The Meaningfulness of Lives

In a recent post, The Ten Happiest Jobs (, Steve Denning referenced an article by Todd May that peaked my interest. In it, May, a Professor of Philosophy at Clemson, explores just what it means to live a meaningful life. A central theme in his essay was the idea that whatever else might constitute a meaningful life, there is an element of intense passion. He also makes the useful observation that a meaningful life is not necessarily a moral life. He writes:

A promising and more inclusive approach is offered by Susan Wolf in her recent and compelling book, “Meaning in Life and Why It Matters.” A meaningful life, she claims, is distinct from a happy life or a morally good one. In her view, “meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness.” A meaningful life must, in some sense then, feel worthwhile. The person living the life must be engaged by it…

…the first step we might take beyond what Wolf tells us is to recognize that lives unfold over time. A life is not an unrelated series of actions or projects or states of being. A life has, we might say, a trajectory…Even if my life’s trajectory seems disjointed or to lack continuity, it is my life that is disconnected in its unfolding, not elements of several different lives.

If a life has a trajectory, then it can be conceived narratively. A human life can be seen as a story, or as a series of stories that are more or less related. This does not mean that the person whose life it is must conceive it or live it narratively. I needn’t say to myself, “Here’s the story I want to construct,” or, “This is the story so far.” What it means rather is that, if one reflected on one’s life, one could reasonably see it in terms of various story lines, whether parallel or intersecting or distinct. This idea can be traced back to Aristotle’s “Ethics,” but has made a reappearance with some recent narrative conceptions of what a self is.

What makes a trajectory a meaningful one? If Wolf is right, it has to feel worthwhile and, beyond that, has to be engaged in projects that are objectively worthwhile…

An intense life, for instance, can be lived with abandon. One might move from engagement to engagement, or stick with a single engagement, but always (well, often) by diving into it, holding nothing back. One throws oneself into swimming or poetry or community organizing or fundraising, or perhaps all of them at one time or another. Such a life is likely a meaningful one. And this is true even where it might not be an entirely moral one.

We know of people like this, people whose intensity leads them to behavior that we might call morally compromised. Intense lovers can leave bodies in their wake when the embers of love begin to cool. Intense athletes may not be the best of teammates. Our attitudes toward people like this are conflicted. There is a sense in which we might admire them and another sense in which we don’t. This is because meaningful lives don’t always coincide with good ones. Meaningful lives can be morally compromised, just as morally good lives can feel meaningless to those who live them.

There is another reason as well. This one is more bound to the time in which we live. In an earlier column for The Stone, I wrote that we are currently encouraged to think of ourselves either as consumers or as entrepreneurs. We are told to be shoppers for goods or investors for return. Neither of these types of lives, if they are the dominant character of those lives, strike me as particularly meaningful. This is because their narrative themes — buying, investing — are rarely the stuff of which a compelling life narrative is made…

To be sure, we must buy things, and may even enjoy shopping. And we should not be entirely unconcerned with where we place our limited energies or monies. But are these the themes of a meaningful life? Are we likely to say of someone that he or she was a great networker or shopper, and so really knew how to live?

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