Humanist Thoughts on a Life Well-Lived

Without any gods or any afterlife, what makes for a life well-lived?

For most religious and spiritual believers, life’s meaning tends to be framed in external terms, and in terms of forward motion. Not always, but generally. For believers, life’s meaning tends to be framed in terms of making God/ gods happy, and/or getting to some happy afterlife. In fact, one of the things that baffles believers most about non-belief is how we experience meaning in our lives when we don’t have God deciding that meaning for us, and when we don’t have that teleological sense of charging through this life to get to the next one. And it can be hard for atheists and humanists to explain how we create our own meaning for ourselves, how we live without convincing ourselves that our meaning was created by an external party, and still experience that meaning as… well, as meaningful.

But even in a secular context, we still often think of a meaningful life — a full life, a life well-lived — as a life with some sort of direction. Raising children. Creating art. Building and growing a business. Doing political or social change work and making the world a better place.

These are all good ways to live. I’m deeply engaged in more than one of them myself. I’m a very driven person, a very forward-moving person, and I do tend to think of the meaning of my life in terms of where it’s going, and what I’m achieving, and what I’ll leave behind after I die.

But I don’t think these are the only good ways to live.

I don’t think a life well-lived has to be a life with accomplishments. I think it can be a life with experiences. I think we can see the meaning of our lives, not just in terms of where we’re going, but in terms of where we are, and where we’ve been.

I think a life well-lived can simply be an interesting life. One with travel. Adventures. Hobbies. Books. Music. Sex. Friendships. Love. A life well-lived can be a life with an upward- and- forward career trajectory… but it can also be one with a whole lot of weird-ass jobs. It can be a life spent building and improving a home… but it can also be a life lived in a dozen different cities. It can be a life making the world better for more people… but it can also be a life getting to know some of those people. It can be a life spent achieving a solid set of accomplishments… but it can also be a life spent enjoying a series of cool hobbies. It can be a life with a bookshelf full of books you’ve written… but it can also be a life with bookshelves full of books you’ve read.

And frankly, if there aren’t people to experience stuff, what point is there to the accomplishments of all the accomplishers?

As a writer, my life’s work is only meaningful if there are readers. A musician’s work is made meaningful by music lovers. An architect’s work is made meaningful by people living and working in their buildings. Etc. Accomplishment and creativity are two-way streets: they require a recipient to make the connection. And it’s the connection that makes them meaningful.

Not sure where I’m going with this: this is sort of a “late-night musings” post, and somewhat appropriately to the topic, I’m not sure it has a point. But I think if atheists and humanists are going to say that we create our own meaning, that life is meaningful and precious even without a creator and an afterlife, then we should let go of the teleological thinking that’s so inherent to religion. We should let go of thinking that the only meaningful life is one spent in forward motion.

Humanist Thoughts on a Life Well-Lived
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25 thoughts on “Humanist Thoughts on a Life Well-Lived

  1. 1

    “As a writer, my life’s work is only meaningful if there are readers.”

    I think this sums it up nicely. What’s the point of experiences that only store themselves in a brain that rots away after you’re dead? I like to enjoy life as well, but if we want to talk meaningfulness we can leave only three things behind when we die:
    – our genes in our offspring
    – our physical or intellectual property and creations
    – impact/memories in other people’s brains

    I try to live my life to get the most out of each category. I plan to have at least two kids (second is currently under way) and raise them well enough so I know they’ll want to raise their children well. My work as a university professor lets me easily fulfill the other two goals by doing research and teaching.

  2. 2

    I agree with you, but, framed in this context, how do we respond to the inevitable questions along the lines of:

    “Serial killers get satisfaction from their kills, what makes their lives less well-lived than anybody else’s?”

  3. 3

    Thanks for this Greta. I dropped out of a PhD in science and I’ve now okay with the fact that I won’t accomplish anything in science – but I do LOVE science, I’m a fan an advocate of science, and that has value too.

  4. 4

    I’m a believer in the Auntie Mame school: “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” I sample life and look for things to enjoy, mindful to take only what I can eat and never stealing from anyone else’s plate. And I work to bring others to the feast. At this point in my life, I doubt I will ever have anything of mine on the buffet, but every banquet needs a maître d’ to show folks to their table and make recommendations as to what is fresh today.

