What is the Meaning of Life and Other Thoughts

April 9, 2011 / Psychology / 17 Comments

I’ve always wondered what’s the point of roaming the earth to do crap you don’t really derive any pleasure from like studying or working. So much suffering is associated with living that you’re driven to find some sort of meaning to justify your existence — be it in the form of senseless partying, shopping or some philosophical mumbo jumbo. (I walked the mumbo jumbo route, by the way.)

I sought for answer from the realms of religion, history, philosophy, psychology and even chose a major (political theory) that I thought would help me to find an answer…

…only to realize that deep down inside, I’ve always known the answer.

How did I achieve this revelation? Thanks to a bit of luck, a pinch of desperation, some help from Google and this entry from Steve, an enlightened ex-convict.

According to Steve, you only need to dedicate 20 minutes of your life to think hard about what could possibly give your life meaning, and write down every answer that pops through your mind. The one that makes you cry is the right answer — the meaning of your life.

It sounds so simple that it’s absolutely ridiculous. But, I swear, it works. Perhaps it’s not the most scientific way and perhaps most psychologists may not approve, but when you find the right answer, you’ll just know that it is. It just is.

Sad thing is that it didn’t happen in 20 minutes for me. My subconscious needed to do some processing, so it only dawned on my the next day… while I was commuting. The subway in a cold, calculating city like Singapore is not the best place to suddenly go teary.

Anyway, for those of you struggling with this question, you should give it a shot. All you could potentially lose is the time needed to watch an episode of Jersey Shore, but what you stand to gain is priceless. *cue Mastercard ad*

What was my answer? It’s a secret, for now. I’m not ready to admit it myself yet, so I’m not going to openly admit it on the interwebs. These things take time to digest, you know.

In Search of Thumos…

So now that my quest to find life’s meaning is over, I’ve found a new quest to occupy my free time and free brain cells. This one is sparked by New York Times columnist, David Brooks. He’s always talking about thumos this, thumos that. According to him, the whole world revolves around thumos.

θυμός, commonly spelled as thymos or thumos is Greek for the desire of recognition.

I definitely see this in myself. Why do we want to be recognized so badly? Why do we need to feel important? Aside from the few seconds of pleasure you get from recognition, what else do you derive? Wait, why do we even derive pleasure from being recognized?

The more I think about it, the more I see that thumos drives a lot of our actions. I know you’d hate to admit this, but I’m pretty sure thumos is part of the reason why you blog, you tweet, and update your Facebook status about your latest shopping hauls or travels, even though you know that no one actually cares. You want to be heard. You want to be recognized. So do I.

So what happens when you get thumos overload? What happens when you don’t get enough recognition? More interestingly, what happens when we remove thumos from our psyche? Will we become mere animals, or do we evolve into a new level of being?

This idea of thumos is very fascinating. I’ve come across it while studying Aristole and Plato but I’ve never really paid much attention to it because I was more fixated on, you know, the meaning of life. So it’s time to pay my old pals a visit, along with a few contemporary ones like Dale Carnegie and Alain de Botton.

With that, I bid you all adieu. I’m going back to reading up (and buying up a storm) on my Kobo app. (Kobo has a 20% sale for ebooks this weekend, by the way.)

  • interesting post. I never cared much about why I’m here, I figure I’ll just make the best use of my time as possible. Do things I enjoy, do things that will bring joy to others. What I find most satisfying is helping people do things that I enjoy, like programming, cooking, exercising. I also really like with people, that I’m comfortable with anyway and hearing/reading their thoughts. I did make a list, two of my more interesting items were eating and puppies. I really enjoy food, I’m probably my absolute happiest when I’m stuffing my face. Puppies was the only thing on my list that gave me a warm/fuzzy feeling. Nothing made me cry. But I’m pretty sure I was meant to be a mommy and one day that will bring a whole new level to my life.

    I think I most blog and make facebook updates because I get excited or angry about stuff and I feel like I need to share. I guess sharing is pointless without recognition though. Why talk if no one’s listening?

    • Stephen C.

      I feel very similar to Lissy except that it’s not that I don’t care per se but that I realize that time is finite and I need to do with it what I can. I just received my RN to BSN degree and I can only hope to help people extend and learn to cherish the time they have on earth as well. All in all, thanks for the perspective.

  • desmond

    lovely post. made me think a little more! i’ll do that 20minute thing now =D

  • I would think that the need for recognition comes 2nd (later, really) to food, shelter, security, social interaction and all the other things a human being in reality needs to sustain itself.

