We humans

Want a meaningful life? Just ask: “Who would I take to a remote island?”

Jul 16, 2020 /

A philosopher walks into a bar, and a barfly asks him, “What’s the meaning of life?”

That philosopher is me, and it’s an inevitable question once people find out that I am a philosopher and psychology researcher who specializes in studying the meaning of life.

I’ve been asked that question enough times to have a one-liner ready. I’ll first explain that it is not about the meaning of life but the meaning in life before I deliver the punch line. And it has two parts.

The first of which is the following: Meaning in life is about making yourself meaningful to other people.

It’s that simple.

Your life becomes meaningful to you when you’re meaningful to other people: by helping a friend, by sharing a special moment with someone you love, or by connecting with a well-intentioned philosopher through buying him a much-needed beer.

Then, when we sense that our lives are meaningful to other people, we’re able to see the value in our own lives. The Universe may be silent, but our friends and family, our colleagues and community fill our lives with their voices, energy, and vitality.

And the people to whom we are most meaningful are those who care most about us. As philosopher Antti Kauppinen has argued, for those who love us, we are irreplaceable: Even though anyone can buy a present for a particular child, “it will not have the same significance as a handmade gift from a parent,” as he writes. In close relationships, we play a unique and irreplaceable role for the other person often simply by being there.

In 1995, psychology professors Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary made a claim that has since become broadly accepted: “A need to belong is a fundamental human motivation.”

If we know anything about human nature, it’s that we’re social animals. In “The Need to Belong,” an influential review article published in Psychological Bulletin in 1995, professors Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary made a claim that has since become a broadly accepted, and seemingly obvious, thesis in psychology: “A need to belong is a fundamental human motivation.” We evolved to live in groups and to care for each other; the instinct to build strong social relationships lies deep within our humanity.

Our social nature, however, goes deeper than merely caring about others. It’s in our nature to have, as the locus of one’s life, not “me” but “we.” Being in a close relationship has been described by psychologists as a state of “including other in the self.”

Indeed, neurological research has demonstrated that thinking about oneself and thinking about a loved one activate certain regions in the brain that aren’t activated when thinking about a stranger. The brain is wired to be social, and humans are designed to live together with others.

As the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty has beautifully explained: “We are collaborators for each other in consummate reciprocity. Our perspectives merge into each other, and we coexist through a common world.” Although our Western individualistic culture has habituated us to carve especially clear boundaries between the self and other, being able to be so separate from others is a cultural achievement rather than our typical way of being.

We care about the well-being of those close to us almost as much as we care about our own well-being. Sometimes, as in the case of being a parent, we may care about a child’s well-being more than our own. No matter what scientific field we turn our gaze toward — biology, neurological research, evolutionary research, social psychology, behavioral economics, even primate research — we find evidence of our need to form close and caring relationships with others, and how in these relationships the boundary between the self and the other starts to loosen.

Ample evidence shows that relatedness is, indeed, a key source of meaning for us. When researcher Nathaniel Lambert from Florida State University asked a group of undergraduate students to, in his words, “pick the one thing that makes life most meaningful for you,” two-thirds of the respondents either named a particular family member or cited, more generally, their family. As a category, “friends” came in second as the most frequently mentioned source of meaning.

Pew Research Center in the US got similar results when 4,000 Americans were asked to describe in their own words what provides them with a sense of meaning: 69 percent mentioned family and 19 percent mentioned friends.

Feeling close to one’s family and friends is associated with an enhanced sense of meaning in life, and thinking about people “with whom you feel that you really belong” leads to higher ratings of meaningfulness.

Other research has similarly shown that feeling close to one’s family and friends is associated with an enhanced sense of meaning in life, and thinking about people “with whom you feel that you really belong” leads to higher ratings of meaningfulness. Family, friends and other close relationships are, for many people, key sources of meaningfulness in their lives.

The opposite is also true: Being socially excluded leads to feelings of meaninglessness. For example, researcher Tyler Stillman and colleagues recruited a group of students to participate in a study allegedly on first impressions. The 108 students self-recorded a few minutes of video introducing themselves. The researchers then supposedly showed the videos to other students and asked whether or not anyone wanted to meet the video makers; they were told that no one wanted to meet them. (In actuality, no one watched the videos; the researchers simply told the video makers they were rejected.)

The results of the study aren’t surprising: The video makers rated their lives as having less meaning than another group that was spared this experience of social exclusion.

