It’s a Wonderful Life is my favorite movie. It expresses the quarrel found in every man and woman between the desires for adventure, freedom, success, wealth, and fame with the need to perform duty, support, sacrifice, and giving. It expresses it so beautifully and perfectly, that you come out of it with a sense of purpose and meaning in your life. Unfortunately, without a complete understanding of that feeling, we eventually lose grasp of that purpose and fall back into our everyday lives. We focus on our jobs, ourselves, and our immediate families and put our neighbors, extended family, and strangers on the backburner to fend for themselves. The big picture view of our purpose in the world is lost in the tunnel-vision of daily life, and the neighbors, extended family, and strangers who can’t fend for themselves become forsaken and suffer greatly. Therefore, I would like to summarize the meaning behind this great story in a way that can be applied to our daily lives, so that we can make tiny differences with big impacts, and so we can be proud of our lives when we lie on our deathbed.
Let’s get the question of what is the meaning of life out of the way first. Put simply, the meaning of life is to be happy and cause the happiness of others. More precisely, our lives are defined at our deaths by the amount of positivity compared with negativity produced both by our own lives and by the others who we have and will influence. Essentially, if the sum of all experiences of all lives in all of existence past and future is taken (called the universal sum) – with each split second of living having a positive value for an experience of pleasure/glory/contentment, a value of zero for complete normalcy, or a negative value for an experience of guilt/pain/anxiety – the value of one’s life is measured by the difference of this value with the universal sum of the scenario of their life never existing. If the value is positive, they have lived a good life. Simplified, your universal sum is a scorecard where a positive score means the world is a better place because you were born.
To understand the universal sum and meaning of life, we turn to It’s a Wonderful Life. The premise of the movie is that George lives in a small American town in the 1920’s and wants nothing more than to get out. He is held back by duties with his father’s old loan company and by marriage and a family. As he continually watches opportunities to see the world fall away from him, he grows more and more frustrated, ultimately ending up on a bridge considering the taking of his life. An angel stops George and grants his wish that he had never been born. George then has the opportunity to see the state of his town without the influence of his life. His brother died as a kid because George wasn’t there to save him, his childhood boss went to jail because George wasn’t there to prevent a pharmaceutical error leading to death by poison, his wife became an old maid, and the entire town was taken over by a ruthless money lender because the family loan company failed. George discovers that he has truly lived a wonderful life, and, when the spell is lifted, he is able to return to his family proud and rejoiceful. What George had discovered was that, despite his frustrations and feelings that he had achieved nothing in life, he had a large, positive universal sum, and had ultimately achieved his goal of making an impact on the world.
Unfortunately, we are not given the opportunity to view the influence of our life and see the running tally of our universal sum while we are living it. We do not know how the small acts we perform affect others’ lives on large scales for the better or worse and how the long hours of work we put in change the world. Therefore, we have a difficult task in life: to be mindful of the effect we have on others, be it in the things we do or the things we fail to do. By gaining habits of small acts of kindness and consideration, being mindful of when our liberties and freedoms impinge on those of others, and setting long term goals for self, community, and world improvement; we can be confident that we are living our life with a positive universal sum. The best part is that a life with this goal is not a life of complete service to others; making oneself happy is a vital part of the process. We are allowed to follow our dreams, travel the world, take up a hobby, and enjoy life to the fullest. As long as we do not harm or negatively influence others, we have the ability to pursue and do whatever we want in life.
So go out and live life. Get through the tough times and rejoice through the good. Live life with the purpose of producing happiness and reducing suffering in yourself and others. Learn to notice the positives and negatives that we experience in our everyday lives and tune yourself to the rhythm of the good notes. If you eat good food, drink good wine, fall in love, find a passion, challenge your comfort zone, and tend to your community, you will find yourself lying on your deathbed with a smile, knowing that you have lived a wonderful life.