Can't find meaning in your life? A new study has the next best thing.
The search for meaning in our lives is one of the great driving forces of human history. Viktor Frankl based his psychology on that search. Existentialism is based mainly on the need for meaning. As anybody who has had an existential crisis or three knows, not having meaning in your life can cause anxiety, dread, fear, and loathing.
Between alienation, isolation, and the absurdity we face every day, most of us need a bit of a pick me up when it comes to having meaning in our lives from time to time.
Luckily, a new study shows an interesting way to find more meaning in your life: having sex.
A recent study by Todd B. Kashdan and others at George Mason University asked participants a to answer a series of questions every day relating to their life satisfaction and the frequency, intimacy, enjoyability of their sexual activity. Life satisfaction was measured with several parameters, including mood and if they found that day to be meaningful.
The question used to determine that was “How meaningful did you feel your life was today?” A phrasing that has appeared on other tests of well-being and is considered to measure if people find their lives meaningful or not adequately.
The subjects, 152 adults who were mostly female, were asked to fill out demographic reports which included whether or not they were in relationships and information on the length and closeness of those relationships. They were then asked to fill out an online form every night detailing their mood, how meaningful they found their lives to be, and if they engaged in sexual activity. They were asked to rate that activity in terms of enjoyment and intimacy on a standardized scale.
What did they find out?
Analysis of the reports showed that having sex leads to increased well-being on all counts for the next day, with those who reported having high levels of intimacy with their partners seeing that improvement last more than 24 hours. While the occurrence of sex was found to influence well-being the next day, well-being was not found to influence the occurrence of sex.
Neither pleasure, intimacy, or how much their mood had improved affected the increased sense of finding meaning in life. This facet of well-being improved consistently for all test subjects after sex and was affected only by the quality of their relationship, if any.
Curiously, the results suggest that being in a committed relationship of any length has little to no effect on reported well-being. Those in the closest relationships, however, did show higher levels of well-being improvement compared to everyone else. In light of this, the authors suggest that a dominant component of feeling like your life has meaning may be having meaningful social connections. A suggestion that Aristotle would agree with.
As the authors note, the study raises interesting questions concerning the relationship between hedonistic and eudaemonic happiness. If the two kinds of happiness are totally unrelated then results that show sex, often associated with hedonistic happiness, helps people find more meaning in their lives requires further explanation. The differing types of happiness are often considered at least somewhat distinct from one another.
Although, the connection between finding meaning in life and sex may explain both the philosophy and lifestyle of Albert Camus.
The authors of the study note with surprise that the literature concerning the relationship between sex and well-being is rather unimpressive given the history of psychological inquiry into the matter. They also point out that in most models of well-being sexuality is, strangely, left out entirely. However, after reviewing the literature that does exist, they believe that their findings are in line with the previous studies which have been made on the subject.
While the often hedonistic pursuit of sex might not be a full replacement for a lifestyle that pursues eudaemonia, this study suggests that some overlap between the two forms of happiness, particularly where feeling as though your life has meaning is concerned, does exist. While the benefits are fleeting and at least somewhat subject to other factors, it does seem that there is a way to find momentary freedom from the problem of finding meaning in your life.
Philosophers aren't known for their love lives, but a few have managed to be tragic romantics anyway.
Philosophers aren't particularly renowned for having successful love lives, but some have become hopeless romantics — and others misanthropes. Here we have 10 philosophers who have written on or been heavily influenced by love in both their work and their personal lives.
The third Earl Russell was an analytic philosopher whose ideas on modern love, such as his support for gay rights, were so scandalous that when he explained them in his book Marriage and Morals (1929) he found himself unemployable. He was married four times and carried on numerous affairs during his separation from his first wife. He found marriage to be an excellent institution, but one that should not be bound by Victorian norms. He continued to advocate for gay rights, free love, and new ways of thinking until his death.
“To fear love is to fear life, and those who fear life are already three parts dead." — Marriage and Morals
An American author and feminist philosopher, hooks realized after breaking up with a few boyfriends that there was no proper text on love that she could have given them to help save those relationships. Like any good writer, she then set out to write it.
In All About Love: New Visions (2000) , she argues that our modern definition of love is too watered down by overuse of the word. Working from the idea that love is a verb, she then suggests ways to improve our modern concept of love and prevent what hinders it. She notes with a fervor that power discrepancies and the differences in how men and women are expected to approach love are a particular problem.