    The purpose of life is to live, and a good life is being able to leave the world in a better state than you found it. You don’t need to do much. Plant flowers. Be a friend. Teach. Share. Live.

  5. 6

    @janiceintoronto #5 – If nothing else, do some guerilla gardening and plant sunflowers in street medians, traffic circles and undeveloped lots. Your life will be meaningful to passers-by and to all manner of small critters.

  6. 7

    I frequently say that we make our own meaning in life. Thanks for fleshing out that thought, Greta.

    I know I don’t do much on the grand scale to help others or leave behind some positive influence on the world, but I do my own small bit. I bought “Why Are You Atheists so Angry?” for my iphone. I bought an “evil little thing” tshirt. I help people balance their checkbooks. I respond “you, too” when someone tells me to have a happy Easter (lol). I bake low-carb cookies for my friends. All small things, but they add up, I think.

    And I enjoy life. Which to me is very important.

  7. 8

    I’ve actually been thinking about this in terms of my dad, who is reaching the end of the road at almost 90.

    He fought in WWII, came home, married, raised three kids, worked 6 days a week(!) as an auto mechanic, taking only 2 weeks off a year for vacation. Most nights, he’d fall asleep in his favorite chair with the newspaper unread in his hands. Unremarkable, right?

    I’d take his accomplishments any day of the week. His was a life well-lived, a resounding success by any measure, even if it didn’t come with accolades or experiences. Meaningful for him, for his kids, for his wife, for everyone who he helped in nearly 40 years of doing brakes and front-end alignments and tire changes.

    Meaningful is intensely personal and introspective. It has nothing to do with fictional post-death rewards.

  8. 9

    @ janiceintoronto, #5

    I’m wondering who my life should be meaningful to?

    I wonder the same thing. And I also wonder why people seem to think that there HAS to be meaning, or purpose, to their lives. And who gets to decide just what is meaningful or purposeful?

    @ Gregory in Seattle, #6

    Your life will be meaningful to passers-by and to all manner of small critters.

    But I don’t care about those passers-by and critters! I don’t care if someone else thinks I’ve done marvelous things. I’m not interested in making strangers think of me as a noble or decent person. I don’t want to be famous. I don’t want to advance the plight of humanity. Does that make my life meaningless? Purposeless?

    I have somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000 books in my personal library, so you could say I’ve done my part to make other people a tiny bit richer. But that’s not why I have them. I bought them to make MY life more enjoyable. And that is how I view my “purpose” in life: to make things better in my tiny little piece of this world. Better for me and better for my family. Are there people starving in Africa? Too bad! I have to worry about feeding MY family. Are there sick children all over the world? Sorry, but I have to provide medicine for my own kids/grandkids.

    I understand the concept of community, but it just doesn’t have much meaning for me in my life. I’m not a joiner, I don’t care to be around a lot of people. In fact, there are very few people that I can tolerate being around most of the time. I imagine that most people would think my life wasted, and that makes me laugh, because I look at them, fluttering around to bake sales and charity auctions and this event and that concert and all I see is waste.

    This kind of philosophical claptrap drives me crazy. There is no purpose to ‘life’. Life just is. Each of us can develop our own purpose, of course, but ultimately, it’s all about making ourselves feel good, or feel ‘meaningful’. What anyone else thinks is irrelevant.

  9. 11

    @Thorne #9 – The point I unsuccessfully was trying to make is that a meaningful like can be had by doing little things that, inconsequential as they may seem to many, will mean a great deal to some. If nothing else, it is something to do while figuring out the meaning of “meaningful life.”

  10. 12

    Gregory in Seattle,

    I understand your point, and to some extent I even agree with it. I’m just not sure what it actually means to be ‘meaningful’. Would my life be considered meaningless if I did nothing to contribute to society except to benefit myself? As long as I’m not causing harm to anyone else, of course.

    Too often we see people commenting about how ‘meaningful’ someone’s life was because he was so generous and kind and loving. While the person who doesn’t give to charity, doesn’t become a social butterfly and who mostly ignores those around him is viewed as having a purposeless life. My contention is that these are all subjective views, with no real objective way to validate them.

    In which case, everyone’s life has only the meaning and purpose that he or she perceives. If you get pleasure from donating time and money to benefit others, then you have defined a purpose for yourself. If your pleasure comes, instead, from keeping your money to yourself, to benefit only yourself, then that is also a purpose. Is either of these extremes more ‘meaningful’ than the other?

