Nathanael Garrett Novosel, September 13 2023

Something to Live for

One of my favorite psychology studies of all time is the one where they give the test group a plant to take care of in their elderly home and then provide a plant for the control group that is taken care of by a staff member. The results were stark: the group who had the responsibility for taking care of the plant lived much, much longer than the group who didn’t. I explained this study to a podcast host, who said, “Well, I guess a lot of our audience members are going to run out and buy plants now.” While that is an amusing quip for the conversation, it diverted from the point of the findings.

The reason why the test group outlived the control group was not because of the plant itself. It could’ve been anything that required care to sustain. The point of the study was to see how having responsibility impacted your life. It turns out that the tradition of working for 40 years and then retiring to do nothing has created a strange posture toward work where you put in your time doing something for others for money and then you don’t do anything for the rest of your life but entertain yourself while being taken care of. But that’s the wrong way to look at life if you want to feel a sense of meaning and purpose in your life.

To live with purpose, you have to have a reason to get up in the morning. Yes, that can be that you’re going to see a new play, eat a new cuisine, or listen to a new song on the radio. But that can’t be it; life is more than an Epicurean Skinner Box. Yes, our biology’s foundation is to seek pleasure and avoid pain, as Freud famously explained in his Pleasure Principle. But he was talking about incentives for behavior and not the underlying reason why we have those incentives: we have pleasure and pain sensations to incentivize us toward growth-enabling behaviors. This is why there are plenty of people who love exercise, carpentry, art, and other fields that are for all intents and purposes hard work. Work toward a better future is rewarding in a way that consumerism will never match. It is why video games are popular, as people put themselves in the role of a hero and work toward leveling up or acquiring the equipment necessary to win the game. It is in effect simulating the effort-reward connection of real-world activities without the their requirements, costs, and consequences.

As with the plant experiment, it ironically doesn’t matter what the purpose is. There are few people who end up having to take care of a child (whether through an unplanned pregnancy or the death of a sibling, son, or daughter) and don’t immediately feel a sense of purpose because their lives immediately become about ensuring that child’s health and well-being. It is why many people say that “to serve others” is the meaning of life—it is much easier to identify the solution to others’ problems than it is your own, and so being the solution and benefitting them will immediately show that what you do in life matters. But it doesn’t just have to be others, as you can have the purpose of learning, improving your skills, progressing toward a goal, completing a project, or a variety of other reasons to live through the next day. While there are plenty of people who do list pleasurable things like another movie to watch or another meal to eat, most of the frequently cited reasons are related to some sort of growth or development: travel lets you learn more about the world; skill development makes you more effective at delivering value to yourself and others; time with friends is about bonding and building relationships.

While finding something to live for isn’t complicated, it isn’t necessarily easy. There are millions of things you can do in life, and it’s possible that you don’t initially find any one thing that sparks your interest. There are, in fact, plenty of people who are more jacks-of-all-trades who simply like the variety of life and so don’t want to pick any one thing per se. You might also experiment with many majors in school and not find one that speaks to you per se. The best you can do in these situations is keep your intention to find something that matters to you strong along with an openness to any experience you might have being the thing that you fall in love with.

You definitely want to find something to live for if you want to live a long, purposeful life. It might be something you stumble upon or find intentionally, or it may even be something that finds you. And, yes, it can be anything—maybe you want to run a marathon or have the world’s largest collection of Elvis memorabilia. It can be to just live for the quiet moments where you get to sit on the beach and watch the tide go in and out. The important part is that you find something that makes you feel compelled—through interest or a sense of responsibility and significance—to continue on. To continue forward. To make tomorrow better than today. Once you find that thing to live for, you’ll find getting out of bed—and possibly living as long as you naturally can—much, much easier than if you think of life more nihilistically, materialistically, or hedonistically.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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