    Also, please consider the fact that people who blog (you and me) are one kind of people, namely those who actively seek recognition. I know people who want to live peacefully alone, not a trace left of them when they die. One of them doesn’t even want a photo taken..

    To me this yield the Real World which encompass also those that do not partake in our self-saturated culture. David Brooks may be right, but he can only be 100% right about David Brooks..

    • Ivy

      I’m not arguing where thumos should be placed in our hierarchy of needs. It’s common sense that a starving person would be thinking about food rather than how important he should be regarded.

      What I’m saying, or rather, hypothesizing, is that thumos is a driver for many of our interactions and actions — whether you are conscious of it or not. Of course, bloggers like us and media pundits like Brooks are gonna have more it than the average person. That’s why we do what we do. But just because the average person don’t show that he wants to be heard doesn’t mean that he doesn’t like to be heard. Everyone likes to be heard. It makes they feel loved. It makes them feel special. And that’s at least partly driven by thumos.

      Try strike a conversation with someone you normally wouldn’t, especially someone with a much lower social standing compared to you. Ask her to tell you her story and see what happens. I bet you that person will like you quite a fair bit because you’ve appealed to her thumos or in layman’s terms “because you care.”

  • But good fortune on you for finding a purpose!

    I say “a” because we should not be ignorant to the _multiplicity of purposes_ a human soul might find worthwhile and crucial to existence.

    • Ivy

      Who said my purpose was singular? 🙂

  • Zoe

    Hi Ivy,

    Great post! I’m waiting to find my purpose here too, but I’m a little afraid to do the 20 minute thing. I will do it when I’m ready 😉

    Thanks for sharing,


  • Sigg3

    I am an idiot

  • Joe

    It seems like the older I get, the more I think about this and about my purpose in life. I agree with Zoe, it’s almost like I’m afraid to do this – afraid I might uncover something I’m not ready to deal with. Thank you for the enlightening post and the Kobo app tip : )

  • RC

    Wow, I usually find my meaning when I’m amongst friends, outside on the porch at 2am, after a great dinner and a few bottles of wine. Unfortunately, I forget it 5 seconds after I wake up in the morning…darn! Guess I’ll have to do it all over again.

  • Anyone can be deceived, meaning they might think they have a purpose in life, and not until you understand life’s changing purpose, it can be a revelation – a wow moment. That is just the way we were created, to have a purpose in life. Only the man upstairs (God) knows all that, he even knows how many hairs you have on your head. I say ask the Man (God), what is my purpose and I bet you will get your answer… I think He had a reason for creating us and it was no mistake!

  • Thank you for telling me what this feeling inside of me “Thumos” is and where it comes from. I personally have always known what I wanted to do with my life from a very young age. The problem for me is that I may have begun pursuing it a little too late. The career I wanted to be involved in has many risks associated with it and my family would have to suffer deeply if I was not a success at it. So, I have turned my back on my first choice of career and gone after my second. Ironically, that is causing some suffering too. In either case once you find out what your purpose is go for it. It is so easy to let days weeks and months pass fretting about how difficult your goal is or not beleiving in yourself. You are worthy of whatever it is that you want to have. By being human it is your birthright to succeed. Don’t be afraid of your own power. Start walking toward your dream.

    • Ivy

      Hi Robert, Thanks for the inspirational words. I’m definitely walking towards my dream. But it’s going to take a while to get there. 🙂 Lovely portfolio, by the way. You’re a very talented photographer!

  • The principle of thumos is quite interesting. To think that recognition is the driving force behind much that we do is not hard to believe. I like how Tony Robbins puts it. He says we are motivated by one of two things. Either the desire to gain pleasure or the desire to avoid pain. Recognition can bring us both the pleasure of having others acknowledge us and the avoidance of being alone.

  • I have been reading up on a very interesting topic of late. (Transactional Analysis) Thought up by Dr. Eric Berne he explains that after basic human needs such as food and water; we have a very real need for recognition (the need to be a acknowledged by another conscious entity.) So even the psychologist agree. Food for thought.

  • Well I’m not sure about the whole 20 minutes thing. I suppose that might work for some people, but not for others. For instance, it took me many YEARS to figure out what gave my life meaning. And I’m not sure I can link it back to any one single event. But one thing that I can be sure about is that it didn’t take me 20 minutes to figure out. Other than that, though, you offer some intersting thoughts.