

We might not even consider it just that someone could live a life of permanent leisure, ignoring all responsibility to society, and still live for a very long time.

If so, justice is on our side. The latest research shows that the man who lives to have fun will have not live as long as the man who lives meaningfully.

Such is the conclusion of the newest study on Longevity. I will rely on Emily Yoffe’s excellent article about it on Slate. Link here.

Led by Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin the Longevity Project takes up where something called the Terman project left off.

The Terman project was launched in 1921 by Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman. It studied geniuses and tracked their lives to determine how their extremely high IQ influenced their life experience.

The Longevity Project examined the date Terman compiled and asked what makes some people more apt to live longer than others.  

If asked the same question most of us would respond as our culture tells us to respond. Longevity goes to those who are the most relaxed, unstressed, laid back…to those who have learned to enjoy their lives, even to the point of having a lot of fun.

And we would probably assert that the key to longevity lies in a healthy lifestyle and the availability of excellent medical care.

Surprisingly, the Longevity Project has come to an entirely different conclusion.

Writing about researcher Friedman, Yoffe says: “His Terman research identifies the patterns and pathways that lead intelligent people to either thrive personally and professionally, or to lose their sense of place in the world—a loss, the researchers found, that often was deadly. The lessons from the Terman participants' lives are more useful, the book asserts, than ever-shifting medical advice about how many blueberries and walnuts to eat, how many ‘preventive‘ medical procedures to undergo.”

Losing one’s place in the world is a nice way of saying: retirement. If a goodly part of your world is your work, losing it will cast you adrift and make you feel useless.

This does not mean that you should not retire, but it does mean that if you are seeking longevity you should replace your old job with a new one, even if it is an avocation.

Clearly, there’s nothing wrong with munching on walnuts and almonds-- some of my closest friends insist on it-- and there‘s nothing is wrong with drinking the most health-inducing bottle of mineral water.

Neither Friedman nor I am saying that you can immediately abandon exercise and vegetables, or that you should stop putting on sunscreen or flossing your teeth. The study does say that our thinking that medicine will provide us with a long life is merely obscuring the importance of our social being.

According to the Longevity Project we will add good years to our lives if we are useful to society, if we fit in to groups, and if we are productive.

If the key to longevity does not lie in blueberries and walnuts and medical procedures, where does it lie? According to Friedman, it lies in having good character.

Normally, you would never  think to connect character with longevity. But good character makes us more focused and productive. A person with good character will have more and better relationships with other people, and these will make your activities more purposeful.

Friedman talks about it in terms of conscientiousness, an important character trait. Happily enough, it echoes advice that I have been offering.

In Yoffe’s words: “One of the most striking findings of The Longevity Project is that conscientiousness is a predictor of long life. People who blow their deadlines and forget their appointments tend to find themselves making an early appointment with the grim reaper. Sorting through eight decades of data shows that the reliable, more-mature-than-their years little boys and girls identified in the 1920s became the dependable adults who were most likely to have made it into a new century. ‘[T]he best childhood personality predictor of longevity was conscientiousness—the qualities of a prudent, persistent, well-organized person …—somewhat obsessive and not at all carefree.’"

If diligence and conscientiousness are the key to longevity, then the ability to have fun, to party, to grab all the gusto, to follow your bliss, and to live your passion, is largely over-rated.

This tells us that the Tiger Mom’s seeming crusade against frivolous fun was not a crazy idea.

The Longevity Project suggests that fun is not the meaning of life. Nor is vacation. In truth, you will live longer if you keep working, even if you are trying out a new career, than if you retire to a tropical paradise.

Lolling away the time sitting under a coconut tree sipping Mai Tai’s you will shorten your lifespan. I am sure that you wanted to know.

Worse yet, being happy-go-lucky, walking around as though you don’t have a care in the world, as though you have conquered all stress, is bad for your health.

Yoffe explains: “Among the most counterintuitive of the findings is that cheerfulness can kill. … The highly social went to more parties where they smoked and drank, craving the buzz. They died from accidents. But Friedman and Martin say their research showed something deeper. Despite the belief that optimists enjoy better health than pessimists, this research found a dark underside to optimism. When everything is going great, the optimist soars. But when facing life's difficulties, the optimist can feel defeated by the magnitude of the struggle that's required.”

