What makes life worth living?

If anyone can answer the question, What is the meaning of life, presumably seniors would have the best chance.  They have been at it longer and perhaps they develop better insights.

The latest Positive Psychology newsletter, which you can receive weekly, deals with this issue. It gives a report on the second day of the 7th Biennial Meaning Conference.  It brought together positive psychologists and existential and humanistic psychologists to try to develop a greater understanding of “What makes life worth living?”

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Differences of Opinion

A panel of 9 speakers broadly representing different types of philosophy and psychology discussed this.  The panel was lively, disputatious, and thought-provoking. Panel members with approximate labels were Richard Ryan, Chris Peterson, and Dov Shmotkin in the positive psychology category, Emmy van Deurzen and Harris Friedman in the existential psychology category, and Jordan Peterson and Alan Waterman in the humanistic psychology category.

  • Jordan Peterson suggested that life is made worth living by the pursuit of truth and by listening humbly to the people around him, even when they say things he doesn’t want to hear.
  • Chris Peterson once ran a campus-wide project titled “What makes life worth living?” at the University of Michigan, from which he collected hundreds of ideas from students, faculty, and staff. He found the ideas fell into 4 primary categories: work, love, play, and service.
  • Harris Friedman stated that he doesn’t think life inherently has meaning and that people, in fact, tend to prematurely foreclose on meaning. His stated goal is to live with the ambiguity of having no definite meaning.
  • Richard Ryan has asked thousands of people what makes life worth living. He has found that relationships, in particular, caring for others, tend to be most satisfying and life doesn’t need to have a goal or purpose.
  • Louise Sundararajan said that she was tired of hearing about common threads. As an indigenous psychologist, she is wary of imposing western ideas on the world: “Your freedom is not my freedom.”
  • Dov Shmotkin pointed out that older people experience well-being and meaning in the immediate presence of friendly relationships. Humans have no right to happiness itself (an outcome), but only to the pursuit of happiness (a process). Meaning is a working system that is functional for us, helping us cherish the opposites, complexities, and opportunities of daily life.
  • Alan Waterman commented that those humans who are highest on self-realization have the most to give others and in actuality do give the most to others.

Perhaps the most useful summary is something that Dr. Laura A. King said in her speech at the final banquet.

Happiness and meaning are so highly correlated that they could almost be the same thing. When people are in a good mood, life feels more meaningful to them.

It’s certainly true that if you have a positive attitude to life, then other people respond to it in a positive way too.  A negative attitude to life will rarely get any useful interactions from others.  They will turn their backs and go their own way.  The way to have a life worth living is clearly to accentuate the positive.

Photo credit: Geoffery Kehrig via photo pin cc

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