Do We Make Our Lives Meaningful By How We Live Them?

Meaningfulness lies not in what is achieved or recognized, but in how a life is lived. Narrative values show us that the way we go about crafting our lives, whether consciously so or not, can determine their meaningfulness. This has nothing to do with success, no matter how much importance our world seems to accord to it.
Todd May, in “A Significant Life”

A colleague recently sent me the above quote and ask me what I thought about it. Here was my initial response.

This quote parallels Kant’s view of ethics which is that it is the motive, intention or something else intrinsic to an agent makes an act moral or immoral. Moreover, we live meaningful lives for Kant by doing our duty which is to conform our will, choice, desire, intent, motive, to the moral law. The quote also parallels Kant in that, unlike Mill and the utilitarians, Kant doesn’t think the consequences of our actions matter at all.

If May is saying then that meaningful lives are about living in a certain way—say a moral way for example—rather than by accomplishing or achieving something, or being recognized or being successful, I’d agree.

But I’m not sure what he has in mind with words like achieve, recognized, successful, etc. If he is referring to money or fame, then I would agree those aren’t sufficient for a meaningful life. On the other hand, if we find meaning by being good physicians or philosophers, then it seems to me our lives are more meaningful if we not only want to live as good physicians or philosophers, but if we were successful or achieve what we set out to. Like helping our patients or students or readers.

So yes the way we craft our lives is part of a meaningful life—crafted to be loving, thoughtful, or kind—but they would be even more meaningful if we succeeded in what we set out to achieve.

But perhaps I’m reading too much into this. Perhaps what May has in mind is really the Stoic idea—that we can control our own thoughts but not the external world—and not whether we are ultimately successful. So we do give our lives meaning primarily by our efforts. But again, from an eternal perspective, it seems they would be more meaningful if somehow there was some ultimate success for all of us in the end.

These thoughts elicited this thoughtful response from my colleague:

In his book, May … distinguishes meaningful lives as largely distinct from moral lives and also largely distinct from lives of value or worth. A life can have value, but not meaning (he sites animals as an interesting example), and a life can be moral but not have intrinsic meaning (the joyless do-gooder, perhaps). His definition of a meaningful life is close to Susan Wolf’s (something like subjective engagement plus objective worth). Objective worth, in May’s view, involves issues such as narrative and how a life is lived (but not, as my quote shows, achievement).

My question to you, though, is whether you think one can judge one’s life to have been meaningful separate from achievement or results. My gut is that results DO matter, the sum of how one affects things outside themselves DOES matter for a life to be meaningful (meaningful even as distinct from moral or valuable). But I think this important – if external outcomes do matter, it may possibly set one up for disappointment (how much do most people really make a difference?) And if it does not matter, then a life of quiet contemplation and deep thought can be just as meaningful. With the parallel with ethical theory you raise, I’d be inclined to argue that consequences matter. I guess what I am asking is whether, when judging whether life is meaningful, one should (and to what extent) or should not take results or effects into consideration (as opposed to internal considerations such narrative, intent, and how we craft our lives).

And here was my response:

My gut sense is that the internal considerations are ultimately more important since we can’t guarantee the results of our efforts. This is reminiscent of Kant’s opening line in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. “Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world … which can be called good without qualification, except a good will.” (Kant unfortunately takes this to the extreme in ethics and omits consequences from consideration altogether.)

So meaningful lives are in large part about the desire or intention to live meaningful lives. Perhaps another way into these questions would be to consider how you are trying to give meaning to your life.

Example A – Say someone finds meaning in helping children be healthy. In this case the meaningful life for such a person is mostly outer directed by definition. They do want and intend to help children, but surely their lives would be judged more meaningful if they were successful in helping children. I may want to help a sick child but I don’t have the physician’s skills, their license to prescribe medicine, etc. So if I find meaning helping sick children I would achieve better results, and thus lead a more meaningful life by earning an MD rather than a PhD. So it seems that seeking meaning in this way is judged in large part by success, although patients die and physicians aren’t omnipotent. To the extent the physician succeeds better, say with 21st century medicine as opposed to 19th century medicine, I think we could say their lives are somewhat more meaningful. But that’s not to say that 19th physicians didn’t live meaningful lives. I suppose following this line of thought 23rd century physicians will lead even more meaningful lives. But while this would be true in an objective sense, it doesn’t seem true subjectively. It is hard to criticize the 19th doctor for blood letting if s/he thought that was best.

So this brings me back to Wolf’s claim that subjective engagement with good things constitutes the meaningful life. In our example, the physician wants to make his/her patients well. The more I think about it the more I think that even in this case, while the results would be nice and a physician or philosopher should study so as to pass along the best possible knowledge, they live meaningful lives by doing the best they can. So I would tentatively conclude that the internal considerations about our motives, intentions, the narrative of our lives, the crafting of our lives is MORE crucial to judging whether a life is meaningful than the results. However, this doesn’t mean the consequences are irrelevant.

Example B – As for the other case you mentioned, a life of contemplation and meditation, this would obviously be judged as meaningful and successful to the extent you achieved inner peace, knowledge, oneness with the universe or whatever you are trying to achieve. So the relative value of whether the internal or external is more important depends a lot on how you are trying to achieve meaning.

So I think I’m back to the Stoics. Not only do we live best by doing our duty and then recognizing that the outcome is out of our control, but we should remember that meaningful lives are those in which we are actively engaged as subjects in objectively projects—helping people, trying to achieve inner peace, pursuing the good, true, beautiful, etc. From an external perspective good results—people really being helped, more peace, truth, goodness, and beauty in the world—is an added bonus. So I now think May is right, meaningful living is mostly about something inside of us, and this means that our lives can be subjectively meaningful even if we live in an objectively meaningless universe. So I conclude that I agree with his quote with the following modifications:

“Meaningfulness (mostly) lies not in what is achieved or recognized, but in how a life is lived. Narrative values show us that the way we go about crafting our lives, whether consciously so or not, can determine their meaningfulness. This has (little) to do with (worldly) success (or consequences or results, since we have so little control over them), no matter how much importance our world seems to accord to it.”

So May is right, the well lived life is more important than worldly success. Still our lives are made even more meaningful to the extent that we affect the world for the better.

3 thoughts on “Do We Make Our Lives Meaningful By How We Live Them?

  1. i also find it interesting that animals were cited as a life with value, but without meaning. im an animal. i agree. perhaps value and meaning become blurred by the survival instinct?
    well im alive. still. and i can express my thoughts. . . so things must be going okay!

  2. further reflection leads me to the value and meaning in the life of a tree – a tree clearly has value, and i feel it also has meaning. a tree casts a shadow that makes it (more) difficult for competing trees to thrive.

  3. my colleague probably meant “non-human animal.” survival may be more basic than meaning or value, depending on how you look at it.

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