Philosophy and the Good Life
Philosophy isn't just for professors. Embracing a philosophical attitude can make you healthier, happier, and (of course) wiser.
List the top three things you’re interested in—that’s a request I made of 14 different people. Their responses included world travel, family, health, nature photography, playing guitar, and motorcycle riding. No one included philosophy. That’s probably not surprising. But with another round of questions about what really interests us—or what matters to us—we may find many people adding ideas relating to having a purpose or finding a meaning in life.
While the word “philosophy” might not appear on anyone’s list, many of us have at least some interest in what we experience as a yearning for meaning in our lives. This yearning seems to be universal. People from different cultures and different historical times have grappled with questions about meaning and purpose. These are philosophical questions. The fact that people yearn for meaning and purpose leads me to believe that philosophy is an essential part of the good life.
Philosophy can be defined in different ways, but in simple terms, philosophy means the search for wisdom, truth, and meaning. At times, facing the truth can be painful or inconvenient. We may, thus, shy away from philosophical thinking. We may prefer buying into the idiom that “what you don't know won't hurt you.” That, of course, is unwise and—in some situations—may be unethical. Remaining uninformed about an unpleasant, unjust, or harsh situation may allow us to avoid facing a responsibility or give us the freedom to not worry or think about it.
But philosophical thinking isn’t just about the heavy stuff. It can be a form of play engaging our sense of wonder and imagination. I like to think of philosophical thinking as a form of deep play, which Diane Ackerman describes as an “ecstatic form of play.” In her book Deep Play, Ackerman explains how deep play “involves the sacred and holy” and how it’s “sometimes hidden in the most unlikely or humble places.”
I once experienced deep play while riding my bike on a deserted road near my home. Somehow, just tuning in to the air around me, the light in the trees, the rocks along the way, and occasional glimpses of wildlife brought me to a place of awe and mystery. My philosophical thinking that day had little to do with analytical or scientific thinking. It was more about being open to the meaning, purpose, and connectedness of everything around me.
While philosophical thinking can be experienced as deep play with no special goal in mind, it can also be a transformative force in your life. It can help you deal with tough times and challenging situations. In Plato, Not Prozac!, Lou Marinoff, a professor of philosophy at The City College of New York, explains how philosophy can be used to solve everyday problems. Marinoff debunks the idea that philosophy belongs to the domain of a few. It’s time, he says, to reclaim philosophy from the hands of the elite and return it to ordinary people. His work focuses on the use of philosophy as a self-healing tool and as a resource for counselors working in therapeutic settings. Marinoff believes that we all have an “inner philosopher” that we can tap into for understanding and courage.
Because philosophy is on my list of interests, I’ve been gathering philosophical gems from multiple sources. I find them in many different places—books, movies, conversations, observations of the natural world, and daily-life events. I find that just looking for philosophical gems and layering philosophical thinking over the ordinary events of my life expands and enriches my experience of being alive. The poet, T.S. Eliot, once said, “We had the experience but missed the meaning.” I don’t want this to be the story of my life.
We might not need philosophy in the same way we need food and shelter. Yet, I believe we need philosophical thinking to nurture our spirts and enrich our minds. If this is true, we might look for ways to make philosophical thinking a part of our daily lives. Here are a few suggestions.
1. Read and write poetry.
Poetry often focuses on the deeper meanings of life. As I read poems by Mary Oliver, for example, I’m drawn into her wonderings about the meaning of death, eternity, loss, happiness, and holiness. In one poem, Oliver invites us to ponder such philosophical questions as ““Is the soul solid, like iron?/or is it tender and breakable, like/the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?” Just pondering such questions can add interest and enjoyment to your life.
2. Engage in philosophical dialogue with yourself.
Unlock your inner philosopher by taking the time to reflect on the meaning of what’s happening in your personal life and in the world around you. Let your ponderings move beyond the “what” of your experiences to the “why” and “how.” Why am I drawn to certain places or practices? How does this moment relate to my larger purpose in life? Keeping a journal to record and stimulate a philosophical dialogue with yourself can be helpful.
3. Engage in philosophical dialogue with others.
Don’t be afraid to tackle “big questions” in your conversations with friends and family. Many people find that talking about issues that really matter deepens their relationships as well as their ideas.
4. Look to children as philosophical partners and guides.
In Little Big Minds, Marietta McCarty refers to kids as “natural philosophers.” She notes “how they approach philosophical topics with great big minds that are uncluttered by the baggage that can accumulate as one gets older.” If you spend much time with children, you know they can be relentless in their inquiries, typically asking 70-100 questions a day. Some of their questions are quite philosophical and invite us to explore the unknown: Why do people die? Do trees have feelings? Why do we have wars? Hang out with a child and enjoy the philosophical ride.
5. Look to nature for inspiration.
There you’ll find an inexhaustible source of truth and wisdom. We hear from many thinkers and writers that nature holds the secrets of our being. Herman Hesse in Siddhartha asks, “Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time?" Rachel Carson in The Sense of Wonder tells us that “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” And Mary Oliver reminds us that “the world offers itself to your imagination.” We would do well to tap into this rich source of inspiration.
6. Cultivate mindfulness.
Mindfulness is about paying attention and taking notice; and that’s what philosophical thinking is all about. Mindfulness helps us live deliberately. It draws us to questions about meaning and purpose, about our role and place in the larger scheme of things. If mindfulness is already a part of your practice, note how it often engages you in philosophical thinking.
If I had to sum up what philosophical thinking is all about, I would say it’s a form of deep play for the hungry soul. I also think of philosophical thinking as a form of prayer, as it can transport us to a place of mystery and contemplation. Philosophical thinking connects us to the sacred depths of existence. I can think of no better place in which to dwell.