Since the dawn of consciousness, mankind has been trying to find meaning in life: Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? What is it all about? Some looked at the stars for answers, others confided that God knows best. Philosophy, psychology, modern sciences, have all had a take. Nevertheless, as of today, we’re still far from reaching a consensus on a universal answer. Maybe now even more than we’ve ever been, as we accumulate more knowledge and dig deeper into the fabric of reality itself.
There’s a long list of benefits to finding a satisfying answer to mankind’s most pressing question. Among which, we’d have a clear sense of destination and we’d be able to navigate through life more easily and achieve a fulfilling life.
Let’s take a look at what the following domains of knowledge have to say before jumping to our own conclusion.
In physics, a life-form is not really all that different from anything else. Living beings and non-living things, “it’s all part of the same thing” according to prof. Adrian Bejan. His book The Physics of Life is premised on a law of physics he formulated in 1996: The Constructal Law. The law states that there’s a universal evolutionary tendency toward design in nature because everything is composed of systems that change and evolve to flow more easily. He further clarifies that the tendency is to evolve freely — changing on the go, to achieve greater ease of movement.
Flow systems are everywhere. They describe how animals interact with their surroundings, how river deltas form, etc. In each case, they aim to reduce friction, flow better, improve themselves and minimize their mistakes or imperfections. The search for efficiency leads to evolution.
According to The Encyclopaedia Britannica’s biochemical definition, life is “An open system of linked organic reactions catalyzed at low temperatures by specific enzymes which are themselves products of the system.” Some references include movement against a force besides the other criteria. This may include locomotion or, with most plants, growth against the force of gravity.
Life has traditionally been characterized in terms of growth, reproduction, metabolism, motion, and response (through homeostasis and evolution.)
Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living (Peterson, 2008.) Its main concern is with eudaimonia, “the good life,” and the factors that contribute to a well-lived and fulfilling life. Martin Seligman defined “the good life” as “using your signature strengths every day to produce authentic happiness and abundant gratification.” Note that positive psychologists have suggested that happiness may rise with increasing financial income, for example. But it may plateau or even fall when no further gains are made. So, to achieve lasting happiness, your signature strengths must always be engaged as you continue to develop your full potential.
Abraham Maslow, the psychologist that first coined the term “positive psychology,” envisioned moments of extraordinary experience, known as peak experiences. These “peak experiences” or states of flow are reflections of the realization of one’s human potential. It represents the height of personality development, leading to self-actualization.
The term “Philosophy” — Philo and Sophia combined — denote “love for knowledge.” The concern of philosophy is mostly about how we can lead a life worth living. But there are so many schools of philosophy with different radical ideas that are sometimes complementary and sometimes contradictory. Extracting useful information from this field can get messy, real fast, and utterly confusing. Nevertheless, all of these ideas are helpful, in their own way, depending on interpretation and context. To simplify things, I’ll make a summary of some of the ideas I like and identify with.
Aristotle’s Ergon Argument
Ergon is a Greek word that means “function,” or “purpose.” For example, the Ergon of a knife is to cut; The Ergon of a house is to provide shelter; The Ergon of parents is to nurture the child. A connected term is aretê which means “excellence.” The excellence of a knife is sharpness, since its purpose is to cut. The excellence of a house is security, since its purpose is to provide shelter against the elements, intruders, etc. The excellence of parents is to be caring, since their function is to nurture the child.
So, the purpose of anything is to simply put its signature strengths to use. The most distinct signature strength of a human is “reason,” and this capability distinguishes humans from any other living being. Aristotle also believed that there are signature strengths that distinguish one person from another. Using these signature strengths to overcome the obstacles of life is how a person can lead a fulfilling life.
Nietzsche’s Will to Power
In The Will to Power, Nietzsche wrote: “To those human beings who are of any concern to me, I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities — I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not — that one endures.”
The will to power describes what Nietzsche believed to be the main driving force in humans. The term was inspired by Schopenhauer’s “will to live.” Schopenhauer explained that the universe and everything in it are driven by a primordial will to live, which results in a desire in all living creatures to avoid death and to procreate. For Schopenhauer, this will is the most fundamental aspect of reality — more fundamental even than being. To understand and appreciate Nietzsche’s philosophy, we must understand the struggles he had to deal with all his life. Nietzsche believed that life is all about survival and a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulties.
After philosophy professor John Kraag — the author of Hiking with Nietzsche: Becoming Who You Are — attempted to follow Nietzsche’s trail and thought processes through the Swiss Alps, he concluded that a celebration of life needn’t entail self-immolation, but it necessarily entails difficulties. “The self does not lie passively in wait for us to discover it. Selfhood is made in the active, ongoing process, in the German verb werden, ‘to become,’” he writes.
