This column will change your life: Terrible analogies

According to an investigation I've been conducting – based on visiting a couple of those gift shops that sell fridge magnets, keyrings and wooden plaques with hand-painted slogans – life is like a river, but also like a pizza, a butterfly, a box of chocolates, a patchwork quilt and good wine ("best enjoyed with friends"). I've wondered about marketing a line of fridge magnets bearing the motto "Life is like a fridge magnet", but while researching this column I found that the clothing company Threadless had beaten me to it, offering a T-shirt that reads "Life is like a box of terrible analogies". Which only goes to prove the wisdom of another well-worn adage: simile, and the world similes with you.

Even those of us who rightly shun the world of cheesy fridge magnets rely on certain governing similes or metaphors to conceive of our lives, though the habit may be so deeply embedded that we're barely aware of it. A fascinating recent survey by the US polling firm StrategyOne presented people with a list of options and found that 51% – the largest group by far – thought of life as a journey; 11% thought of it as a battle, 10% as "the seasons" and 5% as "a live performance, like a play". Few were baffled by the question: some evolutionary psychologists argue that it's only by using concrete analogies, such as journeys or battles, that our brains can imagine abstractions such as "life" in the first place. Even if that's not the case, western culture has been drumming the connection into our heads for millennia: consider Homer's Odyssey, the ultimate life-as-a-journey, Shakespeare on the world as a stage, or Ecclesiastes (a genuinely down-to-earth self-help book, masquerading as part of the Bible) on life as the turning of the seasons.

It matters which metaphor you choose. Battles and races – which dominate much self-help – focus attention on the end point; at their hyper-competitive worst, they imply that the purpose of life is a brief moment of deathbed gloating at all you've achieved or accumulated. Journeys suggest something similar, albeit more subtly: you might "stop and smell the roses", but a trip is still defined by its destination. Life as a game, another cliché, is an intriguing one: games are about winning, but they're also playful. The philosopher James Carse, in his mind-stretching book Finite And Infinite Games, defines life as an "infinite game", played with the goal not of winning but of continuing play. From there, it's only a few steps to the other major category of life-metaphor: life as a dance, or a play, which shifts the focus – beneficially, surely, for all of us with a tendency to fret about the future – to present experience. The "spiritual entertainer" Alan Watts, quoted here before, puts it vividly: "When we make music we don't do it in order to reach... the end of the composition. If that were the purpose of music, then obviously the fastest players would be the best."

The fridge-magnet way of expressing this is that "life is a journey, not a destination" or that "the journey is the destination". But this seems a needlessly confusing effort to force one kind of metaphor into another. What about the possibility that life isn't a journey at all? Or, if it must be a journey, like a bank holiday journey on the west coast mainline: more enjoyable if you're not too hung up on the idea of getting somewhere.

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