What is life about? Answer: one thing

what is life about

So what is life all about? This question shouldn’t be confused with what’s the meaning of/or what’s the purpose of life? The latter looks at life in the biological sense, for example, you can say that the purpose of life is to reproduce, whereas answering “what is life about?” refers to life in the sense of existence, put another way, how would you describe human existence?

Existing is something we all do so you’d assume we are all experts on it, but trying to describe it can be tricky. The reason for trying to understand this question is just like any topic, when you understand something more, you become better at it, and I believe that applies here.

Attention

Depending on who you speak to, you’d hear different answers to “what is life about?”. To someone, it could be “friends and family”, to the money-obsessed “getting rich”, or the animal lover “rescuing dogs “. All these answers are ways to spend attention, what you pay attention to will define your reality and this is the answer that applies to everyone: life is what you pay attention to.

Our attention precedes everything, which includes doing and thinking. It’s the uppermost quality of attention that makes it so important, everything follows attention. Without attention, there is no existence.

We “spend”, “pay”, “waste” and “give” our attention. Being thought of as a valuable commodity is useful. When I work a job I don’t like, I’m spending (or wasting) a lot of my existence. This offers a bad return regardless of how much money I receive in exchange for my attention.

“Pay attention to what you’re paying attention to”

Howard Rheingold

I might have more money than you, so I can buy things you can’t, but if I’m working a job I don’t like, whereas you get to spend your attention on things you want, this makes you the richer person. The freest and richest are those that spend their attention on things that please them.

The Greek philosopher Epictetus once said: “you become what you give your attention to”. I find that hard to argue with. If you were cloned and one of your clones consumed 12 hours of news media daily while your other clone lived in the countryside with no access to any media — it’s fair to assume that you’d become different people.

While much of what I am writing may not sound earth-shattering, next time you are watching, reading or thinking about something that is altering your mood in anyway, remind yourself: this is life. Some of us know how to spend attention better than others.

“when you pay attention to something you don’t especially value, it’s not an exaggeration to say that you’re paying with your life”

Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

If you want to (literally) change your life then the best way to go about that is to change your environment. What you see starts a chain reaction of thoughts and forms your existence. That could mean changing where you live, your partner, your job, the media you consume, or your daily walking route …anything. In summary: if you want to change your life, make a change.

Problems

“All life is problem solving”

Karl Popper

I’m extremely stress averse, I sometimes try to solve problems before they exist so if they arise I’ll be prepared (needless to say, the problems rarely materialise). I used to believe that a problem-free existence would be a state of nirvana. Which now I know is wrong. In fact, it would be mind-numbing. Nearly everything we do is related to problems and solving them. From learning how to walk to brewing a coffee in the morning. When you boil anything down, it’s a “problem” in some shape or form.

If there was one applicable subcategory that defines “what is life about?” after attention then it would be problems. Oliver Burkeman refers to them as the substance of a meaningful existence in Four Thousand Weeks.

[Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman]

Once you give up on the unattainable goal of eradicating all your problems, it becomes possible to develop an appreciation for the fact that life just is a process of engaging with problem after problem, giving each one the time it requires—that the presence of problems in your life, in other words, isn’t an impediment to a meaningful existence but the very substance of one.

As hunter-gathers our problems were well defined which predominantly meant: finding food. We had a clear purpose, especially when ravenously hungry. After a successful hunt, I can only imagine how good it felt to provide plentiful food to friends and family. Our DNA is wired to solve problems but we live in an age where we outsource everything to someone or some app and wonder why we feel empty.

Talking about problems on another level, in a striking interview with Newsweek, Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész describes living in Auschwitz and how moments in a terrifying and challenging environment were some of the happiest of his life.

“I experienced my most radical moments of happiness in the concentration camp. You cannot imagine what it’s like to be allowed to lie in the camp’s hospital, or to have a 10-minute break from indescribable labour. To be very close to death is also a kind of happiness. Just surviving becomes the greatest freedom of all.”

Imre Kertész

While it’s not possible to imagine how difficult it would be living in a concentration camp. Most of us can think of a challenge we’ve undertaken that has pushed our boundaries, such as a long trek in the cold, fasting, or going on an exhaustingly long run. Following a challenge, we receive an exaggerated sense of happiness from routine experiences we take for granted such as having a meal, being warm or resting on the sofa. Without difficulty, life has no contrast — it’s problems and getting over them that makes us feel alive.

Generally speaking life with problems is a more interesting one. The challenge is that technology’s aim is to remove them. Life is getting too easy. Deliveroo will feed you, Uber will drive you and Netflix will entertain you. It gets worse with more money; you get a full-time nanny, a gardener, maybe even a driver, and certainly a handyman to hang a picture and build your furniture.

Getting someone to do your problems is the only problem you can solve. You become useless, you feel like a passenger and wonder: what is life all about?


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2 thoughts on “What is life about? Answer: one thing

  1. Great post, I try to do this most years, leave work for part of the year, and focus on renovating property, this allows me to learn new skills and tackle problems. Once a few months have past I’m more eager to return to work.
    Thanks for the reminder Richard, I’m about ready to leave the rat race for a few months.

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