My partner is taking a psychology class, and one of her assignments is to write a paper answering the question, “What makes life worth living?”
For the past few days, she's been asking those around her – kids, friends, coworkers – what they think makes life worthwhile, and the answers have been pretty consistent: family, friends, work, music, some possession or other, faith, maybe health. Video games on computers.
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Although these responses are not necessarily trivial, they strike me as very unsatisfying responses to the question, “What makes life worth living?” What about family, friends, work, and so on makes life worthwhile? Is it enough to just have them?
So, why aren't most people who have families, friends, and jobs happier than they are? Why do we live in a society where antidepressants are among the most profitable medications? Why are bookstore shelves crammed with books on how to be happier?
I believe there is a reluctance to answer such a question honestly. Sure, being put on the spot and asked one of humanity's most profound questions is probably not conducive to thoughtful responses, but I doubt she'd get much better responses if she gave them a week to think about it.
It's the same resistance I encounter when discussing the GTD weekly review. We're fine with going over our tasks and making some short-term plans, but when Allen insists on taking the “50,000 foot view” of our lives – the Big Picture view – people tend to fall short.
And when Allen insists, as he does in almost every interview I've ever heard or read, that we ask ourselves, “Is what I'm doing right now the most important thing I could be doing in my life?” I'm seeing the same kind of opposition. Who am I to judge? I'm experiencing the same reluctance. Is it really the most important thing I could be doing if I'm cleaning up dog poop in the backyard or playing BrickBreaker on my Blackberry?
Most likely not.
But it strikes me as a critical question. What makes life worthwhile? And I believe that the reason people respond in such unsatisfactory ways is that we've grown so accustomed to defining ourselves in terms of possessions – possessions that literally feel like extensions of our self – that it's difficult to think of even those closest to us in any other way than as possessions, as “objects” with certain qualities that make us happy. Or, more often than not, do not.
That is, they are all “things” that are external to us, no matter how much of a part of our lives they appear to be. I believe that any discussion of what makes life worthwhile must begin with an inward look at oneself, rather than an outward look at the people and things one surrounds oneself with.
Instead, I believe we should address the question through our own actions, the things we do that make life worthwhile. Not nouns, but verbs. When I consider how I would respond to the question, the following actions come to mind:
- Creating: Writing, drawing, painting (though I'm not particularly good at it), and playing music (though I'm not particularly good at either): For others, it could be creating something new, starting a business, devising a clever marketing campaign, or establishing a non-profit.
- Relating: I believe that it is the relationships we form with members of our family, as well as the way we maintain and build those relationships, that make life worthwhile. Friends, lovers, business partners, students, and everyone else are all the same.
- Helping: I consider it an important part of life to be able to lend a helping hand to people in need, no matter how severe or insignificant that need may be.
- Realizing: Making, working toward, and achieving goals, regardless of their nature.
- Playing: This may be a form of “relating,” but play can also be a solo activity. Allowing yourself to be free of constraints, imagining new possibilities, competing with others or against yourself, and finding humor and joy.
- Growing: It means learning new things and improving my knowledge and abilities in areas where I've already learned.
Those seem like more satisfying answers to me – they delve deeper into what I want for myself, what motivates me to get out of bed in the morning.
So, how about you? What makes your life worthwhile to live? Do you think I'm going in the wrong direction here? How would you respond to the question, “What makes life worthwhile?”
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