In the search for Human flourishing (eudaimonia), meaning or significance is a necessary component. Meaning is what makes you who you are, what story you tell yourself about yourself. People find meaning in many forms: people, philosophy, religion, work, money, experiences, among others. The problem is that many people find their meaning in things they have no control over. They define themselves by their wealth, their jobs, their possessions or relationships.
If a person defines their meaning based upon things they have no control over then when they lose that thing that defines their meaning, they themselves become undefined. They lose the motivating factor in their story of self. Meaning, therefore needs to emerge from the self, and not from an external. One should then define their meaning in the context of one’s thoughts and actions, your knowledge, desire, aversion and motivation. In short the seat of meaning should reside within the realm of control.
Our Meaning should propel us through life and comfort us when the eventual setback hits us. Our meaning should never be able to be taken from us. Our meaning informs our agency in the world. Our meaning needs to be broad in order to fit into the many roles we must take during our life.
We all will fill the role of learners, doers, and teachers in our lives. All these roles equal and necessary in life and our meaning should be able to feed into each one of these roles. Our meaning must not be static or brittle. We may have it shift over time, to fit the dynamic of our lives. One may find their meaning shifting from a builder to a nurturer over time and this is fine as long as you can shift the material manifestation of your meaning from one subject to another.
If one understands levels of abstraction, one can find the proper level where to place one’s meaning. Abstraction is used in science where the primitives of one discipline are explained by another. For example Atomic Theory describes the atoms and all their primitive parts, electron, proton, neutron, orbitals etc. Chemistry is one abstraction level up. Its primitives are the atoms themselves. It uses those atoms to build chemicals. Going up a level of abstraction again Biology uses chemicals as building blocks for living organisms. Cell walls are made up of lipids, chemicals lined up in sheets, and our DNA just very long sequences of nucleotides, just more chemicals.
There are three major places that one can place their meaning in the levels of inner and outer life. At the most base level we have that of the inner self, defined by one’s reason and faculty of choice. A level of inner thought and contemplation before any action with the outside world.
Abstracting up to the middle level and we have our roles and duties within the community of rational beings. Here in the middle we have general duty based categories such as caregiver, builder, protector, organizer.
Going up once more and we have the manifestation of those roles. This manifestation are one’s job, one’s wealth, ones relationships, whatever is the physical output of that role. One can work toward improving their faculty of choice, but in order to live in accordance with nature we must interact with our fellow human beings. We fulfill that interaction with our duties, roles and their manifestations. If we keep our meaning in the middle level it matters not which form its physical manifests takes. The base and middle levels are within the realm of control. The highest level of abstraction is not.
If one is a builder then if matters not if any and all of your creations are destroyed or go to ruin. It is not in your power to preserve earthly things, but it is in your power to do the action of building. Your purpose is to build and create, be you a workman or engineer, tinkerer or architect, designer or craftsman. Nothing should stop you from being your meaning. You should be able to transfer the subject of your meaning, to a multitude of things and never lament when those things cease to be.
Your next project is little more than a hovel – then build it the best you can. Take as much care for this hovel as you would the project of a lavash house. If it is your meaning and duty to be a builder than build everything you can with excellence (arete). This building is done – good, move on to the next one. Do not boast of the building as if it is your own. It is an indifferent. One need to look no farther than the ruins of once great civilizations and remember the words of Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias” to see how fleeting that is. Instead, if you are to say anything at all, say that “I have done the best work I could.” and leave it as that.
This city has been razed to the ground. Do not lament for that which is lost. There are people here now that need you. Do your duty and build for your fellow man, they need shelter from the elements now more than ever. Infuse your meaning into that which is your duty. You are not the building, nor the employee, nor the proprietor. The building can fall, you can lose your job, your company can fold. None of these events can take your meaning from you as long as you don’t put your meaning in these things. Fortify yourself by placing your meaning firmly within the realm of that which you control.
One day a builder will find that through circumstances outside his control he can no longer directly build. This is no problem, for as long as the mind is sound the builder can move to becoming a teacher or mentor who builds the builder. His meaning is retained even though his duty has changed. He should feel no resentment, but instead embrace the change with equanimity. The meaning flows like water into the vessel of the situation at hand.