This doesn’t mean that it is a bad thing to have a good attitude. It does mean that if you cannot handle adversity when it comes at you in small doses, then you are more likely to be swept away by a large dose.

Knowing how to deal with difficult situations does not merely give us the social skills to deal with whatever comes our way, it also gives us a sense of confidence in our ability to manage complexity.

Fun is “overrated,” but, as Friedman explained to Yoffe, stress is not always a bad thing.

If you are stressed because you are facing the challenge of a demanding job, especially one that is suited to your abilities, then stress can be a good thing. It signals intense effort and is often the prelude to a well-earned success.

If, however, you are working beneath your capacity and feel stressed at the waste of your talent, then stress is not going to be a very good friend.

As Yoffe explains: “Friedman and Martin say it's the kind of stress that matters. The bright boys selected for the study who ended up having low-status jobs—streetcar conductor, baker, porter—and whose careers did not match their early promise were far more likely to die before age 60 than their higher status counterparts. Success, even in challenging jobs with demanding hours and responsibility, is a tonic. (Ever notice that orchestra conductors and dictators tend to go on forever?)”

In conclusion: "[T]he continually productive men and women lived much longer than their more laid-back comrades. … It was not the happiest or the most relaxed older participants who lived the longest. It was those who were most engaged in pursuing their goals."


Anonymous said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman
RE: Heh

The answer is 'simple'....


The interpetation is another matter.


[The Devil is always in the details.]

Anonymous said...

TO: All
RE: Heh....

....In Addition

If the key to longevity does not lie in blueberries and walnuts and medical procedures, where does it lie? According to Friedman, it lies in having good character. -- Stuart Schneiderman

I know military officers who died six months after their official retirement.


P.S. Sounds like a good example of why someone should 'diversify their [Life] portfolio'.]

Therapy Culture said...

You say, "A soldier who loses his life in battle has lived a meaningful, albeit far too short, life. So does the individual who contributes to the public good by doing a good job as an auto salesman, a chiropractor, or a manufacturer.

Human life becomes meaningful when people contribute to society, by their work and their effort."

I have to disagree on 2 accounts;

1. There are people who withdraw from society to go completely within to discover the "self" or to attain "liberation". Externally they appear not to be "contributing to society" but who are you to judge that their lives are "meaningless".

2. Selling cars and being a cog in the wheel for a manufacturing corporation is "meaningful" ... how exactly?

Again, it is not up to you to decide whether or not an individual's life is "meaningful", rather it is up to that specific individual to decide.

I know plenty of people who are downright miserable manufacturing and selling stuff.

(One might also question whether the manufacturing and selling of stuff is really "contributing" to society - how much stuff do we really "need"?)

3. As far as the research on very high IQ people, check out

It seems there are high IQ folks out there who see their lives meaningless enough to end them.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, TC.

Some people withdraw to find themselves or to liberate themselves. Most often they do so under the auspices of a religion... thus, their experience has meaning within the context of that religious institution.

Otherwise, their lives may be meaningful to them, but I am not sure that you want to make the Self the ultimate arbiter of meaning... do you?

As for the everyday people who do their jobs and who thereby contribute to society, I do indeed think that their lives are meaningful.... I understand that intellectuals often denigrate the efforts of people who are not intellectuals, but I really think that we would do better to understand that a market economy requires many participants... and that we prefer a market economy with many participants to a world where a select group of intellectuals makes the decisions.

Therapy Culture said...

As far as jobs giving "meaning" why are so many men and women dissatisfied with their jobs and their lives? Why is "Fight Club" such a hit amongst young American men?

Regarding the "self" being the sole arbiter, I cannot recommend enough the documentary I linked to, The Century of the Self. It covers a lot of ground, one of them being the concept of the "self" in the United States and how "self as sole arbiter" fuels consumerism.

It might work for Big Business to convince people that being a cog in their whieel is somehow "meaningful" and makes them "special snowflakes" but it is just propaganda and by all the pharmaceutical sales of "mood drugs" we see that it is NOT working.

I would really like to hear your take on the documentary. It covers polictics, culture and business since WWI and is one of the best documentaries I've ever seen, and quite surprisingly so because it is mainstream rather than independent.