The philosopher Albert Camus once declared that the supreme question was not how to live but why. Whether or not he was correct, it is certainly an important question. Another philosopher, the 19th-century German Arthur Schopenhauer, argued that we are forever caught between desire and boredom, making life not just painful but futile. Most, however, would disagree. And it never hurts to remind ourselves why life is worth the effort.
The Small Pleasures
First, and perhaps most obviously, there are life’s small pleasures. Sadly, people tend to take these for granted, rushing through them as they plan tomorrow’s school run or worry about their mounting debts. Try practising mindfulness. Become conscious of how your mind robs you of the moment. Thoughts constantly intrude, dragging us away from now and into the past or future. Consequently, many of us fail to enjoy life’s pleasures as intensely as we should.
Obviously these pleasures vary from person to person, so begin by identifying yours. Try making a list of your trivial joys. In the UK, there is a popular comedy show called Room 101 on which guests nominate the petty, trivial things that irritate them. One guest half-jokingly suggested an alternative show named “Room Fluffy,” on which people nominate the trivial things that please them. Try it for yourself.
Food would surely be up there. We enjoy a meal with our partner, but how many of us enjoy our breakfast or afternoon snack? Again, mindfulness is key. When you buy that sandwich next lunch break, eat it mindfully. Take a moment to savor the smell, the texture, the first bite. Even laying in a hot bubble bath is a pleasure, as is listening to music, dancing, watching your favorite TV show, and so on. When you do these things, think to yourself “this is where I am, and I’m going to enjoy it.”
Some take this to an extreme, downgrading the important things (like work) and elevating the trivial (like a weekly yoga session). Oscar Wilde turned it into an art form. While a student at Oxford he remarked, “I hope I can live up to my blue china.” To his contemporaries these seemed like the words of a show off, someone trying to provoke the high-minded moralists. But Wilde was making a serious point. If you live for trivial joys, like the sight a beautiful vase, you will attach value to life. And as the philosopher Bertrand Russell once remarked, if you want people to be good first make them happy.
The phrase “personal growth” has been corrupted in recent years. Too often, people confuse it with “achieving things,” or simply “making money.” But personal growth takes many forms. When people describe themselves, or their lives, as failures, they usually mean it in the most shallow, silly way – failure to buy a big house, for example, or failure to win promotion. In other words, failure to boost their ego.
But people grow in all sorts of ways. Indeed, we grow and change all the time. So take charge of this and turn it into something positive. Learning a new skill, such as the guitar, can be enormously thrilling, as can learning another language. More generally, education opens up whole new worlds.
Those who undergo therapy do not simply sit there whining and feeling sorry for themselves. No good therapist would allow such a thing. The point is to uncover negative and destructive patterns of thought or behavior. Cognitive behavioral therapists help the client identify core beliefs, meaning beliefs about themselves, or about the world, so deep and ingrained they take them for granted. Often, these beliefs have held them back and caused immense pain. Recognizing this, and then challenging and replacing those beliefs, comes as a huge relief. For many, it is like being let out of prison.
Jungian therapists take this process of self-development much further. Jung believed that life did have a purpose, what he called the process of Individuation. In essence, this means developing a new kind of self, one deeper and more connected than the shallow and destructive ego. In his classic work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the American scholar Joseph Campbell also deals with this kind of development or unfolding. Like Jung he believed that the world’s myths provide a sort of guide to the process. For Campbell all myths were part of one great myth, which he described as the “Hero Journey”: the child leaves behind the influence of parents, moves through the pain and ecstasy of romantic love and ultimately achieves spiritual peace.
For many, spiritual growth is the point of life. Of course, the word “spiritual” makes some uneasy, but it needn’t mean faith or belief. You can be an atheist and a materialist and yet still commit to a ‘spiritual’ path. It all depends how you define that word. In its loosest sense it means freeing yourself from the narrow little ego and expanding your consciousness. Ultimately, you feel so connected to the universe that produced you that your own death seems irrelevant. In his autobiography, Jung describes this as a “feeling of kinship with all things.”
