Your life accrues meaning insofar as you achieve the aims you devote it to freely and competently. The bearer of meaning is your life as a whole (or at least the bulk of it). The content of meaning – what your life means – is the achievements themselves.
In giving your life meaning, you thereby give it a purpose. A purpose is just an aim or end. To have a purpose is either to be an agent who adopts some end or to be the means to such an end. In devoting your life to the achievement of something, you make your life the means to your end. Your life will then have that purpose whether or not you achieve your aim, and meaning only if you do.
There is another way that your life could acquire a purpose: conceivably, someone else might use you or your life towards their own ends. However, you will resist being used by others since you are an autonomous agent, and acting autonomously requires that you decide for yourself what to live for, if anything. This does not mean that you must act alone. Your autonomy is consistent with your freely joining others for some common end, and also with joining in on something started by others long ago. It is not consistent with being pressed by others into serving their own needs, like a sailor shanghaied by some eighteenth-century crimp. If I had an elixir that would make you want, above all else, to be my slave, slipping it into your morning coffee could not make servitude your meaning-conferring aim. Your servitude would not be by free choice. You must select your own aims (even if in concert with others) and achieve them. So your life has the meaning you give it. Something similar can be said of those things we are drawn to by nature. Once we are aware of our drives, we need not remain passively in their grip. We can place ourselves at a critical distance from them and assess them. At that point we might choose to embrace them, but we might instead opt to sublimate them – to redirect them in some way we consider to be choice worthy.
While meaning is within the reach of any normal person, not all will attain it. Some of us live in the moment, and never give serious attention to our lives as wholes or to what these might be for. Others do set aims for life, but then fail to achieve them.
In view of the possibility of failure, wouldn’t it be best to modify the achievementist account, so as to require, as sufficient for meaning, only the pursuit of aims as opposed to their achievement? No; if I devote life specifically to curing the disease that killed my only child, what I have in mind is not puttering about fecklessly in my lab. Nor will meaning result from strenuous efforts if ultimately these fail. Nothing less than a cure will do. Nevertheless, for some people meaning will be about their pursuits. This is entirely compatible with the achievementist account, for it is possible to take on a pursuit as aim. Contrast two possible objectives: the first is to do work that will result in a cure for Tay-Sachs disease. The second is to learn whatever I can about Tay-Sachs or about genetic diseases in general. Both are aims, but in taking on the first I am not merely engaging in a pursuit. If my work does not lead to a cure, I will have failed. The second aim, by contrast, is precisely to engage in a pursuit. No particular discovery about pathology is called for.
Other things being equal, I will be better off if I give my life meaning, but meaning is not the only thing that contributes to the goodness of life. How well I fare, either over a brief period of time or over the course of my life, is determined by the share I accrue of all things that are intrinsically good for me and all things that are intrinsically bad for me. For example, my pleasure is a plausible candidate for something that is intrinsically good for me. It is good in itself, good for its own sake. Pain is intrinsically bad for me. Other things being equal, it is better for me to have more pleasure over time than less, and less pain than more. It is also clear that a certain amount of pleasure can offset a certain amount of pain (even though it is not really clear how much pleasure it takes to offset some amount of pain). We can represent the value that pleasure has for me with a positive number, and the value of pain with a negative number. If pleasure and pain were the only goods and evils, then we could represent my lifetime welfare level as the sum of the two values: if, over the course of my life, I accrued 100 units of pleasure and 50 units of pain, my lifetime welfare level could be represented with the positive number 50; if instead I gained 50 units of pleasure and 100 units of pain, my welfare level could be represented with a negative number, -50. However, pleasure and pain are not the only intrinsic goods and evils. For example, friendships and other close interpersonal relationships are also intrinsic goods. These, too, will affect my lifetime welfare level. It will be high, well into positive territory, if the goods I accrue significantly outweigh the evils.
Meaning, too, is intrinsically good; that is, achieving the aims to which I devote my life is intrinsically good for me (and failure is intrinsically bad for me). It is therefore one of the elements of welfare, along with pleasure and friendships.
Consequently, the possibility arises that someone whose life has meaning might nevertheless fare quite badly, and also that someone whose life lacks meaning might nevertheless fare well. If we stipulate that I am happy as long as I accrue more pleasure than pain over the course of life, then we can say that happiness does not require meaning nor meaning happiness. The former is not surprising. A short-sighted (or mentally impaired) person who has no desire to accomplish anything might well be lucky enough to attain a significant amount of happiness. Nor is it surprising that meaning can be present in a life that is largely devoid of happiness. Under normal circumstances, meaning is a fecund source of happiness, for it is gratifying to attain one’s life’s aim, but if really unlucky, people might endure significant suffering despite the meaning they have achieved. Nasty illnesses that are not fatal bring some people a lifetime of recurring misery; nevertheless, some such individuals might still be determined and able to achieve something to which they have devoted themselves. As well, those who set out to achieve something might neglect, even sacrifice, their happiness. They might pursue some aim obsessively, and accomplish it only at the expense of being friendless, even miserable.