"The fear of being alone, or of being unloved, had caused women of all races to passively accept sexism and sexist oppression." — Ain't I a Woman? (1981)
Alfred Jules Ayer was a British logical positivist who held the Wykeham Professorship in Logic at Oxford University. He was married four times to three different women. Heartbroken by the death of his third wife he remarried his second wife, Alberta Wells, again a year before his death. He also had several affairs and at least one daughter out of wedlock.
Despite his affairs, he maintained standards for romantic conduct. At age 77, he saw then heavyweight champion Mike Tyson harassing a woman at a party he confronted the much younger boxer and allowed the woman to slip away.
Even logical positivists are capable of love.— as quoted in Profiles by Kenneth Tynan, 1989 edition.
Sartre was a French existentialist and the life partner of Simone de Beauvoir. In line with their modern lives and her second wave feminism, they had an open relationship which waxed and waned over 50 years. He, rather infamously, carried on affairs with proteges who were much younger than him. Despite never marrying, his love for Simone was evident, and he remarked at the end of his life on how wonderful it was to have known her for so long.
"You know, it's quite a job starting to love somebody. You have to have energy, generosity, blindness. There is even a moment, in the very beginning, when you have to jump across a precipice: if you think about it you don't do it." — Nausea (1938)
The longtime partner of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir was a romantic in her own right. She carried out nearly as many affairs as he did, and offered a feminist critique of the idea that what she was doing was in any way unacceptable. She did lose her teaching license for seducing her students, however. She found many aspects of love, romance, and marriage to be demeaning to women, and carried out her life in such a way as to correct the problem.
She is interned with Jean-Paul Sartre, wearing a ring given to her by her lover Nelson Algren.
"It was said that I refused to grant any value to the maternal instinct and to love. This was not so. I simply asked that women should experience them truthfully and freely, whereas they often use them as excuses and take refuge in them, only to find themselves imprisoned in that refuge when those emotions have dried up in their hearts. I was accused of preaching sexual promiscuity; but at no point did I ever advise anyone to sleep with just anyone at just any time." — Force of Circumstances Vol. III (1963)
Perhaps the most tragic romantic on this list. Kierkegaard fell madly in love with a young woman named Regine Olsen, who was also madly in love with him. He proposed marriage, but broke it off a month later, returning his engagement ring to her by mail. They were both devastated by his actions; she threatened suicide over it and he cried himself to sleep over his decision.
It is hypothesized that he feared he could not be a husband, writer, and Christian to the extent he wanted to be all at the same time. Knowing this, he chose to be the latter two. This anxiety over the lives we cannot live was a major part of this thinking. The romance would influence his writings for the rest of his life and, as he must have, he regretted it always.
"If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or do not marry, you will regret both..." — Either/Or (1843)
Happy Hallowee--I mean, Valentine's Day.
Despite his praise for the life of asceticism, Schopenhauer tried his hardest to have a decent social and love life. While his connections allowed for some success in the former case, he was rather luckless in the later. He viewed love itself positively, seeing it as one of the key motivations for human activity. His writings on the “will to life" foreshadowed Freudian notions of the id. Despite this attitude towards love, he still found a way to be pessimistic about it. He argued that most people would pick horrible spouses, have too many children, and end up miserable anyway.
“The final aim of all love intrigues, be they comic or tragic, is really of more importance than all other ends in human life." — Schopenhauer
An Indian guru who attracted no small amount of controversy during his life. Contrary to most gurus who favor celibacy, Rajneesh favored a more liberal attitude towards sexuality as part of a path to overcoming sexual desire. He pointed out, as did Bertrand Russell before him, that sexual repression will only create a society obsessed with sex. Once a person is past that desire, they can truly focus on devolving universal love.
“Nobody can teach you love. Love you have to find yourself, within your being, by raising your consciousness to higher levels. And when love comes, there is no question of responsibility. You do things because you enjoy doing them for the person you love." — Sat-chit-anand (1988)
Friedrich Nietzsche is a philosopher we have spoken of many times before. However, his unsuccessful love life has escaped our observation before now. He proposed thrice to the same woman, Lou Salome. Her rejections crushed him, and other than the occasional expression of affection for Wagner's wife he ended his romantic pursuits after Lou Salome refused him. He later pointed out, however, that the only significant philosopher who was married was Socrates; as powerful rebuttal of marriage for the intellectual as he could give.
Nietzsche lived alone for most of his sane life, did think marriage was a decent idea for most people but questioned their way of going about it. In Human, All too Human (1878) he proposed that serial marriage would be beneficial for men. His (alarmingly sexist) stances on women seem to suggest he favored marriage and domestic life for them.
