Whether you know it or not, you already have a life philosophy. Everybody has one. Choosing not to care about having a life philosophy is in itself a life philosophy. Granted, it’s a very incoherent life philosophy, but it is perhaps one of the most popular.
The default life philosophy that most people have is some form of Enlightened Hedonism – the constant consumption of ever-increasing amounts of goods and services. In a previous essay, I dealt with this life philosophy, arguing that it’s worth thinking about creating your own coherent life philosophy. It’s probably worth reading that essay before starting this one.
In this essay, I want to get you thinking about what your life philosophy might be. I will not give you a list of options to choose from or anything like that. And I’m certainly not going to try to tell you what the “right” life philosophy is. There is no such thing.
The point of this exercise is simply to get you thinking about what matters to you and why it matters. Once you have a better understanding of that, you can start to piece together your own life philosophy.
So what’s the difference between a coherent and an incoherent life philosophy? It’s actually really simple: A coherent life philosophy presents you with a clear grand goal of living and a clear strategy to achieve it. An incoherent life philosophy is simple when you go with the flow. We will discuss why “going with the flow” is not the best approach a little later on.
Today I want to highlight the importance of having a coherent life philosophy and the distinct advantages of doing so. Still, I am not going to touch on the subject of what coherent life philosophy you should have. I will leave that for another time.
One of the first questions that I asked myself when I started exploring this topic is why don’t human beings tend to default toward a coherent life philosophy? This is a more complex question than it first appears to be.
As discussed in my previous essay on Enlightened Hedonism, many forces exist at work. We are not born in a vacuum or with a clean slate. From the first day of our lives we are subjected to the pressures of the society that we are part of, it couldn’t really be any other way and so it’s hardly surprising that we adopt whichever life philosophy is the most popular. We hardly give it a second thought.
It’s the same with religious people (as we will see, religion is not a life philosophy). The greatest and most accurate predictor of a small child’s future religious views are the religious views of his parents and immediate community.
That’s hardly surprising.
So I guess the question is not why don’t humans as individuals default towards a coherent life philosophy, after all, we just accept, at least initially, the views of our society as a whole. The real question then, is why does our society not promote a coherent life philosophy? Considering the way our society is structured and how it promotes materialism, it is hardly surprising that a large percentage of the population does not have a coherent life philosophy. We are not encouraged to think in these terms, we are taught to think about the things we want in life, such as jobs, partners, material objects, and experiences, but not what we want out of life.
What exactly is the difference? Well, what you want out of life is not anything that you set about achieving on a daily, monthly or even yearly goal. It’s your overall purpose to being alive which defines what you do daily.
This is often a touchy subject; if you ask people about their overall life purpose, they often get on the defensive and tell you, “lighten up”.
I think this attitude is counterproductive.
This is because if you are doing something different to them, they may well feel that you are trying to say that they are living their life incorrectly. We previously discussed how people never like to be told they are wrong. As I mentioned earlier, not bothering to think about your personal life philosophy is in itself a (highly incoherent) life philosophy.
It’s the philosophy of going with the flow.
The problem with this approach is that you are likely to end up living a life that does not align with your deepest desires and values.
This is not to say that you will be unhappy if you don’t have a coherent life philosophy, but you are more likely to be unhappy than if you do have one. This is because a coherent life philosophy allows you to lead a life that is in line with your deepest desires and values.
It gives your life direction and purpose. It helps you make better decisions on a daily basis because you always have your grand goal in mind. It also enables you to better deal with difficult situations and setbacks because you
So what about religious people? Surely they have some greater meaning in their lives? Well, I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but religion does not provide you with a life philosophy. In fact, most people would find it quite strange, perhaps fascist, if religious leaders tried to enforce a life philosophy upon their followers. All religions will tell you what must and mustn’t do to be a good person and, in their opinion, a morally upstanding one. Religion will tell you what you should do in this life to have a good afterlife, but religion is quite silent on what you have to do to have a good life now.
Most religions will not see anything wrong with chasing material object all your life as long as you don’t break any laws. We can tell that this is the case because for all the differences, religious people are remarkably similar. If you were to meet a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, and a Jew who all live in the same country and belong to the same socioeconomic class, there wouldn’t be much difference between them. They would all have the same default incoherent philosophy of life that we spoke about earlier.
There are of course a few exceptions, such as some forms of Buddhism, but these are very much in the minority. So if you are looking for a life philosophy, religion is not the place to find it.
So what’s the big deal with having a coherent life philosophy? Well, the problem is that when you are older, if you are lucky enough to see old age, you might look back and wonder how and why you wasted all your time. Why you didn’t achieve anything meaningful?
Of course, having a coherent life philosophy is not just useful for when you are older and looking back on your life; it is also useful right now. If you wake up in the morning and are not quite sure of what you should do and why you should be doing it, or if you know what you need to do but have no idea why you are doing it, then it’s probably high time to start thinking about acquiring your own personal life philosophy.
So what are the advantages of having a coherent life philosophy?
As you don’t have a choice in having a life philosophy, you might as well care about it. This is not an advantage per se, but a reason. Of course, thinking about your life philosophy does have advantages over not doing so. Think of yourself as the captain of a ship, if you know where you are supposed to be going, you can make corrections when you realise you are heading in the wrong direction. If you are just going with the flow then the sea’s current may lead you anywhere, and by the time you realise where you’ve ended up you could be somewhere completely different.
If you have ever had to make an important decision and you weren’t sure which choice to make, you know how horrible a feeling it can be. Without a coherent life philosophy, your important choices in life may be made on a whim of your current emotional state or, even worse, you might not even be aware that you have a choice! If you have a coherent life philosophy, then the choice is often clear even before the question comes up.
And guess what, the less time you spend procrastinating making a choice, the more time you have actually to take action. Once you have a clearly defined life philosophy, you instinctively know if something “fits” into your life philosophy or not, or whether it’s even a relevant discussion in the first place.
It gives you a higher sense of purpose which has been shown to increase happiness and fulfilment. A coherent life philosophy should also provide you with that all-important why in life that can keep you motivated in tough situations. That’s a good advantage when life doesn’t go as planned.
Just having a life plan isn’t enough.
Life plans are a great way to set up both long and short term goals but the problem is that they only provide goals, not meaning. You can probably do quite well in life with just a plan, but there is no guarantee, you might realise later on that you’ve been barking up the wrong tree all your life. I strongly believe it’s better to first find your life philosophy, the meaning behind it all, and then create a life plan based on that. The advantage of doing your thinking first and then taking action is that you retain much more control of the way your life plays out.
“He who has a strong enough why can bear almost any how.” Friedrich Nietzsche.
A final word.
Make sure you keep this under your hat. By all means share this essay with anyone you feel might find it useful, but don’t try and “convert” people away from their current lifestyle to your own. I’ve purposefully not mentioned my own life philosophy here, because I want you to think about the way you lead your life, not the way I lead my own.
Remember: It’s much easier and more profitable to change yourself than to attempt to change other people.