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Finding Meaning in Life

Updated on April 4, 2013

Philosophy of Life: A Commonly-Ignored Subject

Why are you reading this sentence? Why did you get out of bed in the morning? Heck, why do you even bother breathing?

You might be surprised by how few people bother to ask these questions.

Most people seem content to avoid these issue entirely, or just assume life has a particular meaning because it is shared by their family, friends, and community. That's what I did, at least.

I did not realize that my approach was flawed until I met someone who had actually taken the time to think through life's meaning independently. From him I realized that to get as much possible out of life, to make the most impact, and to truly stand behind your beliefs, you have to figure things out for yourself.

Knowing why you're here and what you need to do can be quite inspiring.
Knowing why you're here and what you need to do can be quite inspiring.

Why Find Meaning in Life?

Finding meaning in life can...

  • Get you out of bed in the morning
  • Help you live a more fulfilling life
  • Help you make decisions
  • Boost productivity
  • Boost general happiness
  • Boost confidence

And much, much more. Besides, what kind of human are you if you have not even utilized that fantastic brain of yours to process one of the most fundamental issues imaginable?

What About You?

Do you have a clear purpose in life?

See results

How to Find Meaning in Life

Remember those somewhat impolite questions I asked at the beginning of this article? A great way (certainly not the best or only way, but one way) to move closer to understanding the point of your life involves asking them.

I recommend asking yourself these questions, too:

  • Why do humans exist?
  • Why does the universe exist?
  • What is "good", and why is it good?
  • What is "bad", and why is it bad?
  • What is "success" and why is it considered to be success?
  • What makes a human's life successful?
  • Why is Simone (your gentle author) so damn sexy???

I am not saying these questions are easy. Honestly, these are some of the most difficult questions you will ever ask yourself (aside from "What smells better: alfalfa or freshly ground coffee beans?"). But to find your way in life, you have to ask them.

Think!
Think!

Really Think About It

When I first asked myself these questions, the obvious and most brilliant answer was "I don't f#%#^*# know").

While that is an entirely legitimate answer (even with the implied profanity), I recommend digging deeper. Consider following up that answer with additional questions like "What DO I know?" and moving forward from the most basics of basics (e.g. "Well, I know grilled cheese sandwiches are delicious, so that's a start. Now, why and how do grilled cheese sandwiches exist?").

The more you think logically, the more patience you have, and the less emotional and scared you become, the more progress you make.

Formulate a Theory

After asking yourself these questions and indulging in (or suffering through) some very deep contemplation, you will probably be able to formulate a unique theory for the meaning of life.

It is now time to put this theory to the test. I recommend the following three trials as a starting point:

  • Testing your theory against common life challenges
  • Testing your theory against existing theories
  • Testing your theory against time

Does your theory carry you through life's challenges and drudgeries?
Does your theory carry you through life's challenges and drudgeries?

Test Your Theory Against Everyday Life

One of the perks of a strong sense of purpose and meaning is that it can get you through pretty much anything (I say pretty much as your sense of purpose is not going to protect you from airborne projectile rhinos. Only rocket propelled grenades will. Maybe.).

The first and easiest way for you to test your theorized life’s purpose is to therefore see if it can carry you through a tough situation.

Say, for example, you are having a horrible time deciding between two different career paths. Stop the fretting and remind yourself of your theoretical purpose in life: "If I achieve one thing in life, it will be to [INSERT THEORY HERE]. The best choice for that would be...."

If your theory does not help you make that decision, maybe it still needs work.

As another example, let us imagine you have had a setback and feel terrible. Remind yourself what your purpose in life is, and ask "Is this one setback going to keep me from doing [INSERT PURPOSE HERE]?"

If your proposed life's purpose does not stand to to your setback, it might be a bit too limited or weak.

Common Themes Related to the Meaning of Life

Because there are quite a few different takes on the meaning of life, let us first separate out the most common themes:

  • Acquiring knowledge
  • Living fully
  • Living naturally
  • Avoiding damage to oneself and others
  • Helping others
  • Improving the human race
  • Maximizing happiness
  • Honoring god/gods/a higher power
  • Acquiring currency; disregarding females

How does your theory stand up to these values and goals?

Test Your Life's Purpose Against Commonly-Accepted Theories

While I would never question your intellectual prowess, I think we can both agree that many great men have come before us, and quite a few of them have had the presence of mind to contemplate the meaning of life and formulate their own theories.