  11. 13

    For me, a life well lived is being happy that my chosen family loves me, that I get to go out and dance at the club, that I can have intelligent comversations about a ridiculous range of topics, and that I’m content with who I am regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.

    I know I’m not ‘normal’, but I’m a good person who does what little she can to make her corner of society a positive influence.

  12. 14

    Reading this, I was reminded of the movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” It’s a bit cloying in parts, but I think the ending is actually a very useful meditation on this topic. Value comes not from accomplishing the grand plan he’d set for himself (to write a great piece of music) but through the experiences he has had and the less he’s touched through decades of teaching high school band.

    And I think that points to the real problem with the kind of thinking you identify here: it’s not that teleology is bad, but that the goals we identify as worthy are too limited. Reading this blog, engaging with your idea, and providing you the feedback that may help you refine your thoughts (or even just encourage you to keep pressing on) is itself an accomplishment. I’ve been writing fanfic for much longer than I’ve been blogging and I can tell you, a dedicated, insightful reader can have as much impact on my work as anything else. And any reader at all gives me the encouragement to keep going. I like to think that reading enriches their own lives as well. If this isn’t an accomplishment worth aiming for, so far as fanfic has value (I believe it does, and blogging certain does), I don’t know what is. Teleology can actually be quite secular (c.f. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics), and while it may not be for everybody, I wouldn’t dismiss it too quickly.

    As an aside, I’m a lifelong Methodist, and your description of Christian teleology is the kind of thing we were taught to resist. We shouldn’t live a certain way because it pleases God or because it got us into heaven. Rather, we were taught to be good stewards of everything, including human potential and goodness. It was pat of being a flourishing, contributing member of human society to develop our talents and use them in ways that enriched the world, not because we’d be rewarded either through a better world or an afterlife but because this was what it meant to be good. We also weren’t taught to rush through life to get to heaven, but to enjoy the good things in the present world – because heaven was forever and would be just as good whenever we reached it, whereas our current life was worth relishing as well. I know a lot of evangelicals actually do believe the way you lay out, but Christian morality doesn’t have to mean that. Personally, I have very little tolerance for my fellow Christians who look forward to the apocalypse or their own death and don’t see the goodness of the world they’re in riht now. I think if I were an atheist, I’d still see the meaningfulness in the good things of life – beauty, laughter, love, justice, and so on. But I also definitely see that goodness as a Christian, too.

  13. 16

    (Shite, how did I accidentally hit submit there?)

    For me, getting recognition, or leaving a legacy, is not important. It is nice, don’t get me wrong, but it is far secondary to doing what gives me enjoyment.
    I enjoy discovery, and I enjoy sharing. I’m sure that 99.9% of everyone does, of course.
    I only have so much time, and if I somehow am able to do what is important to me to experience, at the moment, while creating more opportunity for my future self to do the same, then to me, that is success.
    Let’s look at what I am doing right now. I am doing little more than sharing my opinion, and having others do the same so that I can learn about them, and discovery other ideas and what others find important.
    Most likely it is going to be of almost no consequence, or none, so why bother? I guess blogging is a hobby where I get to focus on ideas, and see a little inside of others. I introspect, and learn a little about myself. I feel a connection to others.

    This sort of covers everything I try to do; learn, and share. There are far to many specific things I want to do, and many things that I want to do that I haven’t, or never will, do. I find ideas interesting, powerfully so, and I share certain passions with various people, including, of course, love.
    If I spend every moment doing these things, and hopefully furthering my opportunities for more… That is my goal in life.

    And I think that points to the real problem with the kind of thinking you identify here: it’s not that teleology is bad, but that the goals we identify as worthy are too limited. Reading this blog, engaging with your idea, and providing you the feedback that may help you refine your thoughts (or even just encourage you to keep pressing on) is itself an accomplishment.

    My goals are general, my accomplishments unrestricted, my pleasure with living grows. It is the number of moments that add up, not the final result.

  14. 17

    I agree with you, but, framed in this context, how do we respond to the inevitable questions along the lines of:
    “Serial killers get satisfaction from their kills, what makes their lives less well-lived than anybody else’s?”

