The Meaning of Life looks like a great guide to finding purpose in life. Who is your target market for the book?
Honestly, the audience is anyone as curious as I was about how life works. It’s particularly useful for anyone who is lost, confused, looking for something more, or lacking direction in life, but anyone who is genuinely interested in what science can tell us about humanity’s sense of purpose will love it. Most importantly, people who want answers to life’s big questions but don’t want the author imposing his own ideas of what the “right” way to live is will appreciate this material.
How did you come up with the ideas and concepts in the book?
I studied human behavior, psychology, philosophy, and related fields for decades trying to understand it all. When I started noticing patterns across both philosophical texts and psychological studies as to how people find meaning and purpose, I knew I had stumbled upon something that everyone would want to know about: an ultimate formula for a meaningful life. It was very important to me, though, that all my concepts were understood scientifically and had practical guidance so that people could apply them.
“When I started noticing patterns . . . I knew I had stumbled upon something that everyone would want to know about: an ultimate formula for a meaningful life.”
What will readers get out of your book?
If they are lacking a sense of meaning in their lives, they will have identified a list of growth areas to pursue and built a complete plan to get started. This is where this book differs from other personal development books, which usually start assuming you have already identified a desired outcome and they give you a formula that worked for the author. Those books tell readers how to approach a goal that they have; this book tells you how to figure out what that goal should be for you—without dictating what that goal should be in any way.
What inspired you when writing The Meaning of Life?
Oh, man. So many things—the writing and editing took almost seven years! I needed constant inspiration. My first and foremost inspiration was my colleague and mentor, Jitendra Subramanyam. He encouraged me to take a shot at writing the book—after I explained it to him. Early in writing, I was motivated by the great insights from the work I reviewed to prepare my points and the not-so-great recommendations from people who didn’t bother explaining why they might apply to someone. The fallacies being pushed around motivated me to not refute them—though that was tempting—but rather to provide a better answer for people. During editing, I was worried if I could do the topic justice and really help people. When I’d watch people like Daryl Davis and Cassie Jaye put themselves out there and face the blowback that comes with speaking the truth and doing the right thing, I was reminded that anyone can make a difference.
When did you decide to become a writer?
September 2009. I’ll never forget because I bought a MacBook Pro with the justification that I’d use it to write a book. Unfortunately, the first outline I wrote, while not wrong, was just another book criticizing other people’s ideas and not putting forth a good alternative. I told myself that I wasn’t going to just be another voice railing against bad ideas but that I was going to think of the best way to articulate good ideas. When I figured it out around 2013, I knew that I had just decided to become the writer of The Meaning of Life.
When writing The Meaning of Life did anything stand out as particularly challenging?
Interestingly enough, I was able to draw up a structure for the book in just days: chapter title, quotes, key principles, essay section, questions, exercises, outcome. It was the essay section that was the challenge. I found that just jotting down my string of thoughts got me going, and then I could come back and remember everything I missed when I read it. I rewrote that section of each chapter completely about two to four times. Trying to write about ethics without recommending specific ethics was the most difficult part. I also had to remove any passages that were overly harsh toward other philosophies or too sarcastic for the written word. My natural temptation to use figures of speech and make jokes when I talk had to be suppressed constantly while writing on such a serious, intimate topic.