20080804-life

My partner is taking a class in psychology and one assignment asks her to write a paper answering the question “What makes life worth living?”

For the past few days, she’s been asking the people around her – kids, friends, co-workers – what they think makes life worth living, and the answers have been pretty much of a sort: family, friends, work, music, some possession or other, faith, maybe health. Computer games.

Although these answers aren’t necessarily trivial, they strike me as very unsatisfying answers to the question “What makes life wort living?” What about family, friends, work, etc. makes life worth living? Just having them?

Then why aren’t most people – who generally have families, friends, and jobs – happier than they are? Why, indeed, do we live in a society where anti-depressants are among the most profitable medications? Why are the bookstore shelves packed with books explaining how to be happier?

I think there’s a resistance to answering a question like this honestly. Sure, being put on the spot and asked one of the most profound questions humanity has managed to come up with is probably not exactly conducive to thoughtful responses, either, but I doubt she’d get much better responses if she gave them a week to think about it.

It’s the same resistance I see when people talk about the GTD weekly review. We’re pretty much ok with going over our tasks and doing some short-range planning, but when Allen insists we take that “50,000 foot view” of our lives – the Big Picture view – people tend to come up short.

And when Allen insists, over and over in virtually every interview with him I’ve ever heard or read, that we ask ourselves, “Is what I’m doing right now the most important thing I could be doing in my life?” I see the same resistance. Who am I kidding? I feel the same resistance. Maybe I’m cleaning up dog poop in the backyard, or playing BrickBreaker on my Blackberry – is that really the most important thing I could be doing?

Probably not.

But it strikes me as a really important question. What does make life worth living? And I think the reason people answer in such unsatisfying ways is that we’ve grown so used to defining ourselves in terms of possessions – possessions that literally feel like extensions of our self – that it’s hard to think of even the people close to us in any way other than as possessions, as “objects” with certain qualities that make us happy. Or, more often, don’t.

Which is to say, they’re all “things” that are external to us, no matter how much a part of our life they feel like. I think any question of what makes life worth living has to start with an inward look at one’s self, not an outward look at the people and things one surrounds one’s self with.

Instead, I think we need to address the question with our own actions, the things we do that make life worth living. Verbs, not nouns. When I think of how I would answer the question, the following behaviors come to mind:

  • Creating: Writing, drawing, painting (though I’m not good at it), playing music (though I’m not especially good at that, either). For others, it might be inventing something, building a business, coming up with a clever marketing campaign, forming a non-profit.
  • Relating: It’s not “family” that makes life worth living, I think, but the relationships we create with members of our family, and the way we maintain and build those relationships. Same goes for friends, lovers, business partners, students, and everyone else.
  • Helping: Being able to lend a hand to people in need – however drastic or trivial that need may be – strikes me as an important part of life.
  • Realizing: Making, working towards, and  achieving goals, no matter what those goals are.
  • Playing: Maybe this is a kind of “relating”, but then, play can be a solo affair as well. Letting go of restraints, imagining new possibilities, testing yourself against others or against yourself, finding humor and joy.
  • Growing: Learning new things, improving my knowledge and ability in the things I’ve already learned.

Those seem like more satisfying answers to me – they strike deeper into what it is I want for myself, what makes it worthwhile to get up in the morning.

What about you? What makes your life worth living? Do you feel like I’m headed down the wrong path here? How would you answer the question, “What makes life worth living?”

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