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Why are you here? What is your true purpose? Knowing what makes life meaningful to you is a guiding light. Accepting a prepackaged idea about the meaning of life can be catastrophic. The most common regret of people who are dying is that they did not have the courage to live lives true to themselves, but instead lived the lives others expected of them.

Modern culture provides a prepackaged meaning of life that most of us accept without question. We are indoctrinated at an early age into a worldview that defines our role in life as earners and our function in life as consumers. These definitions are rooted deeply in us. As a psychology nut, I know this narrow perception is unhealthy. However, having an intellectual understanding that life is about more than money has done little to alter my gut feeling that money can buy happiness.

Every philosophy of life answers 3 basic


1. What is life all about?

2. How do we screw it up?

3. How can we fix it?

According to the cultural philosophy of life we are programmed to believe, the answers are as follows.

Q: What is life all about?

A: Having lots of stuff.

Q: How do we screw it up?

A: By not working enough, earning enough, or buying enough.

Q: How can we fix it?

A: Work more. Earn more. Buy more.

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001, the President of the United States advised Americans to “conduct business” and “go out and shop.” He didn't mention strengthening social bondscreating positive goals, or doing good in the world, all of which are activities supported by research to increase happiness in humans. 

I don’t think President Bush had any ill intent in his instructions to Americans after the tragedy. I think he was simply reiterating the message that rains down on us all day every day, “Buying things will make you happy.” 

In truth, there is a relationship between money and happiness. Not having enough money to pay the bills certainly decreases happiness. However, having a million times what is needed to pay the bills does not have much effect on happiness. The only other caveat relating money to happiness is that giving it away seems to make people happier!

Acquisitiveness, the ever-present need for more, more, more, more, is the driving principle behind our cultural philosophy of life. To put it bluntly, the meaning of life that has been hammered into every fiber of our beings is rooted in greed and selfishness. The meaning and purpose we are programmed to accept, leave us in a constant state of covetous hunger. The character, Golem, from The Lord of the Rings, who spends his life yearning and plotting to acquire the “precious” ring, exemplifies the inner world of all who fail to challenge their base cultural programming.

Erica and I think that life is exactly what it is supposed to be. We cannot change life, but we can change ourselves. We believe people are tasked with creating purpose and meaning through personal development, service, and gratitude. Because we only get so many trips around the sun, it makes sense to use some time to develop the self fully. The self is the instrument through which we experience life. Every aspect of the self requires development. This means spending time working on mental, spiritual, social, and physical growth. Being of use is fundamental to a deep sense of purpose. Making the world a better place is good for you and everyone in your life. Cultivating gratefulness can help you enjoy a richer existence, stronger relationships, a greater sense of purpose, and improved emotional health. Marcus Aurelius said, “When you arise in the morning, think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.” Gratitude seems an appropriate response to the incredible gift of being alive.

Our answers to the three questions are:

1. Life is exactly what it is supposed to be. Life is always perfectly what it is.

2. We screw it up by thinking life should be other than it is. For example, "My life should be happy (or exciting, or wealthy, or painless, or trouble-free, or wonderful, etc.)."

3. We fix it by viewing life through a lens of profound appreciation and acceptance, by developing ourselves, and by helping others. Every event, positive or negative, is an opportunity to learn, grow, and feel. Gratitude is the polar opposite of selfishness and replaces avarice with satisfaction and generosity.

People say they want a "happy life." What does that mean? Has it ever been achieved? Would they really want to achieve it? Happiness is an emotion and emotions, like the weather, are constantly changing.

We are meant to partake in the full range of human experiences. Life is happy, sad, surprising, boring, fascinating, depressing, exciting, and every other emotional descriptor imaginable! Anything less would be less than human. Movies are not all happy. There are comedies, but also dramas, love stories, horror films, action and adventure flicks, documentaries, and tragedies. Deep down we want to experience the complete spectrum of emotions. Old fashioned carnivals had a roller coaster to thrill us, a house of mirrors to confuse us, a freak show to freak us out, a burlesque show to sex us up, and a haunted house to scare us. A carnival with just one attraction would not be much of a carnival! A human life with only one emotion would not be much of a life.

You may ask, "Am I supposed to enjoy grieving, and illness, and pain, and failure, and all of the other miserable experiences of life?" The answer is, "no." You are not meant to enjoy the bad parts but you will experience them regardless and it only makes sense to value even the most negative experiences. These unhappy experiences can bring the gifts of maturity, perseverance, and empathy for others. Suffering can help to cultivate the better parts of our nature. A spoiled child who has been granted her every wish is generally not a very pleasant child to be around. Likewise, adults who have been handed everything on a silver platter are unlikely to have much compassion for the other inhabitants of this planet. The hard times temper and transform our characters in the same way that heat tempers and transforms iron into steel.

Appreciating the good times for what they are and the hard times as opportunities for self-improvement is a superpower. Shifting your attitude from the need to acquire more things to a deep sense of thankfulness for this opportunity to live exactly one human life is miraculous! Life is a blank pallet upon which you create your very own masterpiece of meaning unique to you. Your life's meaning is what makes you feel alive and fulfilled. Aging heroes who cultivate gratitude for all of life's myriad experiences enjoy a richer existence, stronger relationships, a sense of purpose, and greater emotional health.

How do you answer the three questions?

1. What is life all about?

2. How do we screw it up?

3. How can we fix it?

1 Comment

I am using something like this in the book I am writing. Don't sue me for monies.

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