Topic: a comprehensive answer to the meaning of life
Length: 2200 words
Idea: you can conjure up arbitrary amounts of subjective meaning
Discussion and Conclusion: There is no objective meaning; you live and die for no reason, there is no plan, path or fate, no witness or juror. Once you die your elementary particles and energy scatter, and the patterns that made up your subjective experiences and memories disappear forever. Before long, nobody remembers you existed at all. The same goes for Earth and every life form on it, just on a grander time scale.
On the other hand you can experience and enjoy as much meaning as you like. If you find meaning there is meaning, even though it only exists in your head.
What to do: If you expect to find an absolute meaning you’re likely to end up empty handed and disappointed. However, if you realize there is no real and objective meaning, but that you can conjure up arbitrary amounts of subjective meaning, the sky is the limit. And here’s the kicker; I think evolution can guide you in what direction you’re most likely to uncover and enjoy meaning (or in other words: long term satisfaction).
Long term satisfaction is meaning, but it takes some insight and planning to trick the human organism not to fall prey to homeostasis on the one hand, or hedonistic adaptation on the other.
Survival of the most effectively hedonistic
Every day I find myself smiling and simply enjoying life. I often ask myself how come life is so damn wonderful all the time. I understand the anthropic principle, and I get that those who didn’t appreciate life fell off the evolutionary bandwagon and left us hedonistic lot in charge, but still… We could have evolved to hate the weather, the smells of life, other animals and each other, or couldn’t we?
I have enough money to do more or less whatever I can think of
What’s enough? I have an 8-figure (but not 9 — maybe in a few years depending on mainly one of my investments) net worth in US dollars, meaning I can sleep, eat and travel in style for as many years as my body can take it (I’m 45 now).
So, what do I actually do?
I spend most of my time throwing tennis balls for my rescue dog, pumping iron at the gym, reading (reading list here) and writing, not to mention the time I put into my podcast venture and my investments. If I’m doing something physical I listen to podcasts, and if I’m doing something intellectual I listen to music. I typically digest some 20-30 hours of podcasts per week (here’s a list of what I listen to).
I don’t travel much, I don’t go out to party, I don’t have a car, a boat or a watch, nor do I have an interest in fashion, in suits and shoes. I simply stay healthy – and challenged – in body and mind; that’s more or less it.
Why do I do what I do?
Every now and then I think about it, about my life, about the choices I make, or rather don’t make, every day. The other day, e.g., I had five minutes to spend before leaving for a meeting. I silenced my phone and started meditating on the word “perspective” that I wrote a post about a week ago (this one: Perspective is gold). This is what came out of those five minutes.
You are all alone
Life has no meaning unless you give it meaning. There is no cosmic plan for you, no God watching or intervening, no endgame, in short there is no meaning in an absolute sense.
However, you can create your own meaning and make your life mean something to you, and thus make it meningful (albeit only for yourself). It actually is true that we are all alone; brains in cranium vats, fed electrical impulses by a sack of meat let loose in a quantum mechanical world that neither it, nor you can sense as is, or make sense of for that matter.
The loop of meaningfulness
I get meaning from having fun and from being productive. Let’s leave productivity out of the loop for a little while.
The hedonistic (fun) part boils down to good feelings in the present, or pleasurable (in a very broad sense; perhaps ‘intense’ had been a better description) feelings about memories of various kinds.
Both purely hedonistic experiences in the now, based on neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, not to mention oxytocin, and more refined flow states during learning or creating at top capacity belong to the category of “fun now”. Food, sex, sports, meditation, reading, playing, partying
Delightful memories include things like Pride (feeling good about accomplishing or enduring something), Relief (appreciation over not having a certain burden anymore) and Reliving (a pure copy of the original direct experience). Memories include Learning new things and skills, not least putting things in perspective.
That perspective is key to a higher appreciation of all other things. Perspective is one of the most important factors in lending meaning (albeit subjective) to life. Experiences enhance your perspective, which in turn enhances your capacity to both invent more things to experience, as well as appreciate those experiences
Perspective — Innovation — Appreciation — Experience — (circling back to Perspective)
Coming back to productivity, innovation, experience, learning and perspective all improve your productivity (i.e., ability to create more of value with less resources in terms of mainly time — your only truly scarce resource). The more productive you are, the faster you can increase your freedom to choose between having fun and being productive (not saying they can’t be the same thing)
Perspective — Productivity — Freedom — Fun — (circling back to Perspective)
In a way the aim is to strengthen the productivity loop until it’s not needed at all, until all basic and higher material needs are taken care of with zero effort; and 100% of your time can be spent on meaningful fun. But here’s the rub. Unless the fun part entails novelty, challenges, learning and growing, it ceases to be enjoyable.
Human pattern recognition (“intelligence”) and the desire for perspective and productivity evolved for survival (finding prey, avoiding predators, finding mates, identifying friends and enemies, analyzing situations and predicting outcomes). Unless those drives are fed with novelty and learning, i.e., finding new patterns, it’s difficult to reach a state of sustainable satisfaction.
Ultimately we are meat sacks, governed by selfish genes, our owns and myriad others, that evolved over billions of years. All they “want” is to survive in as many copies as possible. That translates into drives of productivity and procreation, enabled by pattern recognition and prediction and greased by fun factors flooding our brains when moving in the evolutionary correct direction.
