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Making Life Meaningful: Living Purposefully

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 5, No. 1.

Author’s note: This is chapter 5 of my book Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It (Richmond: Glen Allen Press, 2002), which is an introduction to Ayn Rand’s morality of rational egoism. Chapters 1–4 were reprinted in the prior four issues of TOS.


In chapter 4, we saw the life-or-death importance of productive work and, more fundamentally, of rational thinking. We also discovered what emotions are, where they come from, and what they mean. Finally, we observed and contrasted the crucial yet distinct roles of reason and emotion in human life and happiness. We will now capitalize on these truths. In this chapter, we turn to the question of how to make life meaningful. And the key word here is: make.

Life does not come with ready-made meaning; we are not born with pre-packaged purpose. If we want our life to be meaningful, we have to make it so.

Our life is a process of self-generated, goal-directed action—action that, because we have free will, is generated by us toward goals chosen by us. The meaning of our life is a function of the goals we choose to pursue—that is, our purposes.

A purpose is a conscious, intentional goal—a goal chosen and pursued for a desired outcome. A rational purpose is a purpose that promotes one’s life—such as getting an education, developing a career, engaging in a hobby, building a romantic relationship, or raising one’s children. These are the kinds of goals that make life meaningful.

For example, consider a college student who chooses his major carefully, goes to class regularly, and takes his studies seriously. He is selfishly after something; he is acting purposefully toward a life-promoting end. In so doing, he adds meaning to his life in the form of value-achievements—such as increased knowledge, improved judgment, and an earned diploma. By contrast, consider a college student who picks a major at random, frequently skips class to “hang out” in the coffee shop, and studies just enough to “get by.” He is not selfishly after anything; he is not acting purposefully toward a life-promoting end. Consequently, he achieves nothing of value; he adds no meaning to his life. Even if he happens to receive a diploma, it will be meaningless, because he did not put anything into it; he did not earn it. Meaningful values are products of purposeful efforts. They have to be earned.

In regard to career, suppose a young office clerk decides that he wants to manage the company for which he works. He commits himself to learning everything he can about the business, constantly asks himself what can be done to improve operations, develops innovative ideas, presents them to his superiors, and seizes every opportunity to excel. Not surprisingly, over the course of some interesting, action-packed years, he makes his way to the top—where he does not stop: Once there, he strives to take the company to ever greater heights. Here is a person acting purposefully and, as a result, making his days and years exciting, inspiring, and rewarding—filling his life with meaning.

Now, contrast him to a young office clerk with the same potential, but who sets no such goals, takes no such actions, and stagnates as a clerk for the rest of his life. What will be the meaning of his days and years? What spiritual values will he achieve by means of his lethargy? The answer is obvious.

The meaning of one’s life is determined by the choices one makes and the effort one exerts. Whether one’s life is meaningful or meaningless depends on whether or not one chooses to be rational and purposeful.

Of course, irrational choices and actions may be said to have negative meaning—in that they have anti-life consequences. But this does not grant them any moral validity. Taking life-destroying actions is not a means to an “alternative lifestyle.” Acting against one’s life and long-term happiness is not another way to live; it is only a way to die.

Observe further, in this connection, that there is no such thing as a “neutral” goal or value. Since the hours and days of life are limited and irretrievable, for a person to spend any time doing something that is not good for his life is to act in a manner that is bad for his life. There is no middle ground here. Life is finite, and time is irreplaceable; thus, for a person to do something that does not advance his life is to retard his life. Since any of his misplaced effort of the past could have gone toward furthering his life but did not, his life at present is rendered less meaningful than it would otherwise have been. As to instances of non-effort: If rather than having idled a person had pursued a life-promoting goal or value, his life would correspondingly have become more meaningful.

For instance, if a person complacently settles into a job that he does not enjoy—and makes no effort to find or create one that he does enjoy—he cuts himself off from life as it might and ought to be. Similarly, if he sits around channel surfing all weekend, he forgoes countless alternative activities by means of which he could have made his life interesting and meaningful. Likewise, if he stays up all night getting mindlessly drunk, he misses out on the sleep he otherwise could have gotten, which would have enabled him to do something productive or exciting the next day.

Those who do not choose to pursue rationally purposeful, life-promoting values, lead spiritually meaningless, value-empty lives. Granted, their default renders them without emotional grounds for comparison; so they might not feel that they are missing anything. But this does not change the fact that they are missing out on life. Nor does it change the fact that there are rational grounds for comparison—such as those we are discussing here. So, regardless of whether they feel that they are missing out on anything, they still have the ability to know it—and to do something about it. Of course, the choice is theirs to make; boring or interesting, miserable or joyful, their life belongs to them.

Fortunately, they do not own your life or mine.

