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Episode 176: The Meaning Of Life

Apart from 42, is there actually an answer to "What is the meaning of life?"
In attempting to answer that it often brings up further questions such as "What's my purpose?"
And it's worth separating purpose from meaning. After all, we can have a meaningful life without having any particular purpose can't we? Living a meaningful life can become the purpose.
If what we do on a fairly consistent basis has some sort of meaning, if there's a reason behind it, then life doesn't feel so empty. It reminds me of something a lecturer called Dan Ariel once said, that if aliens were watching us and they witnessed a Marathon race they would see all these people running and think that it must be some sort of punishment. That these thousands of people must be being forced run those 26 miles because the only reason to be happy with it is when it's over.
On the surface it looks as if it's the getting it over with that makes people happy, not the running of it. Yet the runners themselves, on the whole, would say that its the entire experience that makes them enjoy it, the start the middle and the end. The training, the doing and the crossing of the finish line. Yet there's hardly any moment in the whole 26 miles where they wouldn't be just as happy, if not happier at home with a cup of tea, a packet of biscuits and watching Only Fools And Horses. Which might well be fine, but has less meaning than the Marathon does.
So when you ask people about their purpose, if you ask them why they get out of bed every day most people will say it's because of their job. They get up so that they can go to work, so that they can have a roof over their head and pay for some nice experiences. And for a lot of people that's fine. But not for everyone. For most of us it's not enough to do a job every day just so that you can spend a week or 2 not doing it somewhere different.
Like the mountain climbers that spend months training for their climb, only to get to the top and spend hardly any time there because they're so cold and tired and they just want to get back down as soon as possible. Then when they do they start planning their next climb.
It's as if what motivates us isn't the resting, it's not the 2 weeks in the sun. It's the achievements, the pursuit of some goal. So that even when we get there we want the whole journey again. But without the end result the journey itself is meaningless.

One quite well known study that shows this was published in The Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization where 3 MIT professors put some experiments together. They created a number of tasks that could be made either meaningLESS or meaningFUL.
Tasks that could be undertaken as many times as they like and they'd be paid a small amount to do it. But every time they did it they earned a little less until they would earn nothing. By monitoring at what point the participants would quit we can see how important or not having meaning to our day really is.
The first task was to look through a series of letters on a page trying to find the where the double letter S's were. Each page had 10 of them. If they found them they'd hand in the paper to the experimenter and earn 55 cents. If they wanted to do it again they'd earn 50 cents, then 45 and so on. Until they decided to stop and would be given their money.
There were 3 groups where the task is exactly the same but one of 3 things happened.

1 They were asked to write their name on the sheet before hand and were told that when they hand it in, the experimenter would examine it and file it away. They called this the Acknowledged condition.
2 They weren't asked to write their name on it, it was to be anonymous and they were told that when they handed it in the experimenter would simply put them on top of an existing pile of papers and wouldn't look at them. This was called the Ignored condition.
3 This was the same as the Ignored condition except that as well as being unexamined, each time they handed one in it would immediately go through a shredding machine right in front of them. This was the Shredded condition.

When you ask other people what differences they would expect to see between these 3 groups, people tend to say that because the first group requires you to be more conscientious than the other 2, people would want more money for doing it, so they'd quit sooner. But no, it turns out it's the exact opposite.
In the Acknowledged condition the average wage where they decided to stop was about 15 cents. In the Ignored condition it was 26 cents and the Shredded condition was 28 cents.
Because the workers were being acknowledged by someone they were willing to work for almost half the money. Or look at it this way. When being ignored and unacknowledged we want twice as much.
Almost half of the people in the Acknowledged group were willing to work for 5 cents. in the other 2 groups only 17 percent would go that low down. Yet they were all doing exactly the same thing, with the same purpose. The purpose being "I'm taking part in an academic study in the Economics department." But there is a different meaning behind what they're doing.
Acknowledged
Ignored
Shredded
The study found exactly the same thing by asking people if they wanted to build some Lego Bionicles designs for money. 2 groups this time. All following the same design each time that would take about 10 minutes to assemble.
When finished they were to hand it to the experimenter to get $2. If they wanted to make it again they'd earn 11 cents less until they'd made 20 of them where it would stay at 2 cents for every one made.
In the first group, when they handed it in, the design sat on a desk and they were just given a new identical box to build and the experimenters desk would fill up with them. They called this the Meaningful group.
The second group only had 2 identical lego kits. So when they were given the next one, the one they'd just previously built was being taken apart by the experimenter and put back in the box. If they wanted to do it another time, they'd get the same kit back to rebuild. They called this one the Sisyphus group. In Greek mythology Sisyphus was a king who was punished by Zeus for deceitfulness and was forced to roll a huge boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down whenever it got close to the top, repeating it for all eternity.
Despite the fact that the physical task requirements and the wage schedule were identical in both groups, the subjects in the Meaningful condition built significantly more Bionicles than those in the Sisyphus condition. In the Meaningful group the most popular quitting point was after making 10 of them. In the Sisyphus condition it was just 4.

It seems that the meaning behind our purpose is far more important than we might think.
Meaningful
Sisyphus
It's one thing to know all this but how do we apply it? If our purpose is just to live how do find the meaning in our life?
Well, the only way to find anything is to look for it, and if we can't find it then we need to make it. And if there aren't enough hours in the day or days in the week then something's probably got to change.

Look at the things you do and the "projects" you have. I use the word project rather than goal because goals have a conclusion, a finishing point but projects can be ongoing.
Write down all the projects you've got ongoing, not just the goals you have. Not just get fit and learn Italian, but everything you're involved in and look for the meaning behind it all.

Do you support a charity? Subscribe to a magazine? Do you like music? Photography? Baking? Are you spiritual? Religious? Are you into Real Ale? Parkrun? DC Comics? Naturalism? Naturism?

Examine each one of your projects. Think about its importance to you and why you want to do it or achieve it. What does it mean to you? Is it consistent with your values, your personality traits?

When I look through my projects it does, at long last. I've trimmed away the things that are inconsistent with my values and I'm left with a meaningful life right now. But I regularly evaluate it, I often see my own therapist and talk all these things through to make sure I'm living a life that is consistent with my values and my personality traits.

Maybe I can help make the world a better place in the process. Maybe we all can.
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