Searching for the meaning of life is one of the great philosophical pursuits of every generation. People have been trying to find it since at least the days of Aristotle. And yet, many can’t come up with a coherent explanation for what makes life worthwhile.
A quick search on social media for the meaning of life reveals a near-infinite variety of perspectives. Influencers assert that the meaning of life is the singer Jungkook from the band BTS, the show Rick and Morty, “buying pretty things that make you smile,” “petting your pet,” “to have long beautiful hair and wear low-rise jeans,” and the list goes on. Some of the answers are moving and thoughtful too.
Here are seven reasons why it is so difficult to alight on the meaning of life.
#1. You haven’t defined your terms properly
In Douglas Adams’ wonderful book A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the people ask a supercomputer, “What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?”
The computer’s comical answer “42” does not make any sense. And of course it doesn’t. Such a vague question demands a nonsensical answer.
To have any hope of creating a meaningful life, you need to be clear about what you are asking. Is the meaning of life:
- The definition of the word “life?”
- A knowledge of where you came from, what you are doing here, and where you are going?
- The sense that your life is worthwhile and that you matter?
- An objective assessment of the value of your life?
- A feeling of awe – that there is something greater than you?
- Having something to do and to accomplish?
Each of these questions will lead you to different answers, and they are all worth looking into. Unless you are clear about what you want though, it is unlikely you will find it.
(For the rest of this article, we will define “meaning of life” as the sense that your life is worthwhile.)
#2. You decided that the meaning of life is unknowable
Many students take their first philosophy course hoping to understand the meaning of life. They get so tied up in intellectual knots that they move on to other philosophical questions or they choose another field entirely. Jordan Peterson recently also said, “Our modern societies have criticized the idea of meaning so much that many do not even believe in it anymore.”
Those who believe that the meaning of life is unknowable will not put in the effort to discover the truth. And they would probably dismiss it if they stumbled upon a reasonable answer. If you are one of these people, consider opening your mind to the possibility that you can build a meaningful life.
#3. You feel your life is meaningful but don’t care to understand why
Most people have a general sense that their lives are worthwhile.1 If you pressed them to articulate why, many of them would have trouble doing so. Luckily, I don’t need to understand the physics of throwing a baseball to play catch with my son. And you may not need to understand what makes life meaningful to feel that you matter.
Having said that, I could probably throw a ball farther if I better understood arm mechanics and trajectory equations. Similarly, understanding the mechanism behind why some activities are more meaningful than others could help me be more deliberate in creating a meaningful life.
#4. You want the answer to be “anything and everything can be meaningful”
We live in an age of rights and individual freedoms. Western cultures tend to value authentic self-expression above most other virtues. And many people resist ideas that could limit their individual freedoms.
If you desperately want the meaning of life to be anything you feel like, you will overlook answers that discourage fun-but-meaningless behavior. You might think, “Don’t tell me that only certain beliefs and activities will make my life seem valuable. I want to fill my life with pointless nonsense and still feel like it is deeply meaningful.” And you could miss the meaningful opportunities that are right in front of you.
#5. You believe adherence to a certain ideology is the meaning of life
Some people assume that their set of beliefs is what makes life meaningful. They don’t know why. They just know that they are right and that everyone else should adopt their ideology. Perhaps they are spot-on.
Belief that a certain ideology is THE meaning of life is a trap conservatives and progressives fall into. You should dig deeper and ask what exactly about your beliefs and behaviors makes life worthwhile. What aspect of your convictions makes you feel like you matter? If you can address these questions, you may get better at spreading the meaningful aspects of your ideology.
#6. You ignore the data
Some seekers read ancient and modern philosophers’ ideas on the meaning of life, but neglect data researchers have been gathering information on the topic over the last 50 years. And the data contradicts the ideas of many brilliant thinkers from the past.
Researchers have been asking people what the greatest source of meaning is in their lives.2 They compare the responses of citizens from different countries.3 They put two groups of people through different experiences and question their sense of meaning.4 And there is much to learn from them.
Some of the research isn’t perfect. In aggregate though, research on the meaning of life tells a compelling story about the types of activities that make people feel like they matter. Do a quick internet search and see what you can learn.
#7. You fear the answer might lead you to change your behavior
Some people want to discover the meaning of life without doing anything. They are nervous that a new perspective could require them to change. I imagine them sitting outside Parisian cafés arguing with friends over the meaning of life but never testing their theories.
What if some activities and ways of life gave you a greater sense of meaning while others made you feel aimless? And what if you experimented with those ideas even if they required that you change your behavior? What if you had to sacrifice and face discomfort to build a worthwhile life? Chances are you will have to face some difficulty in search of meaning, and it is worth the trouble.
The 7 keys to finding the meaning of life
So, if you want to discover the meaning of life:
- Clearly define your terms
- Resolve that you can find an answer
- Be open to the possibility that not all activities are equally meaningful
- Consider why some activities are more meaningful than others
- Ask yourself exactly about your beliefs makes life worthwhile
- Review the data about what activities others find meaningful
- Be willing to change your behavior based on what you learn
If you take these steps, you will find meaningful tidbits that will help you jump out of bed in the morning a little faster.
And if you would like to accompany me on my journey to build a life that matters, consider picking up a copy of my new book, A Worthwhile Life – Find Meaning, Build Connection, and Cultivate Purpose. It will be available for pre-order soon.