I don't know the meaning of life. I believe it has the meaning we give to it.
Pamela Bone was an independent-minded feminist who didn't always endorse the latest left-wing position. The above quote, though, shows her to be an orthodox liberal modern in terms of her basic life philosophy.
She is assuming that there is nothing to reality (or nothing that can be known) which represents a significant good in life which might anchor our life's meaning. In the absence of a meaning grounded in reality, it is left up to us as individuals to create a meaning.
Little wonder that those who hold this view believe that autonomy is such a key principle: if it's true that we each create our own meaning then we must be left to do this unimpeded and we must give equal respect to what each creates as their meaning as none can be more objectively true than others.
Isn't there, though, a basic problem with all this? If my life can only have the meaning I make up for it then it is meaningless. The whole project is therefore misconceived. Either there is a meaning to life which transcends individual will or we must set aside the whole question of meaning. One or the other.
Which leads me to happiness studies. A researcher in this field, Arthur Brooks, has recently found that conservatives are happier, by a large margin, than liberals:
In 2004 Americans who called themselves “conservative” or “very conservative” were nearly twice as likely to tell pollsters they were “very happy” as those who considered themselves “liberal” or “very liberal” (44% versus 25%).
Why might this be? It's not because conservatives are wealthier (they're not) and not because there was a Republican President in 2004 (conservatives were also happier than liberals when Bill Clinton was President).
Statistically three factors appear to be important, namely marriage, children and church:
Mr Brooks thinks three factors are important. Conservatives are twice as likely as liberals to be married and twice as likely to attend church every week. Married, religious people are more likely than secular singles to be happy. They are also more likely to have children, which makes Mr Brooks confident that the next generation will be at least as happy as the current one.
When religious and political differences are combined, the results are striking. Secular liberals are as likely to say they are “not too happy” as to say they are very happy (22% to 22%). Religious conservatives are ten times more likely to report being very happy than not too happy (50% to 5%). Religious liberals are about as happy as secular conservatives.
So conservatives are more likely to find an externally grounded life meaning outside of autonomous will: in a commitment to marriage, to parenthood and to church.
Brooks makes clear in explaining his findings that marriage and parenthood aren't of benefit because they bring comfort or pleasure, but because they contribute in the long term to a sense of life meaning. I was reminded when reading this of the complaint of Australian journalist Virginia Haussegger that feminism had left her with "a nice caffe-latte kind of life" but that "the lifestyle trappings are joyless ... and the point of it all seems, well, pointless ... I am childless and I am angry."
I was reminded too of what D.H. Lawrence wrote on this issue; he believed that the autonomy of unimpeded will undercut a purpose in life and therefore was not experienced as a true freedom:
Men are free when they are in a living homeland, not when they are straying and breaking away. Men are free when they are obeying some deep, inward voice of religious belief ... Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose ...
Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. The moment you can do just what you like, there is nothing you care about doing. Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes.
Hat tip: reader George for the happiness studies article.