Green Living & The Meaning Of Life

meaning of life

I realise that the title of this post is a bit grandiose but it is designed to capture the attention of the oh-so busy modern man.

Now I’m no philosophical revolutionary but I do read my fair share of literature on philosophy, psychology and indeed psychotherapy (should I be admitting this in public?) and I just wanted to share some of this with you to get you thinking.

I’d like to start with the meaning of life but I promise not to ramble on too much (even though I’d quite like to). Like I said, I’m no expert but it seems to me that there are 3 main schools of thought when it comes to the finding sense in human existence;

1. Will to Pleasure (Freud) – the premise that man is a creature primarily driven by a pleasure principle and that his actions will reflect this instinctual motivation from the very moment of his birth through to his death.

2. Will to Power (Nietzsche/Adler) – the premise that man is a creature who strives to achieve, driven by his ambition, ever greater things against the backdrop of a struggle with his surroundings.

3. Will to Meaning (Frankl) – the premise that man is a creature whose main driving force is to discover or connect with the meaning in his life.

When I think about myself and the people I know, I can see aspects of each school in everyone albeit with different ratios. Some people I know are quite determined to achieve as high a position in their career as they can (power) while others strive to fill their lives with as many different leisure pastimes as possible (pleasure) and then there are the rare few who just want to live a life that is worthwhile and impacts positively on the rest of society (meaning).

I myself most identify with Viktor Frankl’s Will to Meaning although I would say I have swung more that way in recent years for various reasons.

The 3 Schools In Relation To The Environment

It is my opinion that the pleasure and power schools of thought are ones that cannot exist in harmony with a sustainable lifestyle.

Is it not true that the pleasure principle leads down a road of ever greater consumption? In my eyes, a life that is driven by this instinct must require a stream of new things and experiences in order to satisfy itself and that this can only place a greater demand on the planet for its resources.

Likewise, those who are driven by power or self-perfection are more likely to forego the good of the whole in favour of their own good and I cannot believe that this self-centred approach to life aligns itself particularly well with sustainability.

No, in my interpretation at least, the only school in which sustainability can ground itself is that of meaning. Frankl believed that meaning in one’s life can primarily be found either in a dedication to a cause or in the love felt for another person and neither overtly rely on the resources the Earth provides.


Thinking beyond one’s own self is at the core of Frankl’s philosophy and he coined the phrase Self-transcendence with which to describe this practice.

Both love and external causes to which to give yourself go beyond the inward looking pleasure and power schools of thought, and adequately describe the approach of the environmentally concerned person.

In fact, a selfish environmentalist would have to exhibit a rather ambivalent, contradictory state of mind and I’ve yet to meet one. Instead, all the green thinkers I’ve encountered talk more about the cause to which they have dedicated their time rather than themselves.

Love plays a particular role, it seems, when children are involved. Many of the green or ethical bloggers and commentators I personal follow are parents and quite often it was the experience of having children that finally drove them to take even more drastic steps to live in a sustainable manner.

The love for their children extends beyond the present day and far into the future, a future in which their children and their children’s children will have to live. Thus their love guides them towards a cause, that of maintaining a planet on which the best life possible is available to all.


Frankl described 3 sets of values which, while only manifestations of self-transcendence, can be used to guide oneself.

The first are experiential values and we have touched upon these already. They are felt when we truly experience someone or something that we value, a person that we love or a moment of beauty to be found in nature (for example).

The second we have also mentioned – they are creative values. These are evident when we dedicate ourselves to a cause or a project and can vary from artistic ventures through to charitable giving.

The final set of values Frankl came up with are attitudinal values. He said is best in his famous book Man’s Search For Meaning:

…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

In essence then, Frankl said that meaning can be found in every situation because you are always free to react to the situation in a positive manner regardless of, indeed in spite of, the hardship or suffering with which you are faced.

Applying These Values

The reason I bring up the meaning of life and, in particular, the Will to Meaning that Viktor Frankl describes is because I believe that if we are to achieve widespread adoption of sustainable living then we have to ground it outside of the science and outside of the individual and give it a meaning-based focus.

First let us look at experiential values and particularly the love that is shown to one another in families and communities in all corners of the world. As I have mentioned, parenthood is a common driver for green living and seeing as a large proportion of the population are parents (and often grandparents), making a case for sustainability based on the love for our children and their wellbeing is surely a good place to start.

When it comes to creative values and the task of encouraging people to adopt the environmental cause as their raison d’être, I guess we have to start by focusing on those people who are a part of what Frankl describes as an “existential vacuum”, that is to say the people who cannot seem to find a meaning in their lives.

By showing and convincing these people that being dedicated to a cause (in this case the environmental movement) allows meaning to flourish in every aspect of their lives, you may just find that they become some of the most powerful advocates around.

Finally the attitudinal values are very important because it is my opinion that we are heading towards a world in which many of us will have to forego some of the things we currently take for granted. How we choose to react to these shortfalls could well make or break the ideal situation of a sustainable society.

If attitudes change from the present and people accept that going without those things that adversely impact the environment is for the greater good (a very mild form of suffering I hope you’ll agree) then we will have a bright future to look forward to.

If, on the other hand, attitudes remain as they are now with the entitlement culture pervading society, people are going to be less willing to “suffer” the loss of their so-called necessities and we may struggle to overcome the environmental challenges we face.

By showing people that suffering and the way we react to it can generate meaning in our lives, we might be able to secure the former instead of the latter.

Viktor Frankl said the following more than 50 years ago and it has just as much (maybe even more) relevance today as it did then:

Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.

If we could only educate people to the ways in which a sustainable lifestyle is meaningful then who knows what could happen – I believe the terms ‘groundswell’ and ‘tipping point’ could well describe the change we might see.

What do you think? Would you say that living a sustainable life contributes to the meaning in your life?

Steve (156 Posts)

I am chief writer and editor on Green Steve. Blogging since 2011, I like to delve into a wide number of topics to help people reduce their carbon footprint. You should follow me on Twitter here. And add me to your Google+ circles here.

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