The Meaning of Life

05 Aug
August 5, 2015

At the end of my New Employee Orientation presentation on Spiritual Care at our Medical Center, I offered to answer questions from the audience. When they ran out of questions, I threw in one of my own, “Would you like to know what is the meaning of life?” I was actually ready to discuss this topic individually with people, but no one took me seriously in that forum. I was too flippant, I suppose.

What is the meaning of life? The answer I hear most often is to be happy. Maybe I have been reading too much Oprah on line. However, I see advice about seeking happiness everywhere these days. Gretchen Rubin wrote “The Happiness Project” about spending twelve months focusing on marriage, money, friendships, time management and other aspects of life to become happier. She and her screen-writer/television producer sister created an iTunes podcast “Happier.” It gives you practical advice about little things you can do to make yourself happier, like getting more sleep and cleaning out your closet. It may sound mundane, but their ideas do work, once you hear them explained in detail.

Gretchen and her sister give themselves happiness demerits when they realize that some  behaviors detract from their happiness and gold stars when other things lead to happiness. They talk about these ideas on the podcast. I liked this idea so much that I suggested it to my husband Jim. We have been giving each other and ourselves gold stars at the end of the day for acts of kindness, accomplishments, going the extra mile, cooking a good sauce or meal, being creative, exercising, etc. It is a way of sharing, savoring and enjoying our day together. Surprisingly, it does add to our happiness.

Is the meaning of life to be happy? My husband is Buddhist and I am Christian. So, I like to look at both traditions to see what they say. This question deserves a spiritual response. The Dalai Lama said, “The purpose of our lives is to be happy.” The Buddha said, “There is no path to happiness; happiness is the path.” And “Happiness comes when your work and words are of benefit to yourself and others.” This is proof-texting. Yet, happiness is a strong theme in Buddhism, but so is compassion. The Dalai Lama also said, “If you want others happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” I think a Buddhist might say that the meaning of life is to be happy and compassionate.

The parallel to happiness in Buddhism is joy in Christianity. Jesus said, “I have come that you might have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance.” (John 10:10) And, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11) A Christian might say that the meaning of life is to be joyful. And yet, I need to add loving, because it is not all about me, myself and I. Christians need to add the Great Commandment to love God, their neighbors and themselves. (Matt. 22:37-40) So for Christians, the meaning of life is to be joyful and loving.

After New Employee Orientation, I was waiting for someone to approach me and ask, “So, what is the meaning of life?” They never did, but I would have said, “What do you think?”