Obstacles allow us to find and become ourselves. But, mind you, we shouldn’t simply try to overcome the obstacles of life. But rather, develop our ability to overcome them. And by doing that we will become immune to obstacles. That’s how we can lead a good life: by developing the ability to be okay in the face of adversity. When we can be okay in the face of adversity, we can also be happy even if we don’t have what we want yet. Being in this state helps us acquire what we want even faster.
Montaigne’s How To Live
It would be a felon to talk about life without mentioning The Philosopher of Life himself: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne.
Montaigne believed the best thing to do while we’re alive is to live deliberately and consciously. When we die, there’s nothing but blackness and nothingness. He realized this after he had a near-death experience after he was flung from a galloping horse, spooked by one of his guards. From that point forward, he carried a sense of clarity and euphoria about life. Shortly thereafter, he took a bold step: he retired from a promising public career and made self-study his official occupation. He studied life and how we can extract all that we can from the short bit of time each of us is given. The topics he wrote about were random. He exercised to practice thinking and to discover thoughts he didn’t know that he had.
Montaigne wrote: “having myself since boyhood to see my life reflected in other people’s… I study [them] for what I should avoid or what I should imitate.” While studying people — and life in general (including his cat,) he was constantly experimenting on himself trying to figure out what he liked or didn’t like.
Montaigne once used the analogy of a man with a bow and arrow to illustrate the importance of meditation and analysis. You have to know what you’re aiming for before it is even worth bothering with preparing the bow, nocking the arrow and letting go. Our projects, he said, “go astray because we do not address them to a target.” The idea is that intimate knowledge of ourselves makes it possible (and easier!) to know what we need to do on a daily basis. He advised us to meditate on our lives in order to properly arrange our day-to-day actions.
According to the two largest religions, Christianity and Islam, our human life is all about exercising our capabilities for free will.
In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit (that wasn’t an apple) and gained the knowledge of good and evil. From then onwards, God allowed them to choose how they use that knowledge to decide for themselves how they live their lives.
There was a man in the Bible named Job. Job was a rich and successful man: he had everything anyone could ever wish for in life. He was righteous and he followed God’s commandments. Satan, wreaking havoc as always, made Job lose everything. He was hoping to lead Job astray by making him miserable. But Job remained steadfast in the face of adversity. And because he chose to remain righteous even in the most difficult moments of his life, he gained everything back two folds.
A young man named Harris asked Dr. Zakir Naik: “Before God created the universe and put a human in it, he knew that in the end, certain people will disappoint him. Why then did he go ahead with the plan, anyway?” Dr. Naik replied saying “God created human beings with the free will to go against him or to follow him: If we choose the righteous path, it leads us to success and prosperity; if not, well… hell breaks loose.”
What do some of the most cherished science pop icons think life is all about?
In 1951, a young woman wrote to Albert Einstein asking him what he believes life is all about. His reply was short and poignant: “To create satisfaction for ourselves and for other people,” he wrote. But he didn’t clarify what this answer entails. Later on, though, a letter to his son showed a deeper answer than that. In the letter, Einstein told his son he believed in the “highest stage of consciousness as the highest ideal.” He added that “mankind’s ability to think and create something from nothing is the greatest thing that we can do.” Einstein suggested that it’s this creation that will allow us to experience true happiness. He also stressed that it’s necessary to create not out of a desire to be remembered but for the love of the thing you are bringing into the world.
In the 2018 world government summit, Al-Gergawi asked Elon Musk: “What’s your mission in life why you do whatever you do?” Elon Musk replied: “When I was a kid, I was wondering what’s the meaning of life? Why are we here? What’s it all about? I got to the conclusion that what really matters is being able to ask the right questions and the more we can increase the scope and scale of the human consciousness, the better we are able to ask these questions.” He claimed that the longer we survive as a conscious species, the better our chances are to develop higher consciousness. He then added: “life can’t just be about solving problems, otherwise what’s the point? There need to be reasons to get up in the morning. There’s got to be things that people find inspiring and make life worth living.”
From the different domains, I highlighted these keywords: evolve, improve, movement against a force, growth, using your signature strengths every day, develop your full potential, create, increase, higher consciousness, excellence, survival, overcome obstacles, discover, intimate knowledge of ourselves.
In summary, to me, life is all about progress. It is all about using our signature strengths to overcome the obstacles of life; making the right decisions that will help us become the best we can ever be.
We have an opportunity to grow and improve ourselves and our surroundings when we encounter an obstacle. So, instead of running away from obstacles, and trying to avoid them at all costs, we should courageously approach them.
There would be no sense of right or wrong or good or bad if we had no obstacles to overcome in life. Nothing would matter. The obstacles of life give us the opportunity to decide how we live our lives. And this is the second-best gift we have been given: having a say over what we do with our lives. What we do with it is up to us.
For you, what is life all about?
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