I believe there are few things more valuable than building a meaningful philosophy on life. Although this may sound like a question best reserved for theologians and great thinkers, at the heart it is a practical question: What is your strategy for living?
Your criteria may differ, but I believe all good life philosophies have four basic parameters:
- Survival. Except in rare circumstances, most good philosophies will fulfill your basic needs. This usually isn’t a big concern since most of us are living well beyond the minimum threshold required to simply survive.
- Happiness. Good life philosophies should make you feel good. Great philosophies will keep you happy even in troubling circumstances. Victor Frankl in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, demonstrated how even in incredible suffering of the concentration camps he could still endure because of a powerful strategy for living.
- Meaning. Happiness can rarely exist without meaning. Good philosophies should make you feel useful and valuable, otherwise when pleasurable moments fade you are left with nothing.
- Independence of Circumstance. Your life philosophy needs to apply in all situations and circumstances. Your strategy for deriving meaning and happiness should last even after a breakup, death of a relative or unemployment.
Everyone has a philosophy on life, whether they realize it or not. The process of refining this philosophy is like building a ship. It will carry you in rough times and allow you to float easily during the pleasant moments. Here are some tips for refining your strategy on life:
- Introspection. A life philosophy cannot be outsourced. Although many major religions package premade philosophies, the work of building a strategy for life is yours alone. Thinking about your beliefs and strategies is the only real way to do that. I recommend journaling or meditation to guide your thinking to come to real solutions.
- Study other philosophies. Gather philosophies from other people and books. I try to be as broad as possible when exposing myself to other ways of thinking. I don’t believe you can be corrupted by a new way of thinking, so don’t limit yourself to exploring philosophies that only fit within your current expectations.
- Focus on the answerable. Philosophy should be practical. This means focusing less on the unanswerable questions that just lead you in circles. I’m an atheist, but my opinion is that the question of whether there is a man in the clouds is besides the point. There is no grand truth, just now and experience. Answerable questions are like:
- “What should I do to have a meaningful life?”
- “How should I view painful moments so they don’t overwhelm me?”
- “How should I act in relationships with other people?”
- Don’t commit. Building a philosophy is an ongoing process of refinement, not an end result. I don’t ever expect to find a final answer, just increasingly better ones. My approach is to view any strategies I currently have as being the best available right now, but I am always open to new understandings.
- Seek references. Experience can sculpt your strategy on life. I aim to find as many broad experiences as possible so I can use them as points of reference when developing a life philosophy. This doesn’t mean you need to smoke a lot of drugs or live in the wilderness, naked, for a year. Just that you shouldn’t limit yourself to the routine of your daily life.
- Connect with others. Discuss your philosophy and find the philosophy of other people. I do my best to reserve judgment and simply observe. I’ve heard completely different philosophies on life from my own and each is a valuable source of new ideas. Don’t stop the flow by preaching or judging those with a different worldview.
- Experiment. Philosophies need to be practical. They should affect how you think and what you do. Experiment with different approaches and see which connects best with the four criteria I mentioned above.
- Collect new functions. Lenses and metaphors are an important component of a strategy for living. Read this article on building a library of thought functions to find more.
- Hold conflicting ideas. I believe it was Aristotle who said, “it is the mark of an educated mind to hold two conflicting ideas in his head without accepting either.”
- Be patient. I’m far from having a perfect strategy for living. I expect the process of refining a life philosophy will take decades, perhaps my entire life. There are no final answers, just slightly optimized ones.
Bonus: Don’t take it too seriously! A strategy for living is important, but it shouldn’t feel like a grave burden. Great philosophies make you feel excited by possibilities, adventure and opportunities. A good boat should be able to handle the rough seas, but it should also be comfortable when the water is calm and the sun is out.