The Meaning of Life

A picture of the book The Meaning of Life.

Buy the book

Authors: The School of Life
Read in May 2020

Five Sentence Summary

A meaningful life aims at fulfillment. Some sources of meaning are love, family, work, friendship, culture, politics, nature, and philosophy. To determine what is meaningful to us, we need to go through a process of experience and introspection to find something that speaks to our nature. But, there are also obstacles to meaning. These include vague self-understanding, provincialism, selflessness, immortality, and negative self-talk that need to be overcome to find meaning in life.

Complete Notes

A meaningful life aims at fulfillment and is focused on the long-term.

Meaningful activities are those we value most highly and will miss most deeply when we are on our deathbed.

We can’t rely on others to determine what will be meaningful to us. Instead, we have to identify what’s meaningful to us, by a process of experience and introspection.

Some sources of meaning are love, family, work, friendship, culture, politics, nature, and philosophy.

Obstacles to meaning are vague self-understanding, provincialism, selflessness, immortality, and negative self-talk.

Belonging to a family means that some people will stay on our site, even if we don’t deserve it.

Having a family and children makes the significance of our lives clear.

Our goal in professional life is to do work that is deeply in line with our real selves. In other words, the nature of the work fits our nature, aptitudes, and sources of pleasure. If that’s the case, we can derive our deepest satisfaction from it.

Work is meaningful when it plays a role in making strangers happy, reducing suffering, or increasing the pleasure of an audience.

Work also gives us a sense of agency. Ideally, it lets us trace a connection from our actions to the improvement of humankind.

A body of work can be a collection of your best moments that transcends our mistakes, flaws, bad days, and past failure.

The premise of creativity is to recombine unlikely elements into something new. It means spotting an opportunity to improve things through recombination.

We often find it difficult to know ourselves properly. A friend can act as a mirror that can help us to know and befriend our deeper selves.

Our home helps us to remember who we are. We can make our home a place that adequately embodies our spiritual values. It can stabilize and organize our complex selves.

Music taps into a legacy of unfelt feelings. It amplifies our emotions and helps us express our feelings.

Books simplify, clarify, and organize our concerns. Stories in a book simplify our lived experience and compress the logic of a plot by making links between events much more obvious so that we can more easily understand what is going on. This simplification allows us to put the feelings into words that have long eluded us.

“Simplification does not betray the nuance of life: it renders life more visible.” 83

Having the right person, read the right book, at the right time can help them understand their concerns and experiences better.

Clothes highlight interesting or attractive things about who we are. They capture the values we are drawn to. “Our wardrobes contain some of our most carefully written lines of autobiography.” 89

Travel can be a meaningful agent of maturation. It can help us evolve, open our eyes and restore our perspective. But, we usually travel to the wrong destinations. All of us are involved in an inner journey on which we try to develop in particular ways. The outer journey of traveling should assist us with this inner journey. Different places can have different effects on us and we should choose travel destinations according to their inner benefits. To do this, we need to be clear on what we’re searching for on the inside and which place in the outer world can help us find it. Travel can be an occasion to fundamentally reorient our personality. “We should aim for locations in the outer world that can push us towards the places we need to go to within.” 95

To be political is to care about the happiness of strangers.

Natural phenomena can be consoling. Their unconcernedness with everything we are and want mocks our sense of self-importance and can humble us if we let it. It bestows a different perspective within which our concerns are mercifully irrelevant.

All sports have the goal of the masterful subjugation of the body to the will.

The temper of modern life suggests there is only one person who truly counts: you. A great cause can make us proud to belong to an inspiring collective enterprise.

The purpose of philosophical practice is to gain accurate, clear, and manageable knowledge – especially about ourselves. The more we look into our minds, the less scared we will become about what’s inside. We feel calmer, less resentful, and clearer about our direction.

Deep self-understanding helps us to identify the origins and make-up of our meaningful experiences and enables us to recreate and reliably integrate them into our lives. With poor self-understanding, we will still experience meaningful moments but won’t know how to rediscover them.

The fear of other’s judgment can make us abandon our authentic inclinations.

Our understanding of what’s normal comes from a specific, and not particularly representative, group of people: those who happen to be in our vicinity. But, many ideas of normality are neither universal nor incontestable. Thus, we should reconfigure who we want to have in our immediate vicinity and fit in with.

There is a positive and negative side to selfishness. This distinction is important because a lack of selfishness can be dangerous.

Good selfishness involves being forthright about our needs and concerns and giving priority to ourselves at particular points. We do this to be able to serve other people over the long term.

Bad selfishness has no greater end in view and no higher motive in mind.

A lack of selfishness leads to resentment, vindictiveness, and rage.

Confused by this distinction we frequently fail to state our needs as clearly as we should.

Good selfishness grows out of an accurate understanding of what we need to do to maximize our utility to others.

Always putting other people first is only superficially a good idea.

Fear can positively propel us towards a more meaningful existence.

A lack of urgency to focus on the important things is another obstacle to meaning. It arises out of a hazy supposition that time is unlimited, that we are immortal, and out of fear of the brevity of our existence.

Every day we weave stories about who we are, where we’re going and why events happened in our head.

Mistakes are sources of information that we can use as guides that shape more effective subsequent action.

We must be forgiving of our failures because we can’t get anywhere in one go. Also, we’re never the sole authors of our triumphs and defeats because events and people outside of our control impact the outcomes of our actions. Thus, it’s unwarranted to take all the blame or assume all the credit. “We should not take the entire burden of our difficulties upon our own shoulders.” 131

“We should not let false notions of prestige interfere with our attempts to focus on the aspects of our life stories that actually satisfy us.”