Had Alfred Adler’s What Life Could Mean To You taken on the meaning of life, I would call his stance an eloquent and attractive cop-out. However, this book does not question the very fabric our being (like Edward O. Wilson’s impressive The Meaning of Human Existence). Instead, it concerns the meaning individuals assign themselves. Adler’s approach is broad and bold—perhaps at times too bold. Overall, What Life Should Mean to You is unique in its real-life applicability and its perspective on meaning but too simplistic to present convincing arguments.
A Safely Skip-able Aside
I discovered this book by chance. On my nightly walks of the university, I enjoy stopping by our library and walking to a random floor, section, shelf, and book which I either check out or leave behind. This one grabbed me from the first line, and I immediately dropped to the floor and started reading. I consumed it or maybe it consumed me. Regardless, I quite uncharacteristically broke routine and starved myself of sleep until I reached the empty checkout card glued neatly to its back cover.
Adler begins by stating that mankind cannot understand meaning—when presented with wood, we may only understand it in relation to ourselves as a species or an individual. He gets bolder, stating that because no one possesses an absolute meaning, there exist as many “true” meanings as there do people. With that, he states no single meaning can be deemed “wrong” so long as it is at all serviceable to any individual. Despite this seeming a beautiful sentiment, I (prematurely) found it another “it’s all relative” cop-out. Little did I know, Adler is a meticulous thinker. The pages that followed, though I found much of the bolder statements unconvincing, were, indeed, logical and systematic—which is largely all one can ask from literature of such a scope.
Adler feels mankind can scientifically deduce absolute meaning by finding what convincing explanations posit and unconvincing explanations lack. This is, however, outside the scope of the majority of the book. Adler is more interested in writing of personal meaning, which universally, he states, include the three following ties:
(i.) you exist on Earth and nowhere else and have developed under Earthly restriction;
(ii.) you may only survive in cooperation with mankind—isolation of any kind means death;
(iii.) you are one of two sexes—male or female—thus bear the advantages and disadvantages of only your sex.
From these three statements, he claims one’s life will include the following problems:
(i.) the problem of finding an occupation that aids in the survival of mankind;
(ii.) the problem of maintaining a position among fellow humans that permits cooperation;
(iii.) the problem of accommodating the fact that two sexes are necessary for the furtherance of mankind.
With that, Adler brings us back to and elaborates his first point: one’s meaning is “revealed” in relation to occupational, social, and sexual factors. It is the filter through which information is strained. Adler explores topics such as crime and marriage, inferiority and coping, but the book, in essence, states that healthy individuals want to be interested in and useful to mankind.
Though I found its assertions a bit too simplistic to account for the complexity of humans, What Life Could Mean to You is a constructive and thought-provoking book. I feel it could be helpful to those who want to explore meaning without keeling over under the anxiety of self-inflicted existential crises, which is a fair desire. As it pertains to everyone else, however, I feel, unless you are an Adlerian scholar, your precious time could be better spent on more contemporary, timeless, or comprehensive books. I would recommend Carl C. Jung’s excellent essay The Undiscovered Self over this one, for instance.