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What is the meaning of life?  A look from the systems perspective

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

What is the meaning of life? A look from the systems perspective

Scott Miker

Life is complex.  With the complexity that life presents it can be extremely difficult to get to the meaning behind everything. 

We might think the key to life is to be successful or to make money.  We might think it is to be happy or find joy.  We might think it is to serve others or find a way to improve the world. 

But are any of these truly accurate?  Do any of them, by themselves, really provide a guiding direction to take life?  And are we even capable of doing such things?  Choosing one means eliminating the others and that is difficult to truly do.   

Trying to pull meaning from life can be confusing, inspiring, boring, exciting, difficult, and easy all at once.  It can be astounding and it can be trivial.   

If we look at human nature to uncover the meaning of life we will probably get a sense of purpose that is different than if we look at other forms of nature. 

If we look at it from a human standpoint and observe others we likely get concepts that include treating others with kindness and finding external success or internal happiness.  We may even discover the value in humility or pride.   

If we look at it from nature we likely find concepts that include survival and evolution.  Nature is completely void of things such as kindness, finding external success, or even internal happiness.    

Is the meaning of life the same for a gazelle as it is for as a lion?  How does that translate to human beings?  Is there a pervasive meaning that flows through everything or is this a unique question for all to answer themselves?  It certainly eliminates success or happiness if we broaden our definition to include all living things, not just humans.  Who cares how successful a lion has become during her lifetime?


Weather Systems 

I love systems thinking.  This is the idea that we look at things as complete systems rather than simply exploring parts of the system in order to gain more understanding.  We can take something like the weather and form a complete picture of why it rains but also why water evaporates and how it accumulates in the atmosphere.  We can include how temperature impacts the system.  We can measure humidity levels and ultimately use this information to try and predict future events.  This systematic understanding explains why weather is the way it is. 

Looking at the full system has much more value than stripping off a piece of the system and making decisions.  Seeing clouds might be enough to form the conclusion that it will rain but this doesn’t add meaning to the system.   

The more I use systems thinking to see the meaning in systems the more I look to life with the same lens.  Instead of just looking at life and splitting off certain aspects, is there a way to include all of it in a comprehensive manner?

Years ago I was driving along and saw a billboard advertising a religious group that asked, “Is there more to life than this?” 

My immediate reaction was to say, “Nope this is it.”

People are always wondering if there is some type of underlying meaning that we are missing.  So we question our existence.  We question whether or not some master deity exists.  We question if we are living the way we should.  We ask how it all started and what the point of it all is. 


What even is life on earth?

If we stop searching for the meaning in life for a second and look at it systematically it can give us more insight into what it is we are talking about when we explore life on earth. 

First, we know that everything is temporary.  Nobody lives forever.  Life isn’t a riddle to solve in order to obtain immortality.  While some people might view being a famous historical figure and remaining in other people’s thoughts mean living forever, I would disagree.   

It doesn’t matter how anyone remembers Van Gogh he is no longer around.  No amount of thought of him will bring him back.  He isn’t “alive” within his art or within those who view his art. 

So the first thing we know is that life is temporary.  Nothing lasts forever.

But this is a bit misleading.  Everything had to come from somewhere and if we propose the idea that energy can’t come from nothingness, then we would propose the idea that energy somehow lasts forever.  The beginning of the universe doesn’t matter if, instead, we change how we view existence.  Is there a way that the universe and all of life somehow transitions and always exists? 

Imagine a circle on a piece of paper.  Trace the circle with your pencil.  In this case the circle is fixed but the movement can be infinite.  We can continue tracing the circle until we get tired of doing it.  In other words there isn’t an “end” to that circle.   

But we can measure the circle.  We can know the size.  We can know the shape.  We can know certain fixed variables to this infinite system. 

So is the circle temporary?  Yes and no.  It is temporary because its size is fixed.  But we can break that notion if we continue to trace the circle around and around and around.  It could, theoretically, keep going forever (the opposite of temporary). 

Sort of like the song that never ends.  We can keep singing it over and over and only stop when we get sick of singing it.  We can count the number of words in the song because that is fixed, but keep singing it without stopping. 


Is life like the song that never ends? 