Breaking down the ego isn’t easy, but it can bring an enormous sense of joy. The word “ecstasy,” for example, comes from the Greek for “to stand outside yourself,” or “outside your ego.” Even a scientist and atheist can experience this. Indeed, it is the scientists who tell us that living things are related, or that we are all made of stardust. But there is a difference between accepting this as a scientific fact and actually feeling it, which is why so many scientists (such as Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan and Fritjof Capra) have experimented with psychedelics.
When someone describes their life as meaningless, they are almost always being absurd. So long as there are other beings in pain, and so long as you have the will or desire to help them, your life has meaning and purpose. A life devoted to caring for abused or abandoned dogs, for example, is a life worth living. The English Romantic poet William Wordsworth expressed this beautifully, describing it as “the best portion of a good man’s life/ His little nameless, unremembered acts/ Of kindness and love.”
But kindness and compassion are not simply duties. Helping other people should be a pleasure. Some will shrug and claim that whatever they do is irrelevant. After all, what difference can they make when overpopulation and global warming doom us all? Try and think of it as the “ripple philosophy”. When you throw a stone into a lake, the ripples move outward, widening and fading as they spread. When you do a kind deed, even simply smiling at a store assistant, you encourage kindness and decency in others.
Cynics claim that humanity is as bad as it has ever been. Plenty of people may be nasty and selfish, but the idea that we’re as bad as ever is nonsense. The human race has made moral progress. The improvement may not be smooth and perfect, but it is an improvement. As late as the 1860s, slaves were bought and sold in the United States. Today it would be unthinkable. Or look at the working conditions in England in the 1820s and 1830s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Children were quite literally taken from orphanages and worked to death in the factories and mills. In so many areas, from our attitude to homosexuality to how we punish criminals, we have made immense progress. By living a kind, compassionate, civilized life you add to that progress.
Whenever creativity is raised, you can be sure that someone will reply “but I have no talent.” For a start that is nonsense. Most people have some talent. They may not be a Beethoven or Picasso, but they can usually do something – strum a guitar, draw cartoons, sing in a choir, etc. And if they can do it, they can improve.
Philosophers distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic values. And they have long argued that a life dominated by extrinsic values, or motives, is likely to be an unhappy one. An intrinsic value is the value something has in itself. So, for example, you play the piano because the act itself gives you a thrill. Or you write poetry because you love the sound of words.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of people are dominated by extrinsic values. They paint a picture or write a poem because they want praise and admiration. And when their poem is rejected or their piano teacher criticises them, they dismiss the whole exercise as futile.
Finally, there is the simple sense of wonder. The greatest scientists and philosophers never lose this. Einstein’s biographer remarks that Einstein “retained the awe of a child” throughout his life: “He never lost his sense of wonder at the magic of nature’s phenomena – magnetic fields, gravity, inertia, light beams – which grown-ups find so commonplace.” Indeed, in later life Einstein wrote to a friend, “people like you and me never grow old.”
As someone once said, the truly staggering thing is not how the universe is but the fact that it exists at all. Looked at like that, everything becomes miraculous and astonishing. Unfortunately, as with so many things in life, the ego forms a barrier. In his work on psychedelic drugs, Aldous Huxley argues that the plants themselves dissolve our sense of ego. Without that obstacle, what had once seemed dull or mundane becomes beautiful and miraculous.
The best popular science writers, such as Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, are good at communicating this sense of awe and wonder. But any expert who truly loves their subject should do the same. The veteran British naturalist and presenter David Attenborough, for example, speaks with sincere joy and astonishment about the natural world. And you find the same with the greatest popularizers of art, architecture, poetry, or whatever it may be. They never lose the sense of sheer wonder.
Everyone experiences moments when they wonder if life is worth the effort. And most endure the occasional bout of depression and despair. But given a little time and effort anyone can find a reason to go on.