“It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages." —Beyond Good and Evil (1886)
While remaining a celibate monk, the Dalai Lama has lots to say about love. Although he sings the praises of avoiding sex and marriage, he does understand the attraction to the institution and uses the problems it has to help us understand his position. For him, the greatest use of love is to love the world and everyone in it, no matter how many difficulties life tosses at you. Despite the hardships of his life, he still strives to love everyone and encourages us to expand the circle of who we love.
"Love and compassion are necessities, not — Lhamo Dondrub, 14th Dalai Lama
Finding New Year’s resolutions isn’t always easy. To help you out, we’ve gotten ideas from some of the greatest thinkers of all time.
Finding New Year's resolutions isn't always easy. To help you out, we've gotten ideas from some of the greatest thinkers of all time.
1. Go for a walk every day.
“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right."
― Søren Kierkegaard
Kierkegaard, whose angst would cripple even the most dramatic teenager, often found refuge from the anxiety of existence in walks. Failing that, he tried to explain the difficulty of his life in his writings. He had a lot to say about angst, anxiety, God, death, and coming to terms with freedom.
2. Embrace yourself—and others—as a complete ecosystem.
"I have laboured carefully, not to mock, lament, or execrate human actions, but to understand them; and, to this end, I have looked upon passions, such as love, hatred, anger, envy, ambition, pity, and the other perturbations of the mind, not in the light of vices of human nature, but as properties, just as pertinent to it, as are heat, cold, storm, thunder, and the like to the nature of the atmosphere, which phenomena, though inconvenient, are yet necessary, and have fixed causes, by means of which we endeavor to understand their nature, and the mind has just as much pleasure in viewing them aright, as in knowing such things as flatter the senses."
— Spinoza (edited)
Spinoza, whose philosophy is fascinating, saw the universe as deterministic. Every action, therefore, had an immediate cause that could be discovered. If you can find out what made a person angry, violent, pitiful, or depressed, it becomes easier to understand their actions and simpler to forgive their faults. Coming to terms with the idea that everyone has lots to deal with, things that might make them unpleasant for a while, can make us all a little more understanding.
3. Try to live like water.
The best, like water, benefit all and do not compete.
They dwell in lowly spots that everyone else scorns.
Putting others before themselves, they find themselves in the foremost place and come very near to the Tao.
In their dwelling, they love the earth; in their heart, they love what is deep.
In personal relationships, they love kindness.
In their words, they love truth. In the world, they love peace.
In personal affairs, they love what is right. In action, they love choosing the right time.
It is because they do not compete with others that they are beyond the reproach of the world.
The Tao, also known as the Way, is often compared to water. Generous, soft and flowing, pure, regenerating, and often cyclical; to be like water is to embrace the Way. Water's weaknesses, the fact it is soft and gentle, make it more powerful; it can flow anywhere and even wear down stone. A better example of the harmony of opposites is hard to find.
Pictured: Life goals?
4. Examine your life and beliefs regularly.
“The unexamined life is not worth living."
The gadfly of Athens made it his job to examine every belief, no matter how widely held, and determine if it was true or not. Often, he would ask people to define a virtue, such as courage, only to find that the people who valued it most had no idea what it was. It is only by examining our lives that we can hope to improve them.
5. Read a new book each month.
"The Brahmins had no cattle, no gold, no wealth. They had study as their wealth and grain."
The Brahmins were the teachers and holy men of ancient India, and continue as a caste to this day. In theory, they were the highest social class. Rather than focus on money and worldly affairs, they valued learning and knowledge. The Buddha reminds us that these respected men were men of the mind and encouraged us to follow their example.
6. Spend more time with your friends.
The best friend is he that, when he wishes a person's good, wishes it for that person's own sake."
Aristotle thought friendship was vital to living a good life, but not just any friends would do. He had a three-part system for understanding friendship. The most genuine friendships, the ones that everyone should strive for, are the ones where two people value each other as people and not as a means to an end.
7. Be less of the person you are expected to be, and more of the person you want to be.
"Become who you are!"
Nietzsche, who has other excellent one-line ideas, was the king of individuality. There was nothing worse for Nietzsche than for a person to join the herd of people who just followed along. While he was a determinist, he still argued that we should embrace our lives and whatever comes at us.
8. Strive for excellence every day.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit"
Aristotle viewed virtues as skills, ones that we would strive to perfect over our lifetimes. To be virtuous was to embody an excellence in a particular area such as courage, temperance, or friendship. Doing it once or twice wasn't enough, you had to make a habit of it to truly embody the virtue.