Life can be both infinite and finite.  The universe can be both infinite and finite.  The temporary nature might be more of an illusion than reality.  Maybe it comes and goes repeatedly instead of once.  Just as we humans once thought the world was flat, only to discover that it is round, with no edge to fall off. 

Unfortunately we humans have not been able to accurately create the model for an existence that is both infinite and finite.  We are still measuring the size, shape and other variables of the circle while missing the fact that the circle (life) is also infinite. 

We can piece together various theories in a way to form a way for this to be true, but these are just hypotheses that aren’t (and currently can’t) be tested.   

If we take the Big Bang theory and say that everything “started” from a tiny spec that contained all energy, all matter, all everything and exploded we might misunderstand this to be the “beginning”.

But what if this is just part of the circle?  What if, after the explosion and spread away from that dot, a force starts to build and grow more and more powerful over time that ultimately pulls all of that “everything” together into the tiny dot all over again, like an imaginary rubber band that stretches out but then also pulls everything back in. 

Or like a heart that continues to pump blood through a body.  As soon as the blood flow slows, another push comes from behind.  Some imaginary force keeps pumping the heart over and over again. 


Can black holes help provide an answer?

If we look at black holes we might be able to see some type of force that pulls inward.  As black holes absorb more stars they get larger and more powerful.  Is there a model that has black holes pulling everything together and then linking together, just like a blob that keeps eating everything and adding to its own power?

If this is the case, what happens when all of that “everything” gets forced into a dot again? Would it explode again?  The Big Bang would happen again, along with the subsequent spreading of the universe and pulling together from black holes. 

It would be similar to a yoyo going up and down, then up, and then down and repeats infinitely.  But the yoyo moves consistently in a linear fashion, while the back holes could be moving in a linear or logarithmic manner, meaning it starts out slowly but then reaches a tipping point where the rate at which it pulls everything grows faster and faster.   

If this model were accurate, then we suddenly have a system that is infinite, yet fixed, just like the circle.  It could go on forever and ever and never have a beginning or an end.   

It is “measurable” in a sense by the fact that it is fixed.  The contents can all be summed up by energy and atoms and measured.  But the infinite nature of this hypothesis shows that it is cannot be limited by time, creating infinity from the finite. 


What about life?  Can life be both finite and infinite?

Let’s keep going with this thought experiment for a moment.  If the Big Bang happens over and over again, would that mean that everything spreads out exactly the same each time?  Would it be like playing a game of craps with lots of randomness and variation or would it be like replaying our favorite movie on DVD? 

We might say there are random fluxuations but what if those random fluxuations are simply our inability to see the reason for them?  Maybe there is a cause for every random act of chance.  Maybe they are completely fixed but we don’t see the variable that creates causality. 

If this were the case, wouldn’t everything unfold exactly the same way each time – like the movie on DVD that we replay exactly the same each time?   

If you were born again, wouldn’t you live life exactly as you do right now?  Remember that you don’t have any recollection of past times living your life so you can’t adjust your life’s strategy. 

Why would you choose a different path?  You wouldn’t.  You would choose a path and make EXACTLY the same decisions next time.  And the time after that.  And the time after that.  Like Déjà vu.  Infinite, yet fixed. 

You would then be able to measure your life in years or kind acts or whatever you want but it would still be infinite.  Life in this scenario can be fixed and infinite. 


What about our soul?

What happens to our soul, the “us”, in between lives?  If this model were accurate, what happens during the in-between time?  Do we simply die and wake up as the newborn baby of ourselves in the year we are born?

To explore this mystery, let me introduce a new concept. 


Water and the soul 

Years ago I went to Myrtle Beach, SC on vacation.  While there, a few of us filled Corona bottles full of sand to bring home.  At one point, I filled a bottle full of ocean water to bring along also.

As we drove home we joked about the bottle of water.  We named it.  We could describe its features.  It developed a personality – cloudy and crabby.   

We named it Atlantix since it came from the Atlantic Ocean. 

Now that the bottle of water has been named, described and given characteristics is it any different from when it was water in the ocean?  Or is what changed only our human perception of it? 

When I got home I realized it was stupid to have this bottle full of water.  One day I was on the coast of Lake Erie I decided to pour out the bottle of water into the lake. 

What happens to that water now?  Should we be sad because our friend Atlantix is no longer?  What happens to that water?  Does it disappear?  We certainly can’t reach out and refill the bottle with the exact same contents.  Instead they merged with the rest of the water and became part of Lake Erie. 


