I always get a little uneasy when people say that their children are what gives them meaning in life. Caring for them and giving them a good start in life and helping them turn into happy and productive citizens, etc., etc. "Jobs come and go, my spouse and I may split up one day, but having kids gives meaning to my life."
I want to say to these people: But what about your own life? Aren't you putting a bit of a burden on your kids? They are supposed to carry your meaning? If they knew, wouldn't they say: "Get a life"?
Besides, what about people with no kids, are they deprived of a key source of meaning in life? Childless people can have pretty meaningful lives, too, I would think. What if you lost your kids, would your life be forever meaningless?
I love my kids as much as the next guy, but somehow riding my meaning of life on their shoulders doesn't seem right. Kids are too biological, you just get them, and there they are, and you love them and care for them for twenty years and they'll follow you to your grave, if things work out. That's pretty much a given. Not that it's easy, but it's not a real existential challenge; it's not a hard problem to figure out that this is the way it is.
What is hard is the other bit: What do do with your life outside of the love-and-family domain? What line of work to take up, where to put your energies, what values to pursue, how to invest your time? How is everything going to add up in the end? What to do to make the ride worthwhile? That's the hard question.
My feeling is that pointing to "my kids" is often a retreat from this hard question. If I have no idea how to spend my work life in a deeply meaningful way, I can always rely on my kids to provide meaning.
Let's call work life the domain of creation. This is where we produce, work and build things, supply services that enrich other people's lives (we hope). Finding and realizing meaning in work life is the hard problem. As Peter Drucker said about the knowledge worker (we are all knowledge workers now): her biggest challenge is to answer the question: "What shall my contribution be?"
A third domain of life is nicely singled out by the English language: Recreation. This is the time not spent on your familiy obligations: Sleeping, eating, relaxing, hanging with friends, watching tv and movies, playing games, doing sports, having sex for fun--replenishing yourself, so that you may work and care for your family again.
What to do for recreation is also not a hard problem; your body guides you and you pick up habits that are pleasurable to the senses. You want your pastimes to be satisfying and pleasant, just as you want your love and family life to be successful and fulfilling, sure.
You may find that work is so pointless that real meaning can be had only from those precious recreational activities of yours: the local soccer team, the joys of food and wine, falling in love again and again, travelling to get away from it all. Recreation and procreation may provide important supplementary meanings in life.
But I believe that the real challenge lies in the domain of creation. What shall we do with our lives outside of the familiy and the lazee-boy armchair? What gives us meaning in this domain?
I'll have more to say about this later, so stay tuned for a theory of meaning in work life, expressed in terms of human co-flourishing, as I shall call it.