We live once. Every moment matters. Every effort counts. Every choice has a consequence. There are no neutral goals or values, because every choice we make either promotes our life or retards it. If we want to live our life to the fullest, we have to recognize this fact and act accordingly.

Consider an example in the realm of romance. Compare a rational man who is intent on building a long-term love-filled relationship with a woman—to a playboy who chooses to sleep with as many women as he can. The rational man’s relationship expands, deepens, and becomes fuller each day. Consequently, when he and his lover make love, it is not only a physical pleasure, but also a highly spiritual one; it is filled with all the knowledge, memories, and values that he and his lover share and revere. The playboy’s “relationships,” on the other hand, are empty. He shares no significant memories or values with his partners; he never even gets to know one woman before he’s on to the next. Consequently, his sexual escapades have no spiritual value; they are engagements of mere friction. Meaningful sex is a function of a meaningful relationship, and such a relationship requires a rationally purposeful approach.

The point here is that, as human beings, we have physical and spiritual needs; and if we want to live and achieve happiness, we have to identify and satisfy both.

Take an example in the field of parenting. Consider a mother who embraces the responsibility of properly raising her children, works hard to discover and employ the principles of good parenting, and strives to be the best mother she can be. She sets a good example for her children, teaches them the importance and joys of choosing and pursuing rational goals, encourages them to ask questions, and talks with them regularly about their thoughts and feelings. In so doing, she fosters their spiritual growth and helps them to become independent, self-confident, life-loving adults. Consequently, her children and her relationships with them add great meaning to her life.

Compare her to a mother who neglects her maternal responsibilities, makes no effort to discover the principles of good parenting, and raises her kids by the “seat of her pants.” She sets a bad example for them, teaches them nothing of the importance or joys of rational goals, discourages their question-asking, and disregards their ideas and feelings. Does she foster their spiritual growth—or does she hinder it? And what is the consequence of this? Will her children add great meaning to her life—or will they be a source of strife and resentment? Again, the answer is clear.

Of course, since people have free will, her children might still choose to think and exert the effort necessary to become independent, self-confident, life-loving adults. But if they do, it will be no thanks to their selfless, irrational mother; rather, it will be a tribute solely to their own selfish use of reason.

The principle is: If we want our life to be meaningful, we have to be rationally purposeful; we have to choose and pursue rational goals in each major area of our life: work, romance, friendship, recreation, and (if we choose to have children) parenting.

Let us now turn to a narrower principle pertaining to this issue. In order to succeed in pursuing our purposes, we must choose goals and values that are compatible with one another. We cannot develop a career if another interest keeps pulling us away from it, or enjoy a hobby that we can’t afford, or build a romantic relationship if we have no time. In order to accomplish our goals fully and harmoniously, we need to organize them around a central goal by reference to which we can combine our efforts into a unified, meaningful, robust life. Such a goal is what Ayn Rand called a central purpose.

A central purpose serves to integrate all the other concerns of a man’s life. It establishes the hierarchy, the relative importance, of his values, it saves him from pointless inner conflicts, it permits him to enjoy life on a wide scale and to carry that enjoyment into any area open to his mind.1

A person’s central purpose (if he has selected one) is his primary long-range goal in life. This goal is by definition more important than his secondary or short-range goals; thus, it takes precedence over them. This does not mean that he shouldn’t have other concerns or interests; it simply means that if he wants to live his life to the fullest—if he wants to make the most of his days and years—he has to prioritize his goals and pursue them accordingly. Logically, his most important goal should get the greatest degree of his attention.

What qualifies as a central purpose? Any long-range productive goal—so long as one makes it primary and takes it seriously. It has to be a productive goal, because of the central role of productive work in human life—the fact that one either produces or dies (or becomes a parasite). And it ought to be something one loves to do, because, while life is the standard of value, the moral purpose of one’s life is the achievement of one’s happiness. Thus, in short: One’s central purpose should be a long-range productive goal toward which one loves to work.

Usually, one’s central purpose is one’s career; however, it can be broader than that. For example, a person might choose the relatively specific goal of mastering the art of teaching history to high-school students, or he might decide on the more general goal of seeking excellence as an educator in the field of history. Whereas the first would probably include just one career, the second could subsume a number of different careers: He could begin by teaching at the high-school level, then become a college professor, later turn to writing textbooks, and still later produce historical documentaries.

Either way, whether narrow or broad, a person’s central purpose enables him to evaluate and coordinate all of his other concerns in life. It enables him to ask himself: Given my main mission, will this course of action add to or detract from my life and long-term happiness? If it will add to my life, where in the hierarchy of my values does it belong? How does it fit in with my other goals? How much of my time and energy should it get? And so forth. A person’s central purpose enables him to take control of his life, to manage it effectively, and to fill it with meaning.

