[This post is part of a series on The Model — my model for the human emotional system designed for use in leadership, self-awareness, and general purpose professional and personal development — which I find the most effective and valuable foundation for understanding yourself and others and improving your life. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
The past two day’s posts on meaning and complexity in emotions helps us understand the age-old, often asked but never answered question, “What is the meaning of life?”. More importantly, it helps us make sense of a question that doesn’t make much sense. Unfortunately, the question’s complexity makes it harder to understand things about life and meaning that, when you get them, help you improve your life.
Everyone has heard the question “What is the meaning of life” but I’ve never heard of a satisfying answer. The question is too broad to make sense. Does it refer to your life, life in general, just human life, or something else? By “meaning?” does the question mean a purpose, an explanation, or something else? Does it refer to what you do, who you are, both, neither? You can’t answer a question you can’t understand. Perhaps the question endures for that reason — it’s mysterious and complex enough to provoke wonder and invokes important words, yet remains unanswerable.
The Model helps you disentangle what the question gets at, ask questions that make more sense, and understand your life and meaning within it better.
While I can’t answer the meaning of something so big and complex as life, the Model helps me understand each individual part that brings meaning. Yesterday we described how meaning comes from emotions. Even if emotions are collectively too complex to understand all at once, each one makes sense on its own — we inherited each from our ancestors who evolved them based on their environments.
So while the question of all of life’s meaning may be too meaningless and complex to make sense, to ask the meaning of any single emotion makes sense. Since the value, meaning, and importance of anything derives from the emotions it evokes, understanding those emotions tells you its value, meaning, and importance.
For example, you know why you feel hunger, so the meaning and purpose of hunger makes sense. Same with the value and meaning of thirst, so the value of water makes sense. When you are very thirsty, water has a lot of value. When you aren’t thirsty it loses its value because you don’t feel the motivation.
You value your pet dog highly because its been in your environments, beliefs, and behaviors for a long time and has evoked long-term complex emotions. Another dog that’s just as cute, loyal, etc doesn’t have that value to you because it never evoked those emotions and you don’t expect it to. The emotions create the value and meaning. What does the dog mean to you? It means fun, loyalty, playfulness, anticipation or whatever emotions you shared with your dog. And how would you characterize that meaning? It has the same characteristics of that emotion, probably long-term and complex.
Of billions of people in the world, all equally worthy of you considering them valuable, the ones you interact with are the ones that mean most to you not for things intrinsic to them, but because they evoked the most emotions in you and you expect them to continue to.
When you understand the meaning of every part of your life, which the Model helps bring, you know better how to allocate your resources (time, attention, energy, money, etc) to improve your life and you stop wasting resources on things that don’t improve your life.
In my experience asking “what is the meaning of life” doesn’t help you understand or improve your life, whereas understanding your emotions and emotional system does, and effectively answers the broad question anyway.
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