No matter who you are, you have something in common with everyone else: You have a life to manage.
You make choices that determine the contours and content of your life, for the near and the distant future. You plan; you revise. You review and reflect — a little, or a lot. And at times, life can seem pretty confusing and confused: You may have even asked questions like, What’s it all about? or Why am I here?
Empirical research suggests that life story coherence — the degree to which the “story” of your life hangs together — is highly correlated with satisfaction and a sense of well-being. Some research even suggests that coherence is only the first step: What really counts may be the extent to which you make meaning through expansion and revision of your life story. One thing is clear: Greater self-awareness and self-understanding means deeper satisfaction and a greater sense of well-being.
One of the core challenges in meaning-making is the struggle to integrate and manage in the face of conflict between how things are and how things ought to be. Your values are about the latter: How should you decide? What sort of person should you be? The former include not only those things about yourself that you don’t decide, like where and when you were born, but also a host of things about the world that are beyond your choices — like the past, including your own past choices.
Each of us operates on the basis of a set of a presuppositions about the world and ourselves, and we use this set of presuppositions as a sort of map, navigating through the vicissitudes of life. We also know that this map changes: We grow and mature, and our perspectives (and values) often change with us. Some of us are more reflective about this map; others less. Typically, this map “just works,” and we move along, facing challenges, making decisions, and building our lives.
Occasionally, however, something happens: We feel disoriented, unsure. We have the sense that we’ve “lost our way” — or at least that the “way” isn’t as clear as it used to be. Disorientation may reveal that the map we had relied on no longer provides us the guidance we need. Some people experience this as a bit of unease, and others as a crisis. In those moments, we seem to be called not just to decide what to do about the present moment, but to re-examine that map. That’s where philosophy has a lot to offer.
If you’re thinking about philosophy as an “ivory tower” discipline with little or no connection to daily life, you’re not alone. Philosophy is, after all, an “academic discipline.” But long before there were philosophy departments and professors, there were traditions that saw philosophy primarily as the examination of how to live better, more fulfilled lives. Socrates, for instance, was interested in some pretty abstract questions — like What is virtue? and Can virtue be taught? — but his reason for pursuing those abstruse questions was always about the challenge of how to live a good life. Aristotle spends a lot of time in his “science of happiness” exploring not only big questions like What is happiness? but also “little” questions like why we should want good friends in our lives. Stoicism and Epicureanism follow in that goal, too: How do we live fulfilled lives, lives of integrity and purpose, when things aren’t so good all around us?
It turns out that what you believe about yourself, about other people, and about the world and how it works has a very significant impact on your own story. Beliefs open doors — but also close off options. Beliefs set your expectations, and your expectations prime your emotional responses. That cycle can be good for us, but it can also limit us and make us less open to exploration and change. That’s why exploring your own philosophy of life can contribute to your sense of autonomy and well-being, and lead to greater satisfaction with life.
And that’s also why you might benefit from a philosophy of life coach: Someone who hasn’t just studied philosophy, as important as that is, but someone who’s practiced philosophy as a way of life, too. Socrates famously thought of himself as a “midwife,” who helped other people “deliver” their thoughts and beliefs. A midwife needs expertise and skills that the person in labor might not have, but at the end of the day, it’s not the midwife’s baby! A philosophy of life coach isn’t going to tell you what you should believe: They’re going to help you discover what you believe and formulate your own philosophy of life.
What can philosophy do for you? Find out!