Foundations of a Life Philosophy (1.2)

Note: This article is one part of a series, "How to Rethink Your Entire Life | Foundations of a Life Philosophy"

To recap: everyone is a philosopher.

Everyone has a life philosophy. We all have to try to make sense out of life. Our efforts to make sense of life wind up creating a “philosophy.” Our ideas about life unfold naturally as we go through experiences. Everyone lives by some kind of code. A “life philosophy” is the “code” we live by.

Everyone has ideas about the world, and themselves, and how it all works. We might be able to put those ideas into words, or not. Those ideas comprise a philosophy.

To be clear, the “philosophy” described here isn’t academic or intellectual. This doesn’t mean everyone spends their Saturday nights studying Kant or Hegel. Hardly anyone does that, and hardly anyone should. It has little to do with far-out abstractions. It's much closer to "real life."

It’s not necessarily conscious. We might be aware of our life philosophy, or not, in the same way that we might be aware of our heartbeat and lungs - or not. Either way, they still do their thing. We usually don't take note of this until they stop working properly.

So then, what exactly is the definition of a “life philosophy”?

In a nutshell, a life philosophy is the group of core ideas that govern everything a person thinks, feels, and does.

These core ideas develop as our responses to The Big Questions of life, or the “existential riddles” life asks each of us. Life “asks” us, so to speak, simply by confronting us with experiences. Our actions in these experiences reflect our answers to “Who am I?” “What am I?” "Where did I come from, and where am I going?” "How should I live?" “What’s the point?” and so on.

A life philosophy can be like a car engine or a computer operating system.

A car engine is usually invisible to anyone who doesn’t pop the hood, just like an operating system is often invisible to anyone using the computer. We tend not to interact directly with it as much as we tend to use it to interact with other things. But whether it’s apparent or not, it’s always there, making everything else work.

And it’s pretty important. If the engine is broken, the car won’t move. Without a functional operating system, the computer won’t work. In the same way, life philosophies can be more functional or dysfunctional. Some can lead a person to misery and failure. Others might lead to success, love, and happiness, or the “life well-lived.”

Some life philosophies are sturdy.

Others are fragile. (Sturdy is better.)

We tend to dislike computers that crash every two minutes, or cars that break down every mile or two. Ideally, we want things to work. We like things that hold up under the stresses life throws at them.

It’s the same with a life philosophy.

But all of this might sound vague, to too broad, or “too big” to fully grasp.

How do we get a handle on something as big as this?

Anyone who tries to do an inventory of all of their beliefs – every single one – would soon find the task overwhelming. There’s just too much. There is a flood of possible topics, and they can all seem scattered and disorganized.

But it’s possible to simplify.

This entails stripping away everything non-essential and also noticing how all beliefs tend to fall under the jurisdiction of a few answers to Big Questions. Like the concrete foundation of a skyscraper, these answers serve as the basis for all the rest. These are decisions made early very in the process and determine much of what follows. Those decisions eventually develop into the code a person lives by.

Again, that code usually isn’t a written statement, constitution, or mission statement. It’s not necessarily something verbal or intellectual. Instead, it comes through in our actions, our thoughts, and our feelings.

Not everyone necessarily talks or even thinks a great deal about their deepest convictions. Yet, everyone thinks, feels, and acts.

But how? What do we think, feel, or do, and why? Why do we think, feel, and do certain things and not others?

Our ideas play a central role.

Our ideas about who we are, what we are, what the world is, and so on, are key.

If I have the idea that “I’m a pirate,” a lot naturally follows from there. The idea that “the way to health, wealth and happiness is to sail the high seas and plunder valuables from innocent ships” won’t be far behind. Those two ideas alone will explain a lot about me.

Philosophies come in many different shapes and sizes.

A life philosophy might be strong or weak, sturdy or fragile, brilliant or nonsensical. It might be clearly articulated or almost fully unconscious. It might be like a beautiful work of art or a squabbling mob of incompatible ideas, all fighting for dominance.

But everyone has one.

The question then becomes how effective that life philosophy is.

But what does "effective" mean here?

What’s the difference between an “effective” life philosophy and one that isn’t?

How do we measure that kind of “effectiveness”? Is it the kind of thing that can be measured?

And before we even ask about how to measure it, we can also ask: should we?

Should we “measure” a life philosophy?

> Next: Should We Measure a Life Philosophy?

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