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What Makes Life Worth Living? Take a Moment to Ask

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When was the last time you sat down, or took a walk, to think about what makes this one life you have meaningful -- what makes it worth living? When was the last time you took a break from solving problems, completing tasks, and pursuing your goals to ask whether those goals were the right ones to pursue? In a performance-driven and fun-oriented world, taking time to ask those sorts of questions can make you seem like a kid on a soccer team picking dandelions while others run to score a goal, perhaps even to become the next Messi, crowned in glory and swimming in cash.

At Yale, we teach a course called Life Worth Living. Two simple convictions guide and energize it: (1) the flourishing of our individual lives depends in part on our ability to ask and answer (however provisionally) the question of what makes life worth living, and (2) in the globalizing, pluralistic world we live in today, having leaders and citizens who are capable of articulating and deliberating about visions of a life worth living is of paramount importance.

At the individual level, ineptness in the face of the big questions reveals itself in the unsettling experience of unexpectedly stopping short in the middle of some routine activity (say, watering the lawn or hurrying to a meeting), not knowing why we should continue, how it adds to something larger than itself, a goal that gives 'weight' to our lives.

This experience reveals the problem with pushing aside the question of what makes life worth living for the sake of focusing on the "practical." Various forces bigger than ourselves -- perhaps most of all marketing and pop culture -- shape our goals without us realizing it, guiding our lives for us, often in directions that, were we to think about it, we would want to resist. Life becomes, for instance, a series of consumer decisions based on our preferences for this or that experience, or a mad race for some vaguely-defined "success."

In a world in which coherent traditions no longer form what sociologist Peter Berger called a "sacred canopy" for our lives, a stable point of orientation that gives our lives meaning, the only way to escape the malaise of a life adrift is to reflect intentionally on what makes life worth living.

Incompetence in considering what makes a life worth living doesn't just hinder our personal lives though. Its impact ramifies out into the world of public policy and governance. It's an understandable reaction to the rising social pluralism of our world (different cultural and ethnic and religious groups living in the same, often democratic, political units) to wonder if it might be prudent to keep the big questions off the table, to confine them to citizens' private lives, since they might lead to unresolvable conflicts. A certain way of talking about policy "problems" and "solutions" can make it seem like it the public square wouldn't miss them. We all already agree about what a government or multilateral organization ought to be doing, it suggests, and all we have left to do is get straight what tools and mechanisms will help it achieve that goal.

But many, maybe even most, big questions of politics and governance are not about how to solve an agreed-upon problem, but instead about what counts as a problem or a solution in the first place. They are about what matters, what we should hope for, what kind of world we want to contribute to. In other words, they're about what constitutes a life worth living and what values articulate it.

For example, public debates about economic policy in the United States tend to center on how to increase or sustain economic growth and maintain high employment. The questions at the heart of economic policy, however, are much deeper. What's more important: overall growth or reducing economic inequality? To what extent should the government ensure that all citizens have access to a set of basic goods? What goods are basic?

Similarly, public debates about immigration in the United States tend to focus on how to reduce the number of people who enter the country without documentation. Again, the real questions at the heart of immigration policy go much deeper than that. How important is it for a country to maintain a certain cultural heritage, to have a shared language among all its citizens, etc.? Those deeper questions aren't mere puzzles with straightforward solutions. Answering them depends on our conceptions of the good life.

Pluralism actually increases the number of political questions that are fundamentally questions about alternative accounts of human flourishing. It diminishes the degree to which we can rely on a culturally shared understanding of what makes life worth living to provide agreement on what the problems are and what would count as solutions.

Only citizens and leaders with eyes wide open to the real, big questions at play in public debates will avoid misunderstanding the stakes of our policy debates. We need them to be capable of deliberating about those big questions and willing to do so, rather than just digging in their heals and shouting until they get their way or get pushed out of the way. Thus, somewhat counter-intuitively, retreating from reflection on what makes life worth living turns out to be exactly the opposite of the response that social pluralism calls for. Pluralism calls for the hard work of deliberating about what really matters and what we ought to be pursuing in our common public life, not just how to get things done.

Teaching the course "Life Worth Living" gave us good reason to be hopeful about the prospects of intentional, profound reflection on what constitutes a good life. The students were phenomenal, not just in the way that nearly all Yale students are unnervingly good at seemingly everything, but in a deeper sense. They were thoughtful, patient, and courageous. They were eager to learn from each other and from the texts we study, to let their experiences of the class question their lives, and to change if they concluded that change was called for.

The outstanding students aside, two features of the class stood out to us as useful for future discussions of what makes life worth living. First, the core of the class was engagement with key texts from great religious (Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and philosophical (utilitarianism and Nietzscheanism) traditions of imagining the good life. These traditions have oriented the lives of billions of humans for centuries, and they offer deep, fertile resources for our reflection on what matters and why.

Second, the course embraced its pluralism: the course took place at a pluralistic, secular university, and students and professors hailed from various religious and non-religious backgrounds, and yet we were able to discuss (and often debate) together the great normative traditions' visions of the good life. The call to consider what makes life worth living doesn't have to be a call into homogeneous enclaves.

As human beings and citizens, we can't afford to be only experts in means but inept amateurs in the weighty ends toward which these means should be employed. We need to develop the habits and skills that equip us to deliberate seriously and respectfully about the great public issues of our day. We need to make room for the question of what makes life worth living not just on the college curriculum, but in our individual and common lives.