On the other hand if his duty is to shift his meaning from one calling to another then the new meaning should also be self-defined within the world of the realm of control. Say now you have become an artist. Go forth and be the best artist that you can and fulfill your duty. If you become famous for your sculpture or paintings, or just have a regular job working to make art for marketing that matters not. Both can be good provided you act with excellence in your new meaning as an artist. You are not your art, you are your action. Pour your meaning into the action of work.
The existentialist philosophers sparred with this issue and came to varied conclusions. Albert Camus asserted that there is no meaning and that any attempt to assert meaning would only result in disaster. Here I disagree and am closer to Sartre’s position of “existence precedes essence,” i.e. that we create our own meaning and that there is no external meaning. That the meaning one has must be self defined. I assert that in order to maintain that meaning, the meaning has to be within one’s control. That in refinement to Sartre’s position, not only do we create our meaning but that a eudaimonic meaning must reside in the subset all possible locuses of meaning that are fully within one’s own control.
Of the things that are most correlated with a satisfying and meaningful life, one is contributing to something greater than yourself. These projects are personal, where you can see them having an effect on society, that provide peak challenging experiences, and will matter to more than just you.2 These projects could be a job or charity work or some sort of political organization, and they all lie outside the sphere of choice.
In order to gain the benefits of these projects without the potential of distress from their external nature we should abstract the location of the meaning we gain from them. If one places their meaning in the project itself, then it can be taking away from you, or the project can fail. Instead abstract up a layer and instead place your meaning in the work of moving a project forward. If your charity organization folds, then you can look at it as meaningful work that was done and that you can do more meaningful work with another charity. If your preferred political candidate fails, then work to promote another one for the next election. The outcome of the project does not matter, derive your meaning form your actions to promote a project.
When one looks at the research by Dr John T. Cacioppo and others, it indicates loneliness in older adults results in nearly doubling their mortality risk. They better define Loneliness as “perceived isolation and . . . more accurately defined as the distressing feeling that accompanies discrepancies between one’s desired and actual social relationships.” 1 If one moves their location of their desired social relationship away from an individual and towards a category, then one can change the location of the meaning one derives from specific relationships.
To be defined as the wife or husband of another results in an existence reliant on their spouse for meaning. Here one has placed their meaning in an external. One’s meaning is dependent on the health and opinions of someone else, not on anything one controls. A Stoic can still love their spouse, but would be wise to define their meaning in this regard as not so specific. Rather make your meaning to be a dutiful and loving spouse, or go up a level of abstraction to define your meaning as love and care for others. This change in relationship desire removes the discrepancy of loneliness. Then when one passes on, as we all will eventually, we don’t lose our meaning as well. Keep your meaning to the level of abstraction that remains within your realm of control and reap the health benefits.
Finally those who place their meaning in money are truly lost. Not only is money an external but an external which has no objective value. It only has value due to our inter-subjective reality, i.e. it only has value due to our collective agreement that it has value. It is a second order external, it is outside our control and it is dependent on others collective subjective agreement about it. At least first order externals like our bodies are only dependent on the physical world. A second order external is furthest from our control.
Those without meaning are like a ship out of harbor, beset by a storm. They are lost and in danger -in danger of being defined by others’ desires for them. In the storm they are at the mercy of the gust and waves, throwing them to and fro without direction of their own. The storms are jobs, money, relationships and any other other definition of meaning that on may take that can be taken away from them. If one has meaning that is dependent upon the self alone then they create a harbor against the worst storms and a harness for the storms that are advantageous and in harmony with your meaning.
Dan Hayes is a Stoic Prokoptôn, a VR Software Developer, and a Landlord, seeking calm within the storm of life through wisdom.
1. Luo, Y., Hawkley, L. C., Waite, L. J., Cacioppo, J. T. (2012). Loneliness, health, and mortality in old age: A national longitudinal study. Social Science & Medicine, 74, 907-914.
2. Martos T et al., “Life Goals and Well-Being: Does Financial Status Matter? Evidence from a Representative Hungarian Sample.” Soc. Indic. Res. 105, 561–8 (2012)