Is that water still water from the Atlantic Ocean?  

What if our life’s energy represents water?  What if our soul is simply part of the ocean water?  Our body is the bottle.  When we die our soul returns to the source energy or God or heaven or whatever you choose to believe in.  It certainly isn’t as simple as our soul renting a room in hotel heaven to live for eternity.  But all of that energy still exists, just not as bottled up as we are while alive. Now it is mixed with a full lake of energy.   

The reason this is so difficult to understand is because when we think of us, we think of everything together.  Pull away parts of the energy that fills us and spreading it out among other energy is a difficult concept to understand, similar to understanding what happened to the Atlantic Ocean water once poured into Lake Erie. 


What does all of this mean?

If we start to envision life in this manner, we might start to wonder what it means.  Once we start to take on the systems view of life, we start to see more structure, more pattern, etc.  We start to make sense of things that we previously left to fate or magic or luck.   

But this isn’t the case.  Yes there are some unexplained aspects to life.  Yes luck seems to come and go in life without much of our own personal understanding. 

But through it all there actually is a structure.  Once we stretch our mind a bit we can start to see this structure.


Using Structure to Create the Illusion of Luck

In professional football in America we have the NFL.  The NFL is a great example of a structure where there will be one grand champion each year.  They structured it in a way where, in the playoffs, the winner keeps playing and the loser’s season ends.  This structure forces one remaining winner at the end.  The structure means that the NFL will always have one champion, regardless of how it all plays out.  So the teams see good or bad luck on their journey but the NFL simply sees the structure creating what it wants, one annual champion. 

Another example of the structure around luck comes from entrepreneurship.  There are thousands of people at any given time that want to start a business and have an idea.  Most won’t succeed. 

But inevitably some will succeed.  When those who succeed do so, they attribute their success to the same factors that were there for the losers.  They say it was hard work, innovation, smarts, etc.  But more so it is a game of odds and the odds of someone at some point finding success is great while the success of each individual is low.  Looking at the full system reveals a different picture than looking at any individual example. 


Are we just resulting?

In poker there is a concept called resulting.  This is when a player goes back and judges their decisions based on the outcome.  If they took a giant risk and it happened to pay off (they got lucky) then they say their decision was a good one.  If they make a smart decision based on the odds but got bad luck, they assume the decision was bad.  But it wasn’t a bad decision, they just hit some bad luck.

When we start to break apart many of the common ways of thinking about events, like the Super Bowl winner in the NFL or the successful entrepreneur, or even the poker champion we start to uncover the underlying structures involved. 

We start to see more than just the final event.  This starts to give us more understanding about our own role in events. 

From this we start to see patterns and ultimately start to see structures.  Once we realize this, we can start to see a path forward.  We can even find commonality and start to build out formulas for whatever you want in life.


There’s a formula for that?

Want to be rich?  There is a formula for that.  In fact there are many different formulas for that.  Dave Ramsey presents his formula in his books.  Robert Kiyosaki represents another formula in his books. 

But the formulas aren’t 100% certain.  Many times this is from resulting, taking the individuals that followed the formula and were successful and ignore those who followed the formula but failed.  Again using risk, leverage, luck and resulting to form it to fit our hypothesis, not a tried and true method that results in the same outcome every time. 

So if you want to be rich, you can simply explore the formulas that already exist.  You can work to remain completely debt free and save every penny you have instead of buying things that are nice to have but not something that increases in value.  You can leverage your current financial situation to take on more risk but receive greater returns. 

In fact we can see formulas/structures all over the place.  There is a formula for spending more than you make and remaining poor.  There is a formula for taking too great of risks with extremely low odds and remaining poor (think of the lottery). 

There is a formula for continuing to advance your career, sacrificing everything else so you can build up more value as an employee and then ultimately turn that into a fortune. 

Want to lose 50 pounds and be in great health?  There is a formula for that as well.  In fact, there are plenty of ways to become more active and eat healthier food.  Again, there are formulas, yet most people ignore that because they don’t want to or can’t follow the formulas. 


This is Structure Not Magic

These structures exist and we can stop looking at them as magic and start to see the reality.  We can see things differently. 

