The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, March 27, 2014

What Is The Meaning of Life?

While I don’t think it can really quite be put into words, the  Dali Lama came as close as anyone I’ve seen when he  said:  “The meaning of life is happiness.”  

There is, of course, no such thing as a simple, fool-proof philosophical statement because, as we all know, fools are so ingenious.  Tell some one “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” some wise-acre will say, “well, what about a masochist?  Huh?   Ever think of that?”

Well, let’s actually be kinder than that.  The questioner might well be a philosopher’s greatest ally--so long as the questions are honest, and not purely a rhetorical game, filled with fictional straw men who believe this or that that real human beings can’t believe without massive internal inconsistency.  Cheap thrills.   Freshman philosophy 101.

Say “the meaning of life is happiness” and the same Ally will say: “well, should we just do anything that makes us happy?   Should we just smoke dope all day long?  Get laid every chance we get?  What kind of idiot works a job, if the purpose of life is happiness?”

And that is useful, opening a valid and critical expansion on the basic concept, a discussion of short versus long-term pleasure, child versus adult dynamics, reality maps and reality, values versus expedience, physical as opposed to existential pleasure.   Individual as opposed to group welfare.    Ego and expanded identity.  Balance and obsession.  Big “Self” and little “self.”      Great discussions. All-day, life-long, multi-generational discussions.  Good stuff!  But they must ultimately relate to the Two Biggies:   “who am I?” and “what is true?”    Follow these questions until you find an unlanguageable place where they are two versions of the same question...and you’ve found the door.   Now all you have to do is figure out if it’s marked “push” or “pull”.   Heh heh.   

Anyway, the question “what is happiness?”  Is a critical one to ask, so that you can begin with the meanings that actually touch your heart.   Then...keep asking, until you get to the answer that aligns with your values, is short AND long term, honors BOTH your “inner child” and “inner elder” personalities, allows you to function in the adult world with joy and contribution (and financial success) and resolves the riddle of “do what you love, or love what you do.”

Here’s a thought to begin the discussion:
“The Buddhists believe happiness is the inner calm that comes from meditation.  The Jews believe that we are here to change the world.   My own work suggests that happiness comes from harmonious relationships and giving to others. ”--Cloe Madanes.

What is happiness to you?


Sarah said...

My imaginary image of life is a ball of yarn. It looks like many sections, but it is one long thread. It has very dark places (pain and sorrow) and very light places (happiness and joy). I once knew someone who thought my relative happiness compared to his was because his life had been filled with pain and trouble and mine had not been. I tried to explain that it wasn't that I hadn't felt pain and sorrow. It is that I have accepted that it is part of life. I have my days when I find it overwhelming and I have to cry or fight back tears. But then, I get reminded in some way of the miracle that is life and it fills me with so much joy that the sadness recedes. I see it as the difference between say 10 to 1000 and infinity. The miracle of life sits at infinity. Most pain we deal with regularly is from 10 to 1000. When we lose someone we love deeply, the pain shoots up almost unbearably close to infinity. It is why after I have lost those I have loved I remember the colors of the flowers and trees being extra sharp and in focus. The pain of losing a life puts the miracle of life in sharp relief. This same someone mentioned above dulled his pain with substances and distractions. This is what he said he had to do to find any kind of happiness. I would be lying if I said there weren't times when I wish I could disappear for a while and only feel happiness without the memory of pain. I don't think it is possible, though. Substance and distraction induced happiness has its price to be paid later. Fill your body with harmful substances and it will hurt later in the form of a headache or a disease. Distract your mind with shiny objects and soon the shiny objects lose their luster and the ability to make you happy.

Steven Barnes said...


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