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Meaning In Life Is Totally Subjective

Disagreement about meaning in life doesn't really exist.

Pamela J. Hobart
Pamela J. Hobart
2 min read
Meaning In Life Is Totally Subjective

Meaningfulness in life happens at the intersection of values and emotions. Basically, a person generates meaning when she experiences good feelings towards something she sincerely believes bears value.

You are the only person who can tell whether your life is meaningful. We must believe a person who reports that she finds her life meaningful.

This subjectivism about meaning within life may seem simple and uncontroversial enough. But it has surprisingly far-reaching implications for public discourse (especially political decisions) and personal relationships alike.

I started thinking again about meaning in life while reading the blog of a popular doctor who writes on obstetrics and feminism. She was dismayed to find a mainstream news outlet scrutinizing whether pumped breastmilk is nutritionally equivalent to the directly-fed stuff.

The doctor interpreted these attacks on pumped breastmilk as a ploy to con mothers out of the "meaningful work" they desire. If mothers are made to believe that pumped breastmilk isn't any good, then they can be more easily convinced to stay at home to breastfeed instead. "Redomesticated."

Of course it's scientifically legitimate to explore the differences between pumped milk and fresh. Admittedly, sensationalist reporting on scientific often confuses the public. It would be great if everyone always had perfect information for making decisions, but this is the real world ain't it. We do the best we can.

The bigger problem here is that you just can't tell whether a mother's life is meaningful from whether she works and/or breastfeeds.

Some paid work is experienced as meaningful, other work isn't. Some mothers find breastfeeding meaningful and others don't (perhaps even while choosing it for other reasons, like convenience or cost).

The truth is that all sorts of people can find meaning in life from all sorts of places. Does meaning individualism entail that literally any kind of life is potentially meaning apt? Yes! - but that's fine.

Imagine some edgy example, like an average guy who spends all day literally watching paint dry. If he has ordinary cognitive abilities and still finds paint-watching meaningful, there must be something else going on. Maybe he's entering a meditative state. Maybe he's self-soothing following previous trauma. Now those don't sound so wacky, do they?

On the other hand, if someone really does find meaning in simply watching paint dry, what's the best explanation? The best explanation is that

If Joe Blow says he finds meaning working a fast food job in his very small town but that seems impossible to you, what now?

Disagreement about meaning in life doesn't really exist. An individual's beliefs are necessarily authoritative about what they meaningful.

Don't question, don't criticize. It's one thing to take issue with someone's factual beliefs, or their reasoning. It's quite another to attempt to tear down her purpose itself.

Last thing: do unto yourself as you do unto others. If you're already finding meaning in life, don't question too hard (I know this is easier said than done - I know it all too well).

The problem is that sincerity is expensive while skepticism is cheap, cheap, cheap. Push too hard against the meaning you've already found in your life, and you'll fall right through into the void.

Footnote: here I'm talking about meaning within life, not the meaning of life per se. That's more of what you'd call "transcendental meaning," and it tends to come from religious sources (if it exists at all...)

Pamela J. Hobart Twitter

Philosophical Life Coaching in Austin, TX. Also mother of 3, Miata driver, and DIY manicure aficionado.