How To Find Meaning In Life

How To Find Meaning In Life


In his new book, James Innes-Smith seeks practical solutions to the age-old problem of giving meaning to life. Faced with a crisis in masculinity, he concludes that we can put ourselves on the right path by embracing the wisdom of previous generations. He told SLMan how he came to write The Seven Ages of Man and why life is a bit like a swimming pool…

James, you’ve identified a crisis in masculinity. What’s going on?
In recent years, there’s been a huge rise in male suicide. This is a very complex issue, but I believe it’s related to men not being able to express themselves. It’s important men are able to speak without shame and embarrassment – and with confidence. Right now, I think men’s self-esteem is being called into question and that’s dangerous. Like feminity, masculinity has a place in our society and we abandon it at our peril.

And are we in danger of abandoning it?
Unfortunately, masculinity has been under attack recently – just think of the discussions around toxic masculinity and patriarchal tyranny. It’s become an easy target, but there are some elements of traditional masculinity that can actually help us through difficult times. I’m thinking of resilience, strength and stoicism. These are qualities that have been very useful for keeping men on an even keel over the centuries, so I don’t think we should reject them out of hand. If we start to embrace our vulnerability a little bit too much, we may find it weakens us.

So there’s a balance to be struck?
Yes. I’m not saying we should be bottling up our emotions like we used to because I think we’ve been very constipated over the years, but going in completely the opposite direction is not the right way either. For a long time, when I used to think of my father, I thought, god, he was so uptight and repressed. Now I realise everything he did came from a benign place. He was from a post-war generation that was always looking out for other people, that didn’t want to impose themselves on other people. They were right: letting it all hang out can be an imposition on other people. So, yes, it’s about finding a balance.

Where did the idea for the book come from?
Over the last few years there have been many, many books about finding happiness and I’ve always found them a bit platitudinous. They’re full of easy answers, saying just do this and this, and you’ll be happy. I wanted to take things a little deeper and look at what fulfils us, not just what makes us happy – because I believe happiness is a result of leading a fulfilled, purposeful and meaningful life. I also noticed a lot of these books are aimed at women. That’s not to say my book is aimed solely at men. I hope it’s a book that goes beyond trite ideas and that anyone can learn from. I hope it’s a life guide that anyone can follow, that’s concise and easy to use, but raises profound questions and answers. 

"I wanted to take things a little deeper and look at what fulfils us, not just what makes us happy – because I believe happiness is a result of leading a fulfilled, purposeful and meaningful life."

What makes it important right now?
Beyond the specific issues around masculinity, there’s a wider crisis of meaning. And that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic: a vacuum appeared and we were suddenly asking ourselves those big questions about what gives us meaning. We’ve started to realise that ideas about endless growth, competition and greedy self-interest are fundamentally quite empty. The extra time that lockdown has handed us makes now a great time to start looking at our lives, asking how we can move forward and find answers that go beyond easy self-interest towards something much more profound and beautiful.

What sort of impact do you hope the book will have?
I hope it can broaden our perspectives. We’ve recently rejected a lot of the foundations that have given human beings fulfilment down the ages. We’ve become very child-like in a way – wanting easy solutions and being quick to take offence – but life is messy and we need to ask harder questions. That said, I hope this book shows there is a path to meaning we can follow, and that it doesn’t require a huge intellect to do so – it’s just about following our instincts. 

Where do you think we’ve been going wrong in our search for meaning
We’ve been a little too quick to reject some longstanding values and institutions that kept us grounded for centuries. It’s taken humanity hundreds of thousands of years to reach this point and our ancestors have all struggled to find a path to meaning. It’s an ongoing search and our forefathers can help us if we look at where they went wrong and what they got right. We will narrow our own path to meaning if we don’t keep their ideas in circulation and study them so we can pick and choose the best of them.

In place of these shared ideas, there is a kind of intense autonomy – we follow our own desires at the expense of our common humanity. As a result, we’ve fallen back into tribalism; whereas in reality, we are all confused creatures looking for answers on the same path to meaning. I often think of life as a swimming pool. We’re thrown into the shallow end and we splash around there for a bit, but eventually you have to learn to swim in order to leave the shallow end and find a bit more depth.

A big question, but what is a meaningful life exactly?
If you want to see what it means to live a meaningful life, watch the first ten seasons of The Simpsons. It’s all there – all of life distilled! More seriously, I think it’s one that takes us out of ourselves, so we can see a broader perspective. If we get stuck within ourselves, our horizons are much narrower. If we see a broader perspective, we can start to examine our own lives properly, but we can also see that everything isn’t just about us anymore. It’s about family, friends and neighbours. For me, deep, committed relationships are the foundation of meaning. There is tragedy built into human existence – our lives are short – but the communities that form around committed relationships can help us all.


"The extra time that lockdown has handed us makes now a great time to start looking at our lives, asking how we can move forward and find answers that go beyond easy self-interest."

Are you managing to lead a more meaningful life yourself now?
Well I’m certainly reading a lot more and trying to expand my horizons! I’ve reached middle age and I’m now very aware of the importance of friendships, so I’ve been trying hard to nurture them too. I’ve also recently had a child. That has brought me a huge amount of meaning. I was always slightly ambivalent about family and marriage, so I’ve come to them quite late, but they’ve really opened my eyes to the idea of selflessness. That sort of self-sacrifice might feel like a step backwards, but it actually launches you into a whole new perspective on life.

Parenthood and relationships are the focus of the book’s third act. Having been through that now, what’s the best single thing a man in that phase of his life can do to enhance his quest for meaning?
Act three is when we reach the crossroads: do we go for the shallow pleasures of a free, easy and more youthful lifestyle? Or is it time to get serious? Culture has fetishized adolescence to such an extent we rather like not having the responsibility of adulthood. I was like that myself. Responsibility was scary and self-sacrifice felt like a step backwards, but I now know a lot of people who have woken up one day and realised their ‘adolescence’ went on too long. So foster those deep connections, close friendships and committed, loving relationships. Without those fundamentals, we can drift into all sorts of nightmare scenarios.

Act four of the book is about work. What’s the best thing a man can do here?
We spend a third of our entire life at work – around 90,000 hours – so you might as well do something that offers a semblance of meaning and purpose. If you’re miserable at work, chances are that seeps through into your family life and your social life. It takes courage to go out and find something that offers meaning beyond just paying the bills, but I think it’s crucial. If possible, try to make the right decisions early on, because they’re going to affect the rest of your life.

Finally, James, has lockdown changed your thinking in any way?
I think it’s brought everything even more into focus. As I said, it’s allowed a lot of us to look more closely at our lives and ask questions about whether there’s meaning beyond work and evenings in front of Netflix. I’ve been involved in some wonderful discussions over the last few months. I also noticed during lockdown that my FOMO suddenly evaporated – because we were all finally in the same boat together.


For more of James’s advice for living a meaningful life, buy The Seven Ages of Man here.


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