The Meaning of Life (Perspective from a half-century)
“What is the meaning of life?” This was the assignment to be answered in a one page paper for a class in high school many years ago. “Easy,” replied my friend. “It’s to make lots of money.” Her reasoning was that money enabled you to do anything you wanted - she would go to business school, make a ton of money, retire at 35, and then do what she pleases. For me, money never entered into it – it was all about “happiness”. Career, marriage, kids, health, being “comfortable” – whatever that means.
I now realize this question is much more nuanced, and much more difficult to answer. At this point in my life, am I where I hoped I would be? Have any of us attained what our purpose is, our “meaning” in our lives?
I am not utterly and completely blissfully happy at all times – I mean, I am human after all and that would seem to be an unnatural state of being. In the television series “The Good Place” when the characters finally reach heaven, they expected to find paradise, but instead found that when everyone’s desires and needs are met, they turn into a bunch of “glassy eyed mush-people” with no motivation to do anything.
In medical school, we saw patients suffering from 2 different types of strokes. “Wernicke’s aphasia” where you lose the understanding of what is going on around you, but can fluently babble in a jumble of “word salad”, unfazed and content in the state of unknowing. In the other type of stroke “Broca’s aphasia”, cognition and understanding are preserved, but language and speech is not. These individuals tend to be frustrated and angry as they understand but cannot communicate. My classmates and I used to wonder which type of stroke we would rather be afflicted with. Seeing the pain and frustration of individuals with “Broca’s” I always chose “Wernicke’s”, to be blissfully happy and unaware. Now I’m not so sure.
In seeking my purpose in life, my answer is no longer just “happiness”. The meaning of life is a meaningful life. Living a life with intention and continuing to grow and learn. By default this means that life will not always be happy, and that’s ok. When you are continually growing and striving for something that you do not yet have, there will be discomfort.
In Japan, we have the concept of “Ikigai”, a reason for being - a direction or purpose in life. Finding it combines the joy you feel from doing something, and gaining a purpose or meaning from this. It’s a feeling that your life is valuable, that you have an impact. My ikigai, is to help others – it’s what made me become a doctor, to make a difference in people’s lives, and to be the best version of myself.
I hope that this is just the halfway point in my life, but no one knows that for sure. I could live a wonderful life full of meaning for the next 50 years or I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. But I do know that I don’t want to waste my time with worrying or regretting what may be. Life is uncertain. No one expected a global pandemic to shut down the world’s travel and economy. The past year and a half has taught us a valuable lesson.
No judgements on my friend whose meaning was to make lots of money. In making loads of money one could have tremendous impact and do great things for this world. Unfortunately, I don’t think that things worked out for my friend the way she intended for them to be. Health doesn’t wait for your ideal conditions or timing. My own life isn’t exactly what was expected either, but the goal is just the goal and the journey is where we live and what is most important.
What I want from my life is to continue to love my family and myself, and live a life full of meaning without regrets. So I will try my best to live in a way that I can have a purposeful life. Stay healthy by eating in a way that serves my body, keeping physically active, sleeping enough to heal and recharge, taking care of my stress levels and maintaining personal connections.
So what is the meaning of life? It may look different for everyone, but I think that it is to find your ikigai, live healthfully in mind and body, and you will find peace, contentment and growth. A meaning-full life.