What is the Meaning of Life? An Exploratory Guide
Most of us wonder at the meaning of it all now and again, but fewer of us dare speak the question aloud for fear of sounding ridiculous: “What is the meaning of life?”
Without an answer to what seems the most pertinent question imaginable, how do human beings know what’s important, or where our focus should lie as we navigate this rocky road of existence? In some ways lift seems so short, yet in other ways also interminable. How should we live meaningful lives? What defines a meaningful existence?
One might find humorous or even crass answers to the question at hand. These answers may rely on lighthearted whimsy or be profound philosophical responses, which themselves lead to further questions about human nature and the ultimate meaning in a person’s life. One thing’s for sure: the drive to self-actualize is real.
Really, one might find answers anywhere, but an answer that works for one person may not work for another. In Monty Python’s classic film The Meaning of Life (1983), there are several allusions to life’s meaning, and at the end, a character is handed an envelope containing “the meaning of life,” which she opens and reads out loud to the audience:
“Well, it’s nothing very special. Uh, try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.” Sounds right to me, but how does it sound to you?
Living a Meaningful Life: A brief breakdown
There are so many ways of identifying substantial meaning in one’s own life that it becomes very challenging to narrow down. Not to mention, the idea of “meaning” itself can have very different meanings to very different people. To some, it may signify purpose, while to others the question might be more focused on the nature of reality and objective meaning. Ultimately, though, meaning is something generally not agreed upon across the board.
For those who do believe an overarching meaning of life can be discerned, however, views typically fall under one of several types.
Meaningful Lives: A Spiritual Approach
Religion acts as a common source of personal meaning in life. This is likely because a person’s religious belief entails involvement in a community of like-minded believers in addition to a set of beliefs.
At its core, the basis of most religion is that we, humankind living in this purely physical world, are the creation of an entity known as God, a power that had an intelligent purpose in creating us.
While God is unprovable and altogether undebatable, many find the point moot when it comes to discussions of life’s meaning. Why?
Because even if God exists and had a specific purpose in creating us, no one knows for certain what God’s purpose is, or how it might converse with our own ideas of meaning. That said, many believe simply that ‘doing good’ in life is God’s plan for us, and that those who do are leading lives of meaning that will ultimately be rewarded.
Which brings us to the ‘afterlife.’ While some who hold religious beliefs might contend that all this talk about the meaning of life is sort of missing the point, as life is actually just a prelude to a form of eternal afterlife, others might respond differently. Their contention may be that the concept of an afterlife simply serves to displace the problem, creating a new, if not identical question: what is the meaning of the afterlife? Reliance on an afterlife can discourage some from determining meaning or purpose for what may very well be the only life they have.
Meaningful Lives: A Science-Based Approach
The contributions of modern science to the discussion of life’s meaning focus mostly on describing empirical facts about the material world, the observable, physical universe, and exploring the parameters of how physical existence as we know it came to be.
While it’s a common belief that science-based worldviews imply life as we know it is a meaningless accident in a universe ultimately indifferent to human existence, recent advances in the study of evolution reveal a bigger picture, which, may, by itself, give meaning to life.
Within this bigger picture, humanity is part of a vast evolutionary process within which we have a meaningful role to play. However, because some of us struggle to find meaning within this impersonal understanding of reality, our quest for meaning persists.
The science world is broad, however, and includes many disciplines and therefore many lenses through which one might understand meaning. Take psychology: although most psychology researchers consider meaning in life a subjective feeling or judgment, clinical psychologist and professor Paul T. P. Wong proposes that there are also objective, concrete criteria for what constitutes a meaningful life.
To this end, he created a 4-component solution (PURE) intended as a tool to help parse out the meaning of life:
1.Purpose: We must choose a worthy purpose or a significant goal in our own lives.
2. Understanding: We must develop a real understanding of who we are, what life demands of us, and how we can play a significant role in our time here.
3. Responsibility: We alone are responsible for deciding what type of life we want to lead, and what constitutes an impactful and/or worthwhile goal to work toward.
4. Enjoyment: We can enjoy a profound sense of meaning and personal fulfillment once we have actively harnessed the above components in service of a worthy life goal.
Although the above breakdown may work for some, others still may find it too restrictive, too ambiguous, or difficult to apply to all of humanity given the gamut of human experience.
Human Beings and Mystery as Meaning
The sixth-century Chinese sage Lao Tzu is said to have dictated the Tao Te Ching before escaping civilization for a life of reclusiveness in the mountains. He believed that the universe actually supplies what value humanity possesses.
Tzu would argue that goals are insignificant, and that accomplishments do not imbue our lives with meaning. He suggests that simply being a product of the world means living a meaningful life; no effort is required. Tzu proposes a deeper understanding of existence itself, which is mysterious by nature. Much like oceans or trees, humans are part of “the way,” which is made up of all things, and makes up all things, and cannot ever truly be known or spoken about.
This is a perspective founded on the belief that life is not comprehensible, but that this doesn’t make it any less meaningful: whatever station one occupies in life, it matters, because we exist within and among the living, a small yet important piece in an enduring and incomprehensible chain of existence.
While Tzu acknowledges that life can be brutal at times, he proposes that meaning comes from our will to persevere. As the Tao says, “One who persists is a person of purpose.”
We Create Our Own Meaning in Life
Famed American Lit Professor Joseph Campbell put it this way: “Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”
Ultimately, one thing seems clear: the meaning of life as a human being is that which you choose to give it. But the question still remains: how do we choose?
Regardless of the answer that anchors you to this earthly plain and allows you to go about the business of being human in the day-to-day, only one thing’s for certain: when attempting to unravel a notion as lofty the meaning of life, there are bound to be as many right answers as there are truth seekers out there.
