What Mountaineers Can Teach Us About The Meaning Of Life

Ah the question that plagues us all (sometimes).

What is the meaning of life?

A life devoid of meaning is a scary one to live through.

Everybody desires to live a life that is purposeful and full of meaning.

That’s because having meaning in your life is an extremely important determinant of your well-being.

In order to feel well both psychologically and physically, people need to feel they have a purpose in their life (Emmons, 1996).

As economist George Loewenstein writes in his book Exotic Preferences:

“Without meaning, psychologists and philosophers argue, even the most prosperous existence isn’t worth living. (…) The capacity to find meaning can attenuate even the most severe hardships (Taylor, 1983).”

Not only does meaning give us a sense of fulfilment, but it gives us a unique mission that compels us to do whatever we think we were put on this earth to do.

Finding your own personal meaning in life might require a breadth of experience but above all it takes time.

If you already know what you’re destined to be doing or are still just honing in on what that might be, let’s look at what mountaineers can teach us about the meaning of life.

You never know – it might strike you as profoundly insightful.

Rémi Bastier via Flickr

Why focus on mountaineers though?

“(…) Many people also don’t have a good understanding of what they want out of life and what they value.

One commonly vaunted benefit of mountaineering and wilderness travel is that it offers a new perspective on life. The cost of such perspective, however, tends to be high.

Simple discomfort rarely produces new insights into life, or a greater appreciation of it; that typically requires a near-death experience.

Reminiscent of the Joni Mitchell song, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’, it requires an impending loss of one’s life to appreciate what one is about to lose.”

-George Loewenstein

What Mountaineers Can Teach Us About The Meaning Of Life

“Beck Weathers (1998), who in 1996 was abandoned overnight in a blizzard on Mount Everest and lost his hands and much of his face, reports that ‘I traded my hands for my family and my future, and it is a bargain I readily accept”.

In his paper, George draws upon the reflections and thought processes Beck Weathers had during his near-death experience.

Beck put it this way:

“I saw my own future and I didn’t like it … The relentless pursuit of success and goals and ambition without balance was pushing out of my life that which was most precious to me …

In the final analysis that which matters, really the only thing that matters, are the people you hold in your heart and the people who hold you in theirs.”

 In their most dire moments, during their near-death experiences – what was it that these mountaineers valued most in their lives? Here’s George:

“Almost invariably, they involve an enhanced appreciation of human relationships and a demotion of professional and material ambitions.

Perhaps most people actually recognize the importance of family, and plan to spend time with them in the future, but are distracted from doing so by the immediate lure of career ambitions, mountains, or golf.

The effect of almost losing your life is to make you realize that if you don’t spend time with your family now you may not have a chance to do so in the future.

Today may in fact be your last opportunity to go out to dinner with your spouse, call your parents, or take your child to the zoo.”

How do you explain these epiphanies?

According to researchers O’Donoghue and Rabin, the near-death experiences of mountaineers can be easily explained by the concept of delay discounting, which is the process of devaluing of future outcomes.

That is, people will always choose to indulge in smaller-sooner rewards at the expense of larger-later rewards.

For instance, you might give in to the pleasures of smoking (i.e. smaller-sooner, immediate reward) and discount the value of maintaining future long-term health (i.e. larger-later, delayed reward).

You might indulge your sweet tooth at the expense of having a slim physique. You might linger on Facebook instead of studying for an exam.

You might be thinking ‘okay, but how does this relate to delay discounting?’

When we consider mountaineers, they place too much emphasis on the “immediate lure of career ambitions, mountains” and discount the value of future outcomes like spending precious time with family and friends.

The mountaineers who were lucky enough to have survived their near-death experiences endured through moments where they may have realised that they might not have a future at all.

In such dire moments, all they had was the now where they overvalued certain immediate pleasures.

What might those pleasures have been? The idea of spending time with their loved ones.

Do these “life-changing” epiphanies last?

What’s saddening however, is how short-lived these epiphanies and new perspectives last.

In his research paper, George Loewenstein mentions the realisations and resolutions of Mike Stroud, the first man to ever perform an unassisted crossing of Antartica.

Here’s George on Mike Stroud:

“During the worst moments of his Antarctic bid, Mike Stroud lamented his detachment from his children and vowed, on his return, to become a model father and to cease his quest for ‘firsts’.

In the epilogue to his book, however, he reports that he never quite got around to building the doll house that he had resolved to construct for his daughter and that, within weeks of his return to daily life, the wanderlust had him in its grip once again.”

They lose sight of what’s “important” yet again.

Upon returning home after a treacherous mountaineering experience, they lose themselves in the pursuit of things that are, in the grander scheme of things, quite insignificant.

 Such is human nature to overvalue immediate rewards and discount future outcomes.

Closing Thoughts

People can spend their entire life searching for meaning.

Research on mountaineers who were confronted by their own mortality during near-death experiences suggests that it is the people in your life who bring meaning to your life.

It is the time-spent with your family and friends, the shared memories and the inside jokes that all amount to a broader picture of happiness and meaning.

That isn’t to say that this is a definitive answer as to what the meaning of life is.

Meaning is relative and meaning is unique to each person.

Ultimately, the meaning of life is whatever meaning you wish to assign to it.

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more psychological insights into everyday life.


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