Pattern recognition — Perspective — Prediction — Procreation
Without consciousness there is no consciousness, nobody who cares. But once there is a spark of consciousness it seems to feed on itself and increase in strength and value over time. Perspective works the same way. Without it there is no drive to get it. But just a little taste of perspective kicks off a strong feedback loop of ever increasing appetite for and the ability to gain ever more perspective. This is where meaning comes in. Without a perspective of the self there is no consciousness, no reflection, no metacognition, no plan, no real past or future; and no meaning.
But when we do have enough perspective on ourselves, on others and on reality; consciousness emerges and we can form meaningful relationships that place us in a context of increasing scope. It starts with the self and our top five Dunbars and can gradually, with time, technology and awareness, expand to include the entire universe. It is this reciprocal context forming that creates meaning. My meaning arises from taking you into account, just because you in turn take me into account.
Summary: Food, safety and sex => perspective, productivity and fun => meaning
Here’s what it all comes down to. Our genes drive us toward good feelings and fun, which can be had from, e.g., survival enhancers for the self (candy, french fries, sleep, safety…) in order to increase the likelihood of copying (procreation). Drugs and games can hijack our reward circuitry and trick the body into thinking it’s surviving or copying even when it really isn’t.
At the bottom of it, mindless genes are merely trying to replicate like so much runaway nanotech grey goo (google it); and our meat sacks and consciousnesses are just along for the ride. Pattern recognition, or “perspective” if you will, turned out to be a very useful tool to avoid dangers, find food and mates. Hence there are genes coding for rewards for gaining perspective, being productive and procreating. In addition, to make sure we survived in a changing and dangerous environment we evolved hedonistic adaption, meaning we constantly crave novelty and new perspective, rather than being content with the status quo.
In other words, even when we can have fun all the time, we actually can’t. Our selfish genes tell us it’s “bad” if we don’t experience and learn new things or hang out with other living things; and that translates to feelings of meaninglessness. Our organism demands oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin to feel it’s going in the right direction (the direction of copying as many genes as possible) and the conscious self strives for novelty, bonding and perspective since those tend to maximize the desired hormones and neurotransmitters.
The feeling of meaning emerges from an ever expanding perspective and sense of context (at whatever scale you see relevant), whether it’s directly related to physical survival or not. The lowest order of survival consists of mindless genes. They know nothing, feel nothing, their “wanting” to multiply is bound by simple physical laws making one molecule more likely than another. At the next level comes following reward chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine. Yet higher up the the complexity scale, the metaphysical drive for novelty, pattern recognition and context in that pattern (which all boil down to productivity and survival at the lower levels) make us feel we are going places, that there is a path with a beginning and an end. That path is the meaning. The Path Of Meaning only exists if we do “meaningful” things, defined as doing new things, experiencing more, having deeper relationships and so on, i.e. doing things that the body can expect lead to a sustainable or increasing level of visceral rewards in terms of brain chemistry.
take one word that
resonates with your way of life
bounce it around in your head for five minutes
to create your specific word cloud of meaning
What should you in practice do with this insight?
Record how you feel during and directly after an activity (present fun). Pay attention to how you feel about looking back at an activity after a week, a month, a year (memory fun). If it felt good and worthwhile, instilled satisfaction and pride rather than shame, as well as furthered your goals and your power to do more to the same effect (productivity), it was meaningful. Long term satisfaction is meaning. In fact it’s all the meaning there is.
Meditate on it, i.e., set aside some time to think about your activities and your feelings about them. Why not do what I did that sparked this article; take one word that resonates with your way of life and bounce it around in your head for five minutes and see what else it can break loose. What’s your version of my Perspective – Productivity – Experience – Procreation word cloud?
Fuck and play: Take care of your physical health, preferably through sex and physically challenging sports involving other people. The organism likes moderate challenges, physical contact and simulated procreation. You’ll like it too, once you break out of that “ordinary life” homeostasis of working for the man, buying stuff and thinking you’ll just do this for now, and ‘later’ you’ll reap the rewards of life.
Read and try: Learn new things, including both physical and mental abilities and knowledge. This feeds the innate drive for novelty and pattern recognition. Not least it’s the first step to enhanced perspective and increased awareness, which are prerequisites for meaning.
Socialize: Go deeper. Get to know your friends and partner at a deeper level. Meet new people. Knowing they know you works as a factor multiplier for your sense of context and perspective.
A last word on meaning: True enjoyment and meaning, from physical activity and challenging cognitive activities, leave less cravings for empty hedonism such as gluttony and sloth. Just as perspective begets perspective, meaning begets meaning and consciousness begets consciousness; physical and cognitive health beget physical and cognitive health, thanks to satisfaction saturation a.k.a. meaning.
Regarding the closely related notion of “success”; in my opinion success consists of the power and time to do what I find meaningful (i.e., what is long term enjoyable). Money is one means to that end, interesting, deep and close relationships another, meditation a third. Stuff, fame and status usually are hindrances on the path to success.
Remember where you found this article: mikaelsyding.com
And here is a little something that has given me meaning this fall: a new personal best in the bench press the day before yesterday (315 lbs)