Imagine meeting a lottery winner.  If they gave you advice on your money would you listen?  Or is this a case of resulting.  If they say the key to winning the lottery is to spin around twice in a clockwise motion before buying tickets would you do it?  But that is what they might think is the difference that caused them to win, when in fact it was just random luck and coincidence that they happened to spin around. 

As you start to explore systems you will inevitably start to see patterns.  These patterns will tip you off to the underlying structures that often go unseen. 

For example.  You may have already noticed that when you do something that you know is wrong, you tend to feel worse than if you choose to do what you know to be right. 

Therefore, in the simplest form, happiness comes from doing the right thing and avoiding things that you know to be wrong.  Help someone else and you feel good.  Hurt someone else and you feel bad. 

Do the hard work today to clean your house, or exercise, or read a book, or study for the test, or start writing the term paper, and afterwards you will feel better, not worse.  If you instead decide to skip it all and grab a beer with friends you will likely feel terrible later that night when you realize the work is still sitting there waiting for you. 

The pattern shows that when we do good acts, we feel good.  When we do bad acts, we feel bad.  When we tackle upcoming challenges early we feel better later.  When we delay tackling them, we can postpone the negative feelings but they are just sitting there waiting for us and eventually hit us just as hard, and many times harder. 

It also shows that if we choose immediate gratification and pleasure now, that usually means discomfort later.  If we instead delay gratification and choose the work now, it usually means discomfort now but pleasure later. 

These are all simple concepts.  They seem so basic you probably think they are meaningless.


Enter in the Concept of the Feedback Loop 

Another systems thinking concept is the reinforcing feedback loop.  This is when the output of a system goes back into the input of the system. 

Let’s look at a few examples.  Imagine you get a bonus at work.  If you take that money and put it into an investment or savings account it can start to grow.  As it grows in value you can pull out the “earnings” or reinvest them in the account. 

If you reinvest into the account, then as it grows it will start to grow at a faster rate.  Then you can, again, decide to reinvest the money or take your “earnings” and go buy a new car or take a vacation.   

If you reinvest, the money will grow at an even faster pace.  Over time you can continue to reinvest the earnings and grow it over time.  This is a feedback loop.  You take the money and invest and then take the output from the investment and put it back into the input (the account). 

The irony is that if you want more money to buy nice things, this strategy creates discrepancy.  The money has to keep getting reinvested in order to keep growing more and more.  But when you take the money out to buy something nice, it no longer continues to grow in value.  So the way to get enough money to buy nice things is to avoid buying nice things and instead invest the money.   

Feedback loops don’t care what direction they are heading.  In the first example they go in the positive direction (the money increases over time).  But they can also go in a negative direction.

Imagine you are feeling stressed because you have a big exam coming up.  So you decide to put off studying and grab a beer with friends.   

But the next day you feel worse because you haven’t studied at all.  So you decide that you need to relieve the stress so you head out to the bar again. 

Every time you make this decision it helps relieve the stress but ultimately leaves you feeling worse.  So you decide to go to the bar to feel better.  Over time this starts to become a new habit.  You avoid doing the hard work and instead reach for an instant pick-me-up at the bar. 

Then, when test day arrives and you do poorly because you didn’t study, you feel even more stressed.  So you turn to your friends at the bar and a few drinks to make you feel better. 

Hopefully you can start to see the loop in each example.  Both are reinforcing feedback loops.  Both can become very powerful.  But one is a positive reinforcing feedback loop that leads to more success and happiness and one leads to less success and happiness. 


Actively Design the Systems in Life

What if creating the life you desire is simply a matter of understanding the systems in life and designing the systems to provide the most happiness and success possible?

You can learn to stop negative reinforcing feedback loops before they grow too powerful.  You can start positive reinforcing feedback loops to create a better you in the future. 

But most people have no idea about this.  So they go through life making decisions that they feel in the moment are the best decisions, or at least are justified, but are really creating or reinforcing the systems and structures in their life. 

Maybe the “meaning of life” is simply to understand that we design our own life.  We create the systems and habits in life, mostly subconsciously, and then keep reinforcing them over and over and over again.   

If you are successful, maybe you created positive feedback loops and developed good habits instead of destructive ones. 

If you are unsuccessful, maybe you simply missed the fact that you were contributing to the mindset of poor decision-making.  Maybe you sacrificed the future for instant pleasure too often. 


