“Thus it is that the Tâo [The Way] produces (all things), nourishes them, brings them to their full growth, nurses them, completes them, matures them, maintains them, and overspreads them.”
“He who knows (the Tâo [The Way]) does not (care to) speak (about it); he who is (ever ready to) speak about it does not know it.”
— Lao Tzu, The Tao Te Ching
(Don’t worry…I wont’ be giving you vague, cryptic advice that sounds difficult to implement.)
Ahhh, the right way to live. Everyone seems to know what that is (especially when it comes to how other people should behave), and yet no one seems to know (especially when it comes to what they should do next). The bigger question is, is there one, and—if so—what is it?
Before we can answer that question, we have to understand four ideas within this context:
So, we can now effectively reword the question, “is there a right way to live” as the following set of questions that are more clear and less open to misinterpretation:
Basically, you can see we’re just breaking down the question into its component parts: “Is there a right [most meaningful/significant] way [goals and ethics] to live [experiences/behaviors]?”
Let’s go through the four questions one by one, and we’ll see whether you’ll get insight into whether there is a right way to live that you can follow:
Is there a goal that everyone should have? If so, what is it?
No. Goals are subjective, so everyone will have their own set. However, there is a framework you can use as well as a set of goal types that you can use to define what yours are.
The universal framework for goals is growth. Effectively, a goal is a future state that you wish to attain, and you exist in a current state. The future state is always different from the current state, and if you’re willing to take action to get there, then you believe that it will be better in some way or you wouldn’t do it. Therefore, to get from your current state to your desired future state, you have to grow.
So, humans have a common means to attain their goal of growth, and they also have a common set of goal types that are all growth-related. Here are a few examples:
The list goes on, but you get the point. If you want to be like everyone else (i.e., you want to have goals that most people have to fit in or achieve social status), you’ll identify what you want to do regarding health and appearance, friendships, spouse and children, education level, career, and income among other areas. If you don’t care what others think, then you can spend your whole life doing something outside of those societal norms such as living in nature, meditating, and attaining spiritual growth. It is completely up to you, which is why there is no one goal or set of goals that is right for everyone. However, no matter what, you should be seeking growth in your life—in whatever form you prefer—for your goal to feel more “right” to you.
Are there an optimal set of ethics that everyone should follow? If so, what are they?
Yes and no. This answer requires some background. Ethics are rules that people follow to optimize/maximize their own growth while minimizing harm to others. As such, there are two types of ethics: one for minimizing harm, and one for optimizing growth:
Negative ethics are the ones that focus on what not to do: don’t harm someone else (i.e., without their consent; unless they’re trying to harm you). For practical purposes, you can consider these ethics to be ones that everyone should follow. For example, people shouldn’t be killing each other, hurting each other, or stealing from each other without provocation. Everyone would be better off if that were the case. There are some fuzzy lines, however, like the line between experiencing harm and simply being offended by something. So most “do not harm” rules are probably for the best, but there is debate as to where lines should be drawn regarding what constitutes harm and what harm should be illegal vs. simply unethical.
Note: The biggest problem with negative ethics is that people might perceive something as harmful and retaliate against or punish the alleged perpetrator. If they’re wrong (or the person receiving the punishment feels it’s unjust), it can set off a downward spiral of escalating harm.
Positive ethics are ones that focus on what to do to attain your outcome. These include recommendations like how frequently to brush your teeth, how often you should exercise, and how much education you should attain. These are definitely not universal for one very, very important reason: they depend on the goal. If you are training for a marathon, you are going to exercise more frequently and for longer periods than someone who is recovering from surgery. These completely different situations and goals will lead to different optimal approaches.
Even if you have a goal, there might be many, many different ways to get there based on other goals you might have or your strengths and weaknesses. For example, if you want to be a CEO, your path might differ based on whether you have kids due to how much work/life balance you’ll need to maintain. In another example, you might want to earn a lot of money but hate public speaking, so your route to riches might be more via methods that involve writing, coding, running an online business, or other paths that wouldn’t involve as many activities that you don’t like.
So, there are no universal rules that you can follow to be “perfect” other than the practical one of don’t harm someone without their consent unless they are harming you. Biologically, however, we do have the ethics of fairness, reciprocity, and minimal harm (to things/people we value and care about). So whatever you do, try to be fair, try to reciprocate, and try not to harm people if you want to live a life the “right” way. For positive ethics, define your goal and then seek advice/instructions/recommendations from successful people in that area to see which ethics might help you find the best way forward for you.
If not, which goals and ethics are right (i.e., meaningful) for me?
Because goals are subjective and ethics are dependent on the goal, we can’t discuss a perfect list here for you. However, in addition to the advice above about generally which goals and ethics work for most people, I’d like to cover one recommendation here around how to find which goals and ethics are right for you: think about them and try them. Kids do this naturally: they run around until they hurt themselves, and then they learn not to do the things that will hurt them. Humans have the benefit over other animals, however, in that they can imagine scenarios in their head about how they could go and whether they would be good or bad for them. So you can research fields you’re interested in, imagine doing the activity you’re considering, or simply sign up for a class or group that teaches or does it.
Experience is more certain than thinking at telling you what you need to know to determine whether you like it or it’s right for you, but it’s usually more costly in terms of time/energy investment. Thinking is usually faster at giving you an answer, but you’re making a ton of assumptions and have a higher risk of being wrong in the hypothetical world. But explore different things you can do in life—careers, leisure activities, etc.—and try the ones you think you’ll like and then keep doing the ones you want to get better at or experience more of. When a goal no longer feels fulfilling or the way you’re doing things stops working, you know it’s time to change.
What should I do with my time/life to feel the most meaning, happiness, or fulfillment from it?
This answer is simply a culmination of everything we’ve already covered. Remember that life isn’t about “being happy” but rather about “doing what makes you happy”—the distinction is important because happiness and fulfillment comes from you doing growth-enabling activities that lead to those emotions. Also, remember that growth is more than just effort but also involves rest, eating, and other rejuvenating activities.
In short, though, you need to identify what you want in life (i.e., your goals), identify what you can do to get there (i.e., your experiences), and then determine the optimal ratio of the 24 hours in a day, 7 days per week that you have doing the things you need to do to achieve all of your goals. It might be sleeping 8 hours per night, spending time with your children, and working 8 hours per day, 5 days per week. On the other hand, it might be working, going to school, and practicing a sport with barely any time for anything else (even sleep!).
Your life is up to you, and only you know what will make you feel fulfilled and, therefore, what you need to do to attain a meaningful life. You’re welcome to listen to others, but remember that you will find your own way (whether from finding the right way or running into the wrong way and altering course). I can’t tell you what’s right or wrong, but I can tell you that it’s okay with me as long as it’s what you want to do and isn’t harming anyone else. You do you.