For those who feel at a loss, professor and philosopher Iddo Landau Landau suggests a ‘reframing.’ He writes, “A meaningful life is one in which there is a sufficient number of aspects of sufficient value, and a meaningless life is one in which there is not a sufficient number of aspects of sufficient value.”
Basically, he’s saying meaning can be boiled down to an equation of sorts, and that when we add or subtract aspects of value, we experience more or less meaning. By this logic, if you feel a lack of meaning in your work, you might still find meaning in relationships, travel, or creative endeavors—to name just a few.
It may also be the case, of course, that the life you live is already meaningful, but that you’re not valuing that which is worth valuing because you’re fixated on predetermined ideas of meaning (i.e. having children, or getting promoted).
Ultimately, it is the temporary nature of human life that gives it shape and purpose. Within a limited timeframe, one might say the meaning of life is to live life meaningfully. Sick of the riddles yet? Maybe it’s time for some loose instruction.
How to Find the Meaning of Your Life
Rather than asking yourself why you’re here on earth and what exactly it is you’re supposed to be doing, consider drawing inspiration from the following action tips to make your experiences the answer to your queries and put some meaning back in your life.
1. Practice Happiness
We’ve all heard the theory that happiness is a choice, even if it sounds trite. Ultimately, however, it is a choice, and the good news is that happiness, believe it or not, can be practiced by anyone regardless of their circumstances.
The reality is we are all capable of unlearning certain basic tenets, becoming less reactive to the events of life, and having more control over how we choose to feel, regardless of what comes our way. No one’s saying you should be happy all the time, or force anything that you don’t feel, but cultivating a sense of calm and stability can go a long way toward a feeling of happiness with one’s life.
2. See Your Natural Gifts as Opportunities
While not everyone has an undeniable talent that surfaces at a young age and serves to illuminate a clear path forward, discovering where your gifts or talents may lie, even later in life, can give meaning and purpose to your existence.
If you feel in the dark about your talents, it may take a little digging. Ask yourself: What comes naturally to you? What are you doing or experiencing when you feel at your best? How do you like to help or engage with others? If you keep asking, answers will come.
3. Cultivate Meaningful Relationships With Others
As we slowly make our way out of the restricting hold of a global pandemic, this one has special meaning. Whether in person or not, carve out time to spend with people that make your life fuller and who lift you up rather than drag you down.
This might be partners, friends, colleagues, or family. Sometimes it’s necessary to ‘cut out’ people who consistently drain your energy or are always bringing negative vibes. The reality is, we are affected by those whose company we keep, whether we see it or not. Your outlook, and your general experience of life can either be enhanced by the people in your life, or obscured. Start tuning in to how you feel around others and make adjustments as needed.
4. Set Goals and Stick to Them
As a general rule, having a plan brings meaning to life. While being overly focused on goals or setting goals you can’t attain doesn’t do anyone any good, it does help to have goals, along with a plan for achieving them—even if it’s a long term plan.
Regardless of what it is, make sure it’s something that excites you, or that you actually want to do, rather than something you feel you should accomplish: when setting goals, it’s always important to check your narrative! Start by writing down your goals, and then, most importantly, goal setting.
5. Do What You Can to Help Others
Helping others comes in many forms. If you’ve ever done the kind of work that serves the underserved, or simply stopped in the street to help someone who looked a little down on their luck, you probably know that helping others feels good and right, and can even instill a sense of self-worth or purpose.
If we make space in our lives to think about others and cultivate generosity of spirit—either by giving of our time, money, or energy—this is a worthy meaning of a human life.
6. Abandon Your Routine Now and Then
The universe is brimming with possibilities, even if it doesn’t feel like it sometimes in the day-to-day. While there is certainly value in rhythm and routine, there is also huge value in shaking things up now and then.
Every so often, depending on your circumstances, it might behoove you to do something different which will help you gain a refreshed perspective, like taking a spontaneous day-long road trip, going to the movies alone, staying at a hotel in your own hometown, or planning a day of zero obligations.
Although it may seem that ‘you don’t have the time’ for that sort of thing, occasionally abandoning your routine gives you a break from the expected and helps to highlight those experiences in life which matter most.
7. Target Habits and Addictions
We all have addictions–some more serious than others. Whether its TV, social media, cigarettes, alcohol, sugar, or anger, challenge yourself to going without it for a week—this might be quite painful and involve some real soul-searching, but where there’s a will, you’ll succeed in making more space for deeper meaning in your life by letting go of that which no longer serves you.
How will you fill your newly freed up time? What meaning will it hold?
8. Do That Thing You’ve Always Wanted to Do but Haven’t
Almost everybody has a thing they really want to do that they haven’t done, even if they haven’t told a soul about it. What’s that thing you always think about doing but which you’ve talked yourself out of or put off to some unforeseeable time in ‘the future’?
What would you say if I told you that the future is now? Start by identifying what it is you’re going to do, and then—go do it, simply. If this is really not possible within the current parameters of your life, begin working toward this big event, whether that means saving money, learning a skill, or doing whatever else needs doing to make it a reality.
The first step is often the most difficult.
9. Find a Purpose You Can Live With
One of the most enriching and freeing and meaningful things you can do in this life is find your purpose. Your purpose is what makes you feel most alive, what drives you to be better, what gets you out of bed in the morning, what gives you energy to keep on living. This is what life is about, after all: finding out what you can contribute and following through.
Anyone who feels their life is meaningless is asking the wrong questions and getting the wrong answers to boot. The feeling of meaninglessness is based on a failure to recognize what actually matters, instead becoming fixated on what might be missing.
What is really most important to you? How will you harness its magic to fill your life with meaning? Everything you need is inside of you right now.