"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
This is the second installment in the Meaningfulness Project series, an essay project devoted to exploring a sense of purpose through long-term commitment to core values.
The Short Version
In the introduction to the Meaningfulness Project, I said that to create a meaningful life we must commit ourselves long-term to a set of values. I described values as those principles that tell us what is good and bad, right and wrong. The question of right and wrong has to do with morality, and there’s good reason to believe that much of our morality is hardwired. By contrast, the question of what is good is open to more interpretation.
Basically, “the good” is always preferable to its alternatives, and we compare based on certain standards. Your standard might be aesthetic: The good is the beautiful or it creates beauty. Your standard might be psychological: The good is what brings happiness or relieves suffering. Your standard might even be moral: The good is the source of virtue – those actions that bring about a just and peaceful world.
I considered these standards in my answer to the question:
How Do We Live the Good Life?
To me, this question is essentially different from the question of how to live a meaningful life. The latter question stresses an explanation of how meaning comes about and what system of meaning strikes your fancy. How to live a meaningful life is a postmodern question – a question that arises from the loss of widespread belief in divine law. In other words, meaningfulness only becomes a concern if its opposite, meaninglessness, has entered the conversation. That conversation is the result of the last few centuries of intellectual development.
By contrast, thinking about the good requires fewer intermediary steps of reasoning and justification. Western culture has discussed the nature of the good since ancient times; we’ve developed a lot more to say about what is good than what is meaningful. And so, with the standards of beauty, less suffering and virtue in mind, I propose the following four components of the good life: health, exploration, learning and creativity.
Active, Not Passive
What unites all aspects of the good is a preference for action over passivity. You cannot achieve the good life parked in front of a television set (or its Internet-era equivalent) for days on end. Mindless entertainment is the enemy of the good. There’s a reason such things are called guilty pleasures. Rollo May in The Courage to Create says of neglecting to express your original ideas, “you will have betrayed your community in failing to make your contribution to the whole.”
Thus, when we don’t act according to our better natures, we let down not only ourselves but also our tribe. Human beings are social and collaborative creatures; the loss of an individual’s potential is the same as the loss of communal potential.
So what actions nourish beauty, relieve suffering, and cultivate virtue?
1. Striving for Optimal Health
Your health is the foundation of everything you experience. It’s at the root of your mood and hugely influential to your cognitive functioning. Sleep, diet, strength, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness all have a role to play. Health is not related to your body alone, either. Stress management and other aspects of mental health are also hugely important to our perception of our environment and our ability to achieve the good.
I believe that a healthy body and a beautiful body are one and the same. Our superficial prejudices against certain body types or fashion choices are temporary cultural fads. They have little meaning outside their tight silos of time period or industry.
On the other hand, I think a body with a physique capable of performing feats of strength, endurance and flexibility will always be attractive, no matter your age. Deep in our primal instincts we feel this attraction to health; its proximity to us can be just as uplifting as a proximity to sickness is enervating (and sometimes dangerous).
I pursue optimal health through a non-sedentary lifestyle, through a mostly whole foods, plant-based diet, and through daily mindfulness training and a hygiene routine. These habits help to relieve and inoculate me against the inevitable low-level suffering of everyday life. Oftentimes when I’m consumed by a depressing thought, focusing on my health goals will get rid of the thought entirely, or better yet, put it in a clearer perspective.
Beyond relieving suffering, though, taking action to promote good health enhances my sense of personal beauty and happiness. I generate self-esteem, which helps me to create more beauty and happiness around me. I feel a stronger sense of self, which is the best foundation for practicing moral courage and virtue. Our friend Rollo May says, “A chief characteristic of … courage is that it requires a centeredness within our own being, without which we would feel ourselves to be a vacuum. The ’emptiness’ within corresponds to an apathy without; and the apathy adds up, in the long run, to cowardice.”
It’s important to note May’s use of “vacuum.” He doesn’t say that without a strong sense of self we become a void – a mere empty space. Instead, we become a vacuum – an area of low pressure that’s likely to suck in whatever’s around. In our society, what’s around is advertisements.
The bizarre otherworld of marketing is a place where soft drinks “refresh” rather than spike your insulin level. Fast food chains say we’re having it our way when we’re downing a thousand calories in a single meal, we’re loving it when we get a day’s worth of sodium in a single sitting, and we’re “thinking” outside the bun when we opt for the saddest excuse for Mexican cuisine available.
So besides striving for optimal health, how else can we cultivate the good in our lives and become impervious to the temptations of our culture?
My definition of exploration is very broad. We explore when we leave our comfort zones and live for a time outside the ordinary. The possibilities for true exploration are endless, and most don’t require a passport. You can explore the wilderness in a national park. You can explore your community by volunteering. You can explore the mind and reality of another person through deep, compassionate communication or even through a good book or film. You can explore the cultural relics of a different generation, younger or older than yours. You can also learn a new language and explore different ways of expressing yourself and communicating about time, love and life.
To explore invites paradox into our lives, because as we begin to realize just how small and insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things, we also continue to develop a strong sense of self in our active pursuit of the good life. The farther we stray from apathy, cowardice and passivity, the closer we come to a firm sense of our humanity, our inherent self worth, and our goodness.
3 & 4. Learning and Creativity
Finally, the last two active ingredients in my personal recipe for the good life are learning and creativity. I group these two together because I see them as two critical phases in one continuous process of personal growth. We need to continually learn in order to support a creative output that communicates to people and challenges them. Similarly, the true test of our learning is our ability to assimilate new knowledge in a creative undertaking. In my education master’s degree curriculum, we learned this as the Five Stages of Engaged Learning:
The prior knowledge and personal experience you harness to enhance your learning is a rich source of originality. Although it may be true, as the Beatles put it, “There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known./Nothing you can see that isn’t shown,” the most common source of original thought brings previously unforeseen connections to light. Your unique set of personal experiences and insights, as well as your individual schedule of learning, can result in some very unexpected conclusions. This is the kind of contribution to your community that Rollo May emphasizes in The Courage to Create.
And so, I submit to you my thoughts on the good life and the actions necessary to achieve it. Keeping in mind my emphasis on learning and exploration, its very likely my ideas will evolve and shift over time. That’s to be expected – even invited.
Which leads me to my final Rollo May quote, this one about the “paradox of courage”: “We must be fully committed, but we must also be aware at the same time that we might possibly be wrong.”
Indeed, if there’s anything we should understand about the pursuit of meaningfulness and the good in a postmodern culture, it’s this emphasis on conviction over certainty. Courage has no meaning or value if a person has no fear or doubt. True courage feels both and takes action in spite of it. This gives weight to the pursuit of meaning and goodness, just as it shows the shallowness of dogmatism – the acceptance of and devotion to ready-made systems of value and thought. Our journey is different, and it may even be wrong, but in turning away from the vacuum we turn toward what makes us fully, irrevocably human.
*All images under a Creative Commons license.