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What Makes Life Worth Living?

What Makes Life Worth Living?

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Last Updated on August 20, 2019

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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