It is Up to You

Once you start to open your mind to this, you can start to realize that happiness, success, love, etc. is within your reach.  It is up to you.  If you take responsibility for where you are, even if that is not an ideal place, then you gain hope that you can also make decisions that take you to a better place.  It isn’t up to someone or something else, it is completely up to you. 

If life is infinite and finite and repeats over and over, wouldn’t you want to make the most of the time you are here?  Wouldn’t you want to maximize happiness?  If you start to see the formulas for happiness and then follow them by helping others, sacrificing instant gratification for long-term satisfaction, and design positive reinforcing feedback loops to provide even more value in the future, you can start to build the life that you have the potential to live.   

Now everyone reading this is probably thinking the same thing.  “Great, I will decide to be a billionaire if it really is that easy.”

Not really.  The reinforcing feedback loop is just one small element of systems thinking.  Systems thinking tells us to see the full picture, the full system.  This means seeing all of the interconnecting elements and the various factors that are part of the system, even if they aren’t deliberately witnessed. 

Let’s go back to the investment example.  If we decide to invest our money to the extreme to try and become a billionaire, we will need to sacrifice a great deal.   

We probably won’t get to experience life or live a life that is all that enjoyable.  If we constantly sacrifice for the future, when do we actually get to enjoy it? 

I’m sure we have all read stories about the workaholic who dies of a heart attack before getting to enjoy their money.  They sacrifice any pleasure today and even sacrifice those around them, so they can reach a goal that they think means everything.  But then they perish before they ever reach the end of the journey where they can enjoy their earnings. 


Chasing Extreme

Another system structure that we see often is the one that shoots in one direction to the extreme.  We want the extreme so we take extreme measures to get there.   

We sacrifice everything for this one goal, this one area.  But extremes are full of illusions.  Illusions that tell us that hitting the goal will result in everything else also being better. 

But that isn’t the case.  While you build an extreme feedback loop in one area, many negative feedback loops develop in other, ignored areas.  Suddenly the extreme success turns ugly.  Over and over we see some great individual success story turn into a tragedy, the champion athlete who goes broke, the celebrity who dies of a drug overdoes, the rich businessman caught up in the latest scandal. 

You might be thinking, “so let me get this straight… we can see how to get anything we want in life, even if it is extreme, but it is all an illusion that, if we decide to chase, will not end with us being any better off?”

Yes.  Chasing extremes might seem noble but is, in fact, a path to destruction.  It is a paradox.  In the words of rapper Notorious B.I.G., “Mo Money Mo Problems.”  The more we have the more we have to protect.  The more we have the more others will want us for our possessions and not the real us.  The more success we have the more we have to go around proving that we deserved that success (and the more we feel the mediocrity of everything else in our lives). 

The systems in the world are actually perfect.  But it is us who can’t see that perfection.  Instead we want to mold the world and the systems in the world to meet our expectations of life.  We don’t want to find the meaning to life, we want the world to fit our idea of the meaning of life. 


In Control

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu wrote 2,500 years ago this idea.  In the twenty-ninth verse he said,

“Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?

I do not believe it can be done.


Everything under heaven is a sacred vessel and cannot be controlled.

Trying to control leads to ruin.

Trying to grasp, we lose.


Allow your life to unfold naturally.

Know that it too is a vessel of perfection.

Just as you breathe in and breathe out,

There is a time for being ahead

And a time for being behind;

A time for being in motion

And a time for being at rest;

A time for being vigorous

And a time for being exhausted;

A time for being safe

And a time for being in danger.


To the sage

All of life is a movement toward perfection,

So what need has he

For the excessive, the extravagant, or the extreme?”

What is the meaning of life?

For me the meaning of life is simple.  It is to learn how to be content without becoming complacent.  It is to feel complete and happy but still keep working to improve.  It isn’t to sit around and complain about the world that you probably helped create. 

It is to realize the incredible systematic perfection that is all around us.  Yes we are here so we have to play along, but at least now you know the rules.  Now you know how to get whatever you want, but you also probably realize that you don’t actually want it anymore. 

 You realize that happiness is yours for the taking, but probably requires you be exhausted at times.  Meaning comes from your perspective and most people’s perspective is limited. 

The meaning of life?  Ha.  Now you probably see that that isn’t even the right question.