9. Embrace change.
"One cannot step twice in the same river twice,"
Heraclitus was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who argued that everything was always changing. Not only does this mean that the river changes, but you do as well. Rather than trying to latch onto things that cannot last, we should embrace the notion that everything will soon pass.
10. Take charge of your life.
"Change your life today. Don't gamble on the future, act now, without delay."
-Simone de Beauvoir
Existentialism shows us how we are all responsible for what we are and will become. Waiting for your life to change is an option, but one that denies your ability to shape yourself into what you desire to be. Seize the day!
Some philosophers have tried to base morality on human nature, but what does biology say about that?
In his 1945 public lecture 'Existentialism is a Humanism' Jean-Paul Sartre made a bold claim: for human beings, existence precedes essence. We exist, then we choose how to be. This is as opposed to a chair, for example, which is designed to fit a particular purpose and then brought into existence to fulfill that purpose. The chair has an essence that precedes it; it has a "chair nature" that it is created to conform to.
Sartre rejects the idea that human nature is a guide on how we should live and further denies that there is any such human nature at all. This was a radical departure from most of the philosophy that came before him. Thinkers going back to ancient Greece and China have tried to use human nature as a guide to living a proper life.
Each of those philosophers, including Aristotle, Mencius, John Calvin and Xun Kuang, made an insight into what they saw as human nature and then tried to determine what we ought to do from there. In doing so, they made a horrible mistake.
David Hume demonstrated their error with his is-ought gap. In his work A Treatise on Human Nature, Hume shows us that we cannot determine what we ought to do from observing a mere fact. Just because we evolved to eat all the salt and sugar we can get doesn’t mean we ought to, for example. Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it is good.
This is often referred to as the appeal to nature, which is a closely related fallacy. Even with this problem, many thinkers would still reject Sartre’s claim of there not being a human nature to work with.
However, Sartre might have an unlikely supporter in his belief that there is no human nature: the naturalist Charles Darwin.
Darwin, here to ruin the day of people who think humans are special.
Evolution shows us that any human nature we have is an accident, retained to promote reproductive success, and is not likely to exist over the long run in any fixed form. Any determination of what human nature would be if it exists is only applicable in particular circumstances for a relatively short time.
Evolution can only happen when there are variations from the norm. Mutations that promote survival thrive, ones that are detrimental to survival are weeded out, and the neutral ones remain. Any attempt to find human nature among all of the variations would have to include altruism and psychopathy, openness to experience and caution, athletic ability and the lack thereof.
Darwin teaches us that there is no “normal”, and fundamental changes are happening all the time. Biologically speaking, human nature doesn’t exist in the way many philosophers need it to.
But, if we can’t base our ethics on human nature, what can we base it on?
The problem of how to ground morality without the appeal to nature is a big one and one that many people have tried to tackle. Immanuel Kant attempted to solve the problem by finding morality in pure reason, formulating the categorical imperative this way. Sartre borrows it from Kant in his lecture, arguing that we must make our choices on how to live as though we were choosing for all of humanity.
Sometimes, that isn't so easy.
Others have found ethical ideas in looking to the human condition, rather than at human nature. In her essay 'Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach', Martha Nussbaum argues that certain problems of human life are inevitable and virtues can be found by determining how to handle these problems. As an example, how we deal with the fact we will someday face danger to life and limb is covered by the virtue of courage. The exact details are to be worked out later, but the need for an answer is clear.
Just because human nature might be one thing or another is not a reason to chart the course of your life in a particular direction. If Sartre is right, there is no human nature to start from anyway. As evolutionary theory advances, we discover that all of humanity shares a hodgepodge of traits that happened to get passed on. It seems strange that we should base what we value and how we act on those traits alone.
We are then left in the predicament of the existentialists: we must decide on what we value, say, do, and dream to be without guideposts. This is a great freedom and a great responsibility.
Existentialism is great and all, but how can you really relate to the ideas if you don't think God is dead? Luckily, we've got just the thing.
Existentialism remains one of the more popular philosophies for the layperson to read about, consider, and study. The questions that it asks and the problems it confronts, ones of free will, anxiety, and the search for meaning; are ones we all face in our daily lives. While the solutions it offers may not work for everyone, existentialism can have a particularly large blind spot when it tries to provide answers for the religious.
