Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona: The Meaning of Life and Contributing Toward a Shift In the Balance of Happiness

1561605_lExcellence Reporter: Dr. Mehl-Madrona, what is the meaning of life?

Lewis Mehl-Madrona: I suspect that life has no intrinsic meaning and that we are free to make meaning as we wish. This seems to me to be the project of humanity – to take that which may be random or meaningless and to construct meaning out of it. Of course, we have some meaning, which we can diminish or augment at will in that we continue our species, though the degree to which the earth needs our species, can be questioned.

However, the lack of intrinsic meaning is not the same as nihilism, which says there is no meaning. I would suggest that whatever human projects we attempt to accomplish and even impose on nature, we have meaning within nature through simply being part of the web of nature. We occupy a niche even if we have taken advantage of our position to subdue other equally important parts of the web of nature. I have meaning as a home for the billions of bacteria that live in my gut. I provide them with sustenance and the opportunity for life. I have meaning for the organisms, who colonize my skin and my various orifices. I have meaning for those animals and plants, that I eat and that might eat me.

Can we love someone without it having meaning? Can my children love me and I love my children without it having to mean any more than that – a genuine, positive regard and warmth for each other in which we are willing to put some of our desires aside for the benefit of the other?

Here is the take off at which stories begin to appear about meaning. If I love my children and they love me, does it mean anything? Am I meaningful to them? Yes, if we say, am I significant to them? Are they significant to me?

Interestingly, mother trees preferentially send nutrients to their offspring through the interconnected root systems in a forest. Trees prefer to give what’s available in excess to their own children as opposed to randomly distributing it. Our children must mean something to us, or we wouldn’t, as trees do, preferentially facilitate their survival.

From this taking off point, however, we can construct amazingly unproveable stories about our meaning and purpose. I’m no exception to this.

I’ve recently begun reading philosopher, James Tartaglia (1), of Keele University, who writes about humanistic responses to nihilism, one being what he calls “a post-Nietzshean rejection of objective truth” and the other being a “moral objectivism”, in which philosophers attempt to define on moral grounds what constitutes a “meaningful life.” Tartaglia points out that all attempts at morality constitute social judgments and that there are dangers to defining the meaning of life by such social judgments, for they will differ by locale. Nothing objective can be found here, because what is moral in one place will not be in another. He suggests that nihilism is just a description, and not an evaluation.

Native scholar Vine Deloria, Jr., localized religions as schemes for defining the meaning of life as oriented around nature or around history. Mello and Owen (2) place this in the role of religions of history (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) compared to religions of place (North America’s indigenous traditions). This spoke to me as I considered what has my life meant? Being a bicultural person, I felt the pull of both orientations. I wanted to be part of history, to feel that I had contributed toward a movement toward something. But what?  What are we moving toward? My faith in the sense of linear progress toward a utopian society has been shaken by the events of the 20th and 21st centuries. I no longer have a sense of movement of history toward a higher good. Within that the thought that I may have made a difference in the lives of others has comforted me, that I may have played some role in reducing their suffering and improving their overall happiness or satisfaction in life. This sense is ahistorical. It could have happen in any time period for people have always suffered to one degree or another. Thus, I have come to believe that a meaningful life is one in which we contribute to the happiness of others without increasing our own suffering; that we reduce the suffering of others without transferring that suffering to ourselves. I have come to the conclusion that life feels most meaningful to me when I have contributed toward a shift in the balance of happiness to suffering in a positive direction.  The most positive acts were not those I was paid to do. They were often those I did without regard for personal reward.

However, I find myself rejecting the idea that there are objective measures of determinants of life’s meaningfulness, though there are those who measure the value of life in one’s net worth. I return to the words of the theme song of the musical Rent, which I found one of the most profound works of art of the 20th century. The song asks how do we measure a life? The answer – in sunrises, in kisses, in moments so dear, in cups of coffee, that’s how we measure a year in the life of a man or woman. These are moments of subjective meaning in which I come to feel that I have transcended my limitations, that I have participated in something larger than me, something transcendental.

However, my evaluations of what is transcendental, what is meaningful, are unique to me.  We might find that cultures tend to cluster around similar ideas, but no objective basis appears out of the mist form which to judge meaning. I think it is a matter of personal decision. I must decide what is meaningful to me and how well I did on that scale. Perhaps that is one of the tasks of being an elder – to make those decisions and to place oneself on the scale of meaning that one has constructed. Sometimes our choices and scales are too harsh and punitive and we need the love of others to reduce the degree to which we suffer in evaluating our lives.

Psychologists from the University of Delhi (3) have shown that having a stronger sense of meaning to my life is correlated with having greater resiliency and with greater feelings of social wellbeing. Inevitably problems arise in how psychologists define these constructs, but nevertheless, I think we can say there appears to be something healthful about believing that our lives have meaning and purpose. We have more coping resources when we think this way. And, in my way of thinking about myself, it’s my social acts that contribute most to my sense of myself as having meaningful for and in the world, so it makes sense that the more positive social acts I believe myself to have committed, the more social wellbeing I feel. The novelist Henry Miller defined social wellbeing as having lots of friends with whom you could spend the night, so many, that if you rotated through them, one per evening, you would not exhaust your welcome.

Tartaglia distinguishes between the “meaning of life” and “meaning in life.” The meaning of life is the abstract question that has preoccupied philosophers and theologians, priests and shamans, healers and prophets, since time immemorial. Why are we here? An objective answer cannot be found. I have come to my own conclusions. I suspect our lives are aesthetic masterpieces in other dimensions, the value of which cannot be diminished. I suspect our struggles with physicality and embodiment endear us to these non-physical energies. I suspect we enter into this dimension sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose, sometimes randomly, and sometimes to learn something. I cannot prove this, but it comforts me to think so. I suspect we could choose to come here in any form we wish – a dog, a fly, a human, a tree, but I cannot prove that either. Which brings us to my point that the meaning of life is a personal choice we make. The more to which that personal choice exalts us and celebrates our breaths upon the planet, the better we feel, the more resilient we are, and the more well socially we find ourselves. We all have to actively work on our scales and on moving upward on them. To the degree that we can and do, we counter despair, depression, and nihilism. We feel better. Then we die and discover the truth (or not).  Maybe the spirit world is equally as relativistic as the physical world.

  1. Tartaglia J. Transculturalism and the Meaning of Life. Humanities. 2016;5(2):25.
  2. Mello K, Owen S. Native American religions. 2016. In: Religions in the Modern World: Traditions and Transformations [Internet]. New York City: Routledge; [299].
  3. Sharma SK, Gangmei M. A Study of Meaning in Life, Social Well Being and Resilience Among Indigenous People. Indian Journal of Applied Research. 2016;5(12).


~Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD, PhD is the author of the “Coyote” Trilogy. His work discusses healing practices from Lakota, Cherokee and Cree traditions, and how they intersect with conventional medicine via a social constructionist model. He has been writing about the use of imagery and narrative in healing since the 1980s and is is certified in psychiatry, geriatrics, and family medicine. His research collaborations include work on various psychological conditions, issues of psychology during birthing, nutritional approaches to autism and diabetes, and the use of healing circles to improve overall health outcomes.

Copyright © 2016 Excellence Reporter

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