    If they stick to their own life, and what they do has only consequences for themselves, anyone can do anything, as far as I care.
    When other’s lives are impacted, then they get a say in the proceedings, and they get to judge if it is well lived, or even allowed. We, the others, get to judge, when we are unconsentingly involved.

    That’s my way around that paradox 🙂

  15. 18

    A musician’s work is made more meaningful by music lovers.

    Sorry to be nit-picky, but while the audience/listener appreciation is certainly quite rewarding, much of playing and writing music (actually the vast majority of it) is done alone, or with a couple other musicians in the rehearsal studio or the basement/garage/jam-room etc. Sharing music with others is a wonderful thing, but a happy musician can hopefully find plenty of joy in the composing, playing, practicing etc., even if nobody ever hears it (except for the musician his/herself.)

  16. 20

    “I don’t think a life well-lived has to be a life with accomplishments. I think it can be a life with experiences. I think we can see the meaning of our lives, not just in terms of where we’re going, but in terms of where we are, and where we’ve been.”

    At the latter’s death bed, a journalist asked Richard Harris if, now that his life was almost over, he regretted certain pleasures he had experienced (wine, women, song) since now all he had were memories. Harris replied: I have them.

  17. 21

    Azkyroth, do you mean it’s consistent because the player/composer is a music lover? If so, yes, I agree. I was more pointing out that “made meaningful by music lovers” can easily be read to infer a 3rd party. I didn’t think that was what Greta was saying (I imagine she gets a great deal of pleasure from writing books, as well as having them read) but just noting that the audience/reader is an additional perk. My focus was probably because I often hear people say things about music like “music is all about pleasing the audience” so I’m used to pointing out the more personal/private angles. Anyways, as I said a nit-pick that doesn’t effect the quality of the overall post.

    On the primary topic: I don’t know how I feel about meaningful lives. I tend to think that finding “meaning” in things is more of a quirky obsession of the human brain. The flip-side of the coin that is our need to attribute causality and agency to events. Sorry, it’s hard for me to get the words right. But essentially that our goal to go simply beyond a highly rewarding life (which can include all kinds of great humanitarian/charity acts etc.) and give our life “meaning” is either just our way of dealing with the reality of our mortality and/or a self-conciousness and concern we have about how we are viewed by our peers and ourselves. Something like that.

  18. 22

    I have been atheist for many years, and I still sometimes get in a strange mood where the fact that life ends makes everything feel really meaningless and almost unreal. All these passionate feelings arising from this accidental consciousness due to some bizarre evolutionary process that turns atoms into organisms on this tiny speck of the vast vast universe. What else could it be but meaningless? Yet, I still care a lot about my work due tomorrow or pleasing my girlfriend, etc. I’m not sure there *can* be a truly and permanently satisfying answer to this.

  19. 23

    I needed to read this post. I survived being in a cult my whole life but I haven’t fully recovered. Depression, ptsd, are serious obstacles. I constantly feel I won’t accomplish anything meaningful in life. I need to be remnded of this, that my experiences are meaningful to me, and will encourage others. I’d better start writing, before they’re lost in time, like tears in rain…

  20. 24

    Or like a song in the wind. I’ve wasted a lot of my life – like going into theoretical physics and chemistry – through alcoholism and heroin. I have had a wildly exciting life, and I know things about myself that many other people, most likely, have no idea about themselves.
    I bet you can be interesting as all get out, and I’ll bet you sure can share insight about all sorts of things.
    Something else, too. I bet you have seen inside other people like almost no one else has. For me, the more I know, the less I know about giving advice, but man, can I ever relate to people on many levels, and understand what makes people tick in very bizarre circumstances.
    Sure, and I think yours could be worse, strange, whatever, than mine but, scars can damage us deeply.
    I’ve learned that a lot more people have twists to them than meets the eye. I appreciate the battles others have overcome differently and more insightfully than I ever suspected.
    Our lives can be very rich indeed, and I am constantly fascinated with myself other’s, even bland type, stories they relate because being able to empathize comes very easily now, to me, I think, lol.
    I look forward to you sharing, and you can give me advice about my cat anytime 😉
    Yes, you inspire me.

  21. 25

    In a sense all lives are well-lived, but the gnawing dissatisfaction remains. The source of the problem is that you don’t know who is living this life. Until you find out who you are, everything else is insecure. Begin an investigation into the nature of your own subjectivity. Start by establishing a daily practice of meditation.

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