Nicolae Tanase: Prof. Chang, what is the meaning of life?
Ruth Chang: If you ask most people on the street ‘What is the meaning of life’, they will usually end up muttering something about ‘happiness’. But the meaning of life has nothing to do with happiness.
Happiness is a mental state – a feeling, a mood, an emotion – having something to do with pleasure, contentment, or a sense that all is well with the world and with one’s place in it. Scientists have proven that mental states can be caused. If you take a Xanax, you will end up with the mental state of feeling chill. In principle, then, you could take a happiness pill, or live in the Matrix, or be hypnotized into feeling happy. And if you feel happy, you are happy.
But how can life’s meaning be found in a pill?
Life has meaning when we commit to things – that is, put our very selves behind something of value. You can commit to a person, a cause, a political system, or to being the sort of person who pursues happiness. But it’s the commitment, not the happiness, that gives life meaning. We create meaning in life by putting ourselves behind something. By committing to things, we shape our own identities and become the author of our own lives.
~Ruth Chang is Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University, New Brunswick in New Jersey, United States, with a Ph.D. in philosophy from Oxford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Her expertise concerns philosophical questions relating to the nature of value, decision-making, the exercise of agency, and choice. In May 2014, she gave a TED talk on making hard choices that currently has over four million hits. Her work has been the subject of interviews by various media outlets around the world including in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Germany, Australia, Italy, Israel, Brazil, New Zealand, and Austria, and she has been a consultant or lecturer for institutions and industries ranging from video gaming to pharmaceuticals to the Navy and World Bank.
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