Think of it, Nietzsche declared that God was dead, Sartre, Camus, and Beauvoir were all atheists, and the related philosophy of Nihilism also denies God’s existence. For the religious individual who seeks extra comfort from existential dread and the perspective of the existentialists on the problems of modern life, good answers can be hard to come by.
But there is an Existentialist who made Christianity one of the core principles of his thought. The founder of existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard.
Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher born to a wealthy family in Copenhagen in the early 19th century. He was a prolific writer who often used pseudonyms to explore alternative perspectives. His work covers all of the areas of existential thought; anxiety, absurdity, authenticity, despair, the search for meaning, and individualism. However, unlike his atheistic successors, he places his faith in the center of the solutions to the problems of human life. Just as the death of God was key for Nietzsche, the need for God was just as important to Kierkegaard. Here are some of his insights:
On finding meaning
Kierkegaard agrees that life can be absurd and that meaning could be hard to come by. As opposed to Nietzsche, who said the death of God caused this, Søren argued that, in the present age, meaning is sucked out of concepts by abstraction and a tendency to view things with too much rationality. He lamented that he lived in an age where humans were increasingly viewed as generalizations, where the passionate man was seen as intemperate, and where most people simply went along.
He cries out for us to live passionately, and worry more about the problem of living life than trying to fit the social order. His philosophy is all about living this way, even to the point where an outside viewer will be unable to understand your motivation.
Kierkegaard also discovered a point that was hammered in by latter existentialists; reason and science can tell you a lot of things, but they cannot give something value or meaning. You have to do that. Meaning, value, and purpose cannot be reduced to quantifiable elements, it is up to the individual acting on their own to decide what the meaning of their life is going to be. His favored solution for finding meaning is to look to God and make a leap of faith. That alone, he argued, could both offer us meaning and properly balance us as people.
Pictured, the building blocks of life. Not pictured, the building blocks of the meaning of life.
On living with freedom
We must face the world as individuals, so Søren tells us. However, to fully be ourselves he posits that a person must recognize the “power that constituted it”. We are given the moral imperative to discover and live as ourselves, and God is a key part of that imperative. Every day, we are presented with facts of life and possibilities, and we must make choices. To not choose is also an option, but a poor one. To avoid becoming ourselves is to be in despair, which, for Kierkegaard, is to be in sin.
He warns us also of the anxiety that comes with choosing the path of our lives. While we must choose, we can never be sure that we choose correctly, as “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” In the same way, we have endless possibilities before us, except for those lives we chose not to have. He articulates the anxiety of having to choose to not live out some possibilities magnificently, “If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or do not marry, you will regret both; Laugh at the world’s follies, you will regret it, weep over them, you will also regret that; laugh at the world’s follies or weep over them, you will regret both….”
Kierkegaard says they will live to regret it, no matter what happens.
Like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard also saw the potential use of “isms” to solve the problem of meaning in our lives. Søren focuses on the idea of an “ethical” life as an escape from deciding on meaning for yourself. By choosing a social or ethical system to latch onto we can find meaning in our relation to it; rather than by ourselves. He sees this as a possibility for many people, but not as the ideal solution to our problems.
One of his solutions to the problem of meaning was a Christian variant of the super-individualist Ubermensch; before Nietzsche had invented it. The Knight of Faith is an individual who has moved beyond relying on external rationality or “isms” for the justification of their lives and fully dedicated themselves to a higher calling. This calling is God in the case of Kierkegaard’s examples of Abraham and Mary.
They understand that the demands of God might be unethical, as the demand that Abraham kill his son was. However, they carry on past ethical concerns anyway, as to be a Knight of Faith is to be- to steal a phrase from Nietzsche- beyond good and evil.*
The benefits of Existentialism don’t have to be utterly separated from the Christian notion of God. Likewise, Kierkegaard’s insights do not require a dedication to Christianity to be used. He argued that the “passionate pagan” who prayed to a false idol was living better than the Christian who was worshiping out of mere habit. Even for those of us who are not Christians, it is possible to understand a little more about ourselves and the problems we all face as humans by considering the worldview of Søren Kierkegaard. A fantastic introduction to his ideas can be seen here.
*-To those of you who see a potential problem here, Kierkegaard notes in the book Fear and Trembling that some method must be used to determine who is a Knight of Faith and who is just a lunatic. Likewise, while the Knights could be divinely inspired to do horrible and bizarre things (like sacrificing children or inventing circumcision) by religious fervor, Søren posits that the typical Knight would be rather reserved and that we might never hear about them. Debate continues on if that answer is sufficient.