As Anthony Storr emphasized in Solitude, many of those who made great contributions to culture, including Newton, Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein, lived in relative isolation. Their lives had significant defects, but these were not flaws that impeded their meaning. In any case, we do not take on meaning-conferring aims simply or primarily as the means to making ourselves happy. If that were the point, then failing to achieve these aims would be largely a matter of indifference. The counsel of prudence would be: do not cry over spilt milk; after having committed myself to one woman for life, only to lose her, I could just start over with another, with someone easier to please, or better yet never fully commit in the first place (Kierkegaard: “The frogs in the swamp of life scream: That kind of love is foolishness; the rich brewer’s widow is just as good and solid a match.”) How serious can my commitment to a person or project be if it is made solely or primarily to make myself happy, and I stand ready to replace them if in so doing I will be happier?
While it is true that people who fare well need not achieve meaning and those whose lives have meaning might not fare well, it would be against my interests to completely ignore my own welfare in deciding what to live for. I am free to live for anything I choose; the prudent approach would be to take on an aim that I have a good chance of achieving and that will enhance my life. I should consider the impact my aim will have on my relationship with my friends, and perhaps try to select something that will bring us closer, or I might, needlessly and pointlessly, end up alone and loveless. I should consider whether the work it will take to attain my aim will be absorbing and fulfilling, so that I have a good chance at happiness. It is best to choose an aim that is challenging enough to serve as the upshot of my life, not something I can knock off in a few days.
However, it bears emphasizing that nothing in the achievementist account entails that meaning requires formidable or fulfilling accomplishments. Meaning can conceivably result from the achievement of an aim as prosaic and stultifying as gathering uncomplicated data about some bacterium that grows only in the sewers beneath New York City, which I can do only by spending most days alone, crawling through storm drains.
What is objectionable about this choice is not that such data collection is too trivial a task to be a possible candidate for the meaning of my life. If I do take on this aim, freely and fully comprehending what I am choosing, it is good that I achieve it – I will have attained what I devoted my life to, and the data collection will be what my life was for. Rather, it is a poor choice for other reasons. Pursuing this aim is neither absorbing nor fulfilling. It is dull and tedious, and it will alienate me from others. It is a grossly imprudent selection.
It is a poor choice for another reason as well. Consider the nature of the decision that is involved in attaining meaning. Upon committing to live for something, I may find myself in circumstances in which it makes sense to sacrifice my life, for that may be the only way to attain my aim. Perhaps I am one of a group of compatriots who have pledged to keep our country free, and failure is avoidable only if I do something I cannot survive. Even if I never face that fatal choice, I will have a powerful incentive to attain the aim to which I have devoted my life, because failure will leave me indifferent about living. Perhaps, for example, I have devoted myself to sustaining my relationship to my wife, and learn one day that she will soon die. There may be nothing I can do to prevent it, but her death would leave me directionless and uninterested in going on. Deciding to commit my life to the achievement of some aim is therefore a solemn matter. The decision is one by which I settle on the point of my existence. Given the gravity of the role it is to play, not just any aim is fitting.
Achievementism has another consequence that might be difficult to accept: in the course of achieving my meaning-conferring aim, I might act in a morally irresponsible way. For example, I might abandon my family to devote myself to creating art or writing books. Meaning may even result from acts that are morally repugnant. This might happen if I murder people in order to further a cause, as did Abimael Guzmán, the Peruvian philosophy teacher who founded and led Sendero Luminoso. It might also happen if I take up a cause, such as enslaving people, that is intrinsically evil.
Needless to say, we cannot make wrongdoing tolerable by devoting ourselves to it, any more than we can make it acceptable by enjoying it, by accruing happiness as a result of it. However, what is objectionable about bad behaviour is not that meaning cannot result, but rather that it is out of bounds even if meaning would result. Is it not possible, as Bernard Williams suggested in his essay “Moral Luck,” that someone like Paul Gauguin might callously neglect his family yet attain meaning by devoting himself to painting? I think so, but I know that some will reject this answer. If we allow that evil deeds could create meaning, we lend succour to the devil, they will contend. On their view, meaning-conferring aims must pass through a filter: only morally permissible aims and ways of attaining those aims confer meaning. Or perhaps no less than morally admirable aims confer meaning. (But did Newton do anything morally admirable? How about Wittgenstein?)
In my view, those who favour some version of a moral filter overlook the distinctive sort of value which meaning has. Autonomous beings like us can ask themselves whether their lives should serve some end, they can choose what that end is to be, and, if all goes well, they can attain that end. We can make our lives serve the end we ourselves have given them. In this way our lives acquire a kind of value that we call into existence ourselves. Unlike the demands of morality, this is not value from some impersonal point of view, and it seems attainable even if in choosing how to direct our lives we overlook, even ignore, moral scruples and the counsel of prudence.
Rather than passing meaning-conferring aims through a moral filter, it is preferable to say that a life that has meaning might also have serious shortcomings: it might be dull and solitary, as when spent collecting data in sewer tunnels. It might brim with misery, the fate that befalls the victims of certain painful diseases. It might also be morally contemptible. However, with proper forethought, and good luck, these defects are avoidable.