Of course, since life is replete with interesting possibilities, opportunities, and alternatives, one’s central purpose might change over time. For instance, a woman might spend the first half of her adult life dedicated to building and running a semiconductor company, and then move to the countryside and devote her time and energy to painting landscapes. Another woman might choose to have children and commit a substantial number of years to raising them properly—during which time her central purpose would be motherhood—and later, after her children are grown, open an advertising agency. Yet another person might study dentistry and practice it for a number of years, then decide to sell the business and make his primary concern some activity that previously was just a hobby, say, woodworking.

In any case, if one wants to fill one’s life with meaning and joy, one needs a central purpose by reference to which one can organize and prioritize one’s values. It may be narrow or broad; it may subsume a single or several careers; and it may change over time. But if one wants to live as a human being and achieve genuine happiness, one has to choose and pursue a rational, selfish, life-promoting central purpose of some kind or another.

In a specialized society, the possibilities from which to choose are seemingly endless. One can be a scientist, a chef, a conductor, a Marine, a philosopher, a truck driver, a brain surgeon, or a fisherman. One can grow flowers, practice law, build bridges, paint portraits, play baseball, direct movies, sell insurance, or fly airplanes. One can make a central purpose of almost any interest—so long as it involves some sort of rational, productive work; and, importantly, it should be work one loves to do.

To support oneself by pursuing the goals one rationally loves to pursue is to enjoy one’s life by embracing the requirements of living as a human being. This is the moral ideal—the essence of good living—and to achieve it, one must simultaneously gain and maintain yet another spiritual value, one closely related to reason and purpose, namely: self-esteem.

Self-esteem is the dual conviction that one is able to live and worthy of happiness.2 Its two components, self-confidence and self-respect, are objective requirements of human life and happiness. If a person does not develop self-confidence, he will not be able to live successfully, because he will have no psychological motivation to put forth the necessary effort. Why should he try if he cannot succeed? And if a person does not develop self-respect, he will not be able to achieve happiness, because he will lack the positive personal evaluation that is the essence of happiness. How can he be happy if he thinks he is no good?

While self-esteem is essential to human life and happiness, people are not born with it; they have to earn it. And the only way to earn it is by means of rational achievement. A person comes to believe that he is worthy of happiness by using his mind and striving to succeed in life. And he comes to believe that he is able to live by exerting effort and accomplishing life-serving goals. To the extent he believes that he can deal with the world and that he deserves to be happy, he is psychologically positioned for success. To the degree he believes that he cannot deal with the world or that he does not deserve to be happy, he is psychologically positioned for failure.

Thus, self-esteem is as important to human life and happiness as are reason and purpose; and there is only one way to gain or keep it: by thinking rationally and acting purposefully. This is why reason, purpose, and self-esteem are, as Ayn Rand explained, “the three values which, together, are the means to and the realization of one’s ultimate value, one’s own life.”3

To live as human beings we have to think (reason); we have to choose and pursue life-promoting goals (purpose); and we have to achieve and maintain the conviction that we are able to live and worthy of happiness (self-esteem). All three are necessary for success in every area of our life.

To underscore the importance of these values, consider one of the great rewards for upholding them: romantic love. In the full sense of the term, romantic love is possible only to a person who thinks rationally, pursues life-serving purposes, and cultivates self-esteem. To understand why, we need only ask a few questions.

With respect to reason: How could a couple communicate with each other, plan a future together, or settle disagreements if one of them placed emotions or feelings over rational judgment and facts? Imagine pointing out the facts regarding an important issue and rationally explaining to your lover why you are taking a certain position—and then hearing him or her say: “I’m not swayed by facts or reason—my feelings tell me what’s right and wrong.” How long would that relationship last?

As to purpose: How could a person be romantically attracted to someone who has no creative interests, goals, or ambition? In other words, how attractive is a couch potato? Could you fall or remain in love with a person who does not want to be productive or accomplish anything? Conversely, if you had no passion for achievement would you expect anyone to love you?

Regarding self-esteem: If a person is not worthy of his own love, how can he be worthy of another’s? What on earth could someone else know about his character that he doesn’t know? Would you want to become romantically involved with a person who—by his or her own conviction—is just no good? And how could a person who does not love himself love anyone else anyway? With what “self” would he love them? As Howard Roark, the hero of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, so eloquently put it: “To say ‘I love you’ one must know first how to say the ‘I.’”

Reason, purpose, and self-esteem are the basic human values—the fundamental values on which our life and happiness depend. If we want to live and make the most of our life—if we want to fill our life with meaning—we have to uphold these values consistently, without compromise, as a matter of principle. How to do so is the subject of chapter 6.

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1 Ayn Rand, interview by Alvin Toffler, Playboy, March 1964.

2 See Rand, For the New Intellectual, p. 128; and Peikoff, Objectivism, p. 306.

3 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 27.