What is the meaning of life? To be happy and useful.-- Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama
In a quest to find meaning in life, I do what any 21st Century philosopher would: I Google it. My search garners over 91,000,000 results. I skim though a sampling, representing views expressed throughout the ages by scholars, self-help gurus, politicians, poets, the notable and the unknown, artists, existentialists, nihilists and the oft-quoted Anonymous.
The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Being alive is the meaning.--Joseph Campbell
As the Google results make clear, the drive to find meaning in life has been a pervasive part of the human experience throughout history. The quest is clear, the path to follow, well that's where it gets a little murky.
Life can be found only in the present moment. The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life. --Thich Nhat Hanh
Living in the present is a tenet of Zen Buddhism, but it's how we reflect on the past that, "provides insight into who we are and why we are here," write the authors of a study recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Six scholars, including Linda J, Kray, PhD., a professor of Management Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, explored the relationship between "counterfactual thinking," pondering the what ifs of life--and the search for meaning.
Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.-Soren Kierkegaard
You might expect, as I did, that an exercise in revisionist history-imagining the life you would be leading had you followed the paths not taken--might trigger regrets and negative feelings. But, says Kray, "Counterfactual reflection about pivotal moments in the past helps people to weave a coherent life story."
There is not one big cosmic meaning for all, there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like a book for each person-Anais Nin
As a writer, I find it appealing to spin the details of my life into a coherent story. Like any good narrative, it's marked by critical turning points, those fork in the road moments that determine the direction of the story. But how would the narrative read if I rewrote whole chapters. What if I had stuck it out at grad school, or walked down the aisle with my former fianc, or turned down the job in LA? And would imagining a life story with major revisions cast my actual autobiography in a more meaningful light? The science says it would.
Life is what you make of it. Always has been, always will be. --Grandma Moses
In a series of experiments, volunteers were asked to write about or answer questions about a pivotal time in their life. The group prompted to think counterfactually demonstrated an increased perception that the turning point was fated and thereby meaningful. The factual group did not experience that feeling of significance. By thinking counterfactually, you can add context to life's decisions. "Mentally veering off the path of reality, only briefly and imaginatively," the authors write, "forges key connections between what might have been and what was meant to be thereby injecting our experiences and relationships with deeper meaning and significance."
Life is the sum of all your choices. --Albert Camus
In my revised autobiography, I go through with a wedding in spite of serious misgivings about the man I was marrying. My muscles tense at the mere thought of how that would have changed the course of my life. Knowing I made the right move at that fork in the road moment is comforting, but does it help me "construct meaning" in my life? I'll have to think about that. In the meantime, I can ascribe to the truth of Monty Python's Meaning of Life:
Try and be nice to people... read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations. -Monty Python's Meaning of Life