But we don’t need research to tell us that encounters with other people are a key source of meaning. As a father of three small children, I don’t have to look far to see which moments in my everyday life are most meaningful — coming home after work, taking the smallest child in my lap, engaging in some rough-and-tumble wrestling with the five-year-old, and holding surprisingly interesting, if not intelligent, conversations with the seven-year-old. Moments like these are intimate, caring and full of warmth and indeed are highly meaningful.

So, too, are the private moments I share with my partner, when no kids demand our attention, and we can look each other in the eye and be reminded that, yes, this is the person I fell in love with all those years ago. At the risk of sounding sentimental, the list goes on — old friends, colleagues, my parents, siblings, extended family — as I’m sure yours does, too.

In the modern world, there are luckily also myriad options for people to have strong relationships and connections to one another without necessarily having the proximity of “family.” A group of my friends, for example, who’ve decided not to have children instead live in a collective with other like-minded individuals. A few guys from my soccer team felt so committed to this sports community of ours that they recently got tattoos of our team logo. Some colleagues devote themselves to neighborhood activity, volunteering their time, passion and resources to make their neighborhood more active and community-centric.

Often the best and easiest way to improve your own sense of well-being and meaningfulness is to switch your lens: Concentrate less on yourself and more on being connected with others.

The beauty of the modern age is that we have the freedom to choose which sources of meaning connect the most to our lives. Unfortunately, as with much of modernity, this is both a blessing and a curse. The relation of modernization and individualism to our sense of community and belonging is complex. Some forms of community might be declining while other forms seem to be increasing. We might have lost the lifelong proximal communities of our ancestors, but we’ve gained the chance to voluntarily join communities where our individuality is able to bloom with like-minded people.

Nevertheless, if we are to make our lives more meaningful — and the lives of our children and grandchildren — we need to work together to strengthen the forms of community available to us. Meaning is about connecting. Often the best and easiest way to improve your own sense of well-being and meaningfulness is to switch your lens: Concentrate less on yourself and more on being connected with others.

A few years before Sebastian Vettel became the youngest Formula 1 world champion — and a subsequent four-time champion — his physician Aki Hintsa gave him a piece of paper and an envelope.

The task: Write down the names of the most important people in your life and why they’re important.

Vettel did as he was asked and sealed the paper in an envelope. Hintsa advised him to hold on to it, saying, “When success comes, many more people are going to want to be a part of your life … Check this letter to see who your true friends are and remember to stay in touch with them.”

Dr. Hintsa used this exercise with many of his clients, often asking them to make a list of people they would take on a several months’ long sailing trip or to a remote island.

Think about it yourself: Who would you bring? Can you identify the people who are truly important to you and with whom the mere fact of being together is a source of vitality and meaning?

Once you’ve identified them, think about how much time and energy you currently devote to them.

Furthermore, think of your interactions with them: Have you been authentic and true with them, with yourself?

Hintsa’s clients included many high-functioning, hardworking successful individuals, who, it turned out, often sacrificed and neglected meaningful family relations and friendships for their careers.

If you’re lucky, your name is written down in an envelope that belongs to someone you love.

One business executive, for example, had the habit of taking his wife and children on luxury vacations to exotic locations. There, he’d sign the kids up for various adventures and send his wife to the spa. With his family cleared out, he’d log long hours working outside the office.

If that happens every once in a while it’s not a big deal, but if this behavior turns habitual, which it had for him, it becomes problematic in terms of the big picture of his life. Children want adventures and spouses may appreciate a good spa day, but if gaining these luxuries means losing out on familial closeness, no amount of exotic vacations can remedy a strained parental or marital relationship.

Hintsa’s typical advice for both his athlete and executive clients was the same: Spending time with the people you love should be at the top of your priority list.

Sebastian Vettel took the insight from Hintsa’s exercise to heart.

A few years later, when he became a global icon, everyone wanted a piece of him. He remembered the contents of the envelope and, over the years, carefully protected his inner circle, finding time for his closest family and friends in the midst of frenzied media attention and frame. He’s still together with his childhood friend Hanna Prater, with whom he has two kids.

He’s realized that no matter the level of success you achieve, the secret to a meaningful and well-lived life is having a few good people in your life you can truly trust, care and love. Whether you’re on a cramped sailboat together for many months or shored up on a remote island together or simply withstanding the daily grind of what it means to be human, these are the people you want in your corner, no matter what. They make your life better, and you’d do the same for them. If you’re lucky, your name is written down in an envelope that belongs to someone you love.

Excerpted with permission from the new book A Wonderful Life: Insights on Finding a Meaningful Existence by Frank Martela. Published by Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers. Copyright © 2020 by Frank Martela.

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