This article originally appeared in Tableau, the Division of the Humanities at the University of Chicago’s quarterly publication, as Being Well | Want a more fulfilling life? Put down your phone and look another human being in the eye by Courtney Guerra.
It’s easy to ignore the sign-offs at the end of email correspondence—they’re essentially content-neutral beyond conveying “message over.” But Candace Vogler, David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor in Philosophy, has a different style. She ends nearly all of her emails with “be well,” and, after talking with her, you get the sense that it’s intended as an actual imperative—albeit a kind and hopeful one.
It’s a small, subtle habit, but that’s the point. If you’re seeking to live more meaningfully, you might as well begin by imbuing meaning into the tiniest gestures of your everyday life.
As coleader of the Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life project, Vogler is an expert on living meaningfully. She and her collaborators study universal issues: “questions about the relations between being a good person and enjoying your life or having happiness, and having a sense of meaning or purpose,” she says. “We want to think about what it takes for those to line up.” And because the issues are universal, she’s eager to share the project’s work beyond the academy (through a blog, a podcast, a lecture series, and a culminating conference open to all).
The alignment of a satisfying and virtuous life, in her view, begins with self-transcendence: “You’ve got to see your life as enabling you to participate in a good that’s larger than you.” She’s not necessarily talking about volunteerism or devotion to a low-paying, labor-of-love type career. “I mean even in most business settings,” she says, “you’re usually working on a team of one sort or another—and in most sectors of the economy that I know anything about, if things aren’t going well on the team, work isn’t going well.” In essence: we’re all in this together, and we’ll all be better off if we keep that more readily in mind.
This point seems especially crucial as so many personal interactions are mediated through technology. “I’m really glad I’m too old to have grown up in a world where there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of images of me available this way and any time,” Vogler reflects. “Because it really does put us in a kind of Rousseau world, where we need everything out there to mirror back to us all the time.” She posits that in our post-smartphone reality, a “particular sense of anxiety, tenuousness, and weirdly overpublicized isolation” results from “not having learned many skills about how to connect with other human beings. And it is something you have to learn to do.”
While insecurity and awkwardness aren’t newly emergent phenomena, she thinks they’ve gotten worse. “The depth of the hunger to be connected to other people—that doesn’t change. The thought that you might be able to do that at 4 o’clock in the morning on the phone, that’s different. That’s a new thing.”
Vogler doesn’t dispute the utility of screen-based communications in certain contexts, but warns against letting them replace face-to-face interactions. Something as simple as saying hello to other people can “reassure your whole body that you’re in a world with fellow human beings”—fulfilling a fundamental animal need and offering a brief respite from whatever obligations you’re running to and from. If you’re chronically overscheduled, Vogler urges, that means “you’re too busy not to stop and say ‘good morning.’ If you’re that busy, it’s critically important that you do these things that don’t actually cost very much time at all.”
What’s her prescription for achieving a more meaningful life? “Greet people. You start with things like that. Notice that you’re in a human environment, that there are other people around, that you’re a member of a community that’s doing various things. Slowly, gently, in a friendly way, acknowledge them. That kind of little thing could be enough to make a huge difference.”