As the best theories have been cherished by thousands and passed down from generation to generation, we have the privilege of pursuing them to test the validity of (and perhaps improve upon) our own theories.

I have summarized common 'meaning of life' themes and theories below for convenient reference. Contemplate each one carefully, and consider its approach, value, validity, strength, and practicality. Can your theory stand up to any of these in a sound, logical debate (or better yet, hand-to-hand combat)?

If you have not yet developed your own theory of the meaning of life, please do not review the theories below. It is important that you establish your own values and come to your own conclusions first.

The Meaning of Life According to Different Philosophies and Religions

Let us now take a closer look at major theories. For more detail on each one, visit Wikipedia's page on the meaning of life from which I have shamelessly drawn.

The Meaning of Life According to Ancient Greek Philosophy

  • Platonism: Attain the highest form of knowledge from which all good things derive utility and value (this is known as the Idea/Form of the Good)
  • Aristotelianism: Attain a general knowledge of virtue and put it into practice (in order to attain the “Highest Good” which manifests itself in eudaimonia (human flourishing)
  • Cynicism: Live a life of virtue that agrees with nature (in other words, master your mental attitude and live a natural, basic life)
  • Epicureanism: Seek modest pleasures (note the word modest: eating and having sex in excess can actually lead to pain, and what Epicureans saw as pleasure was really an absence of pain in the soul and body)
  • Stoicism: Using clear judgment, virtue, reason, and natural law, overcome destructive emotions

The Meaning of Life According to Enlightenment Philosophy

  • Classical Liberalism: Attain individual liberty (to protect your inherent rights)
  • Kantianism: Whatever maxim you choose to drive your sense of purpose in life must be something that could be universally practiced without contradiction (i.e. everyone else could do it too without things falling apart)

The Meaning of Life According to 19th Century Philosophy

  • Utilitarianism: Bring the most possible happiness to the greatest number of people
  • Nihilism: Forget it- life has no objective meaning

The Meaning of Life According to 20th Century Philosophy

  • Pragmatism: Contribute to the human good through practical, intellectual inquiry
  • Theism: Not even remotely clear; Tolstoy seemed to think the meaning of life involved having faith and Swenson seemed to think one’s purpose should be to achieve happiness by serving the moral consciousness
  • Existentialism: It’s up to you to decide what the meaning of life is; just make sure it jives well with the ethical prime directives of action, freedom, and decision
  • Absurdism: There is no meaning of life! That’s... absurd!
  • Secular Humanism: Live an ethical, personally-fulfilling life that contributes to the greater good of humanity
  • Logical Positivism: There is no overarching meaning of life
  • Postmodernism: Find meaning by looking into the underlying structures that create or impose meaning in society

The Meaning of Life According to East Asian Philosophy

  • Mohim: Share universal, impartial love
  • Confucianism: Life an ordinary, disciplined, virtuous, and educated life
  • Legalism: Don’t waste your time finding purpose; OBEY THE LAW!

The Meaning of Life According to Christian Religions

  • Basic interpretation: Seek divine salvation through the grace of God and intercession of Christ
  • Newer, controversial interpretation: Elevate your compassionate response to human suffering
  • According to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: Progress toward the perfection of inheriting God’s glory by gaining knowledge and experience

Inside St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome
Inside St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome

The Meaning of Life According to Islam

  • Worship the creator Allah and abide by the divine guidelines of the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet to avoid hell and get into heaven

The Meaning of Life According to the Bahá'í Faith

  • Serve humanity and grow spiritually

The Meaning of Life According to Judaism

Elevate the physical world to prepare it for the messianic era by adhering to god’s divine laws

The Meaning of Life According to Zoroastrianism

  • Actively use good thoughts, words, and actions to defend truth and order from chaos

The Meaning of Life According to Hindu Philosophies

General: Seek one of four possible aims depending on where you are in life:

  1. Karma: Love, desire, sensual pleasure
  2. Artha: Glory, wealth, prosperity
  3. Dharma: Morality, virtue, ethics, duty, righteousness
  4. Moksha: Liberation from reincarnation

Based on specific subsets:

  • Advaita and Dvaita Hinduism: Realize your soul is identical to Brahman to achieve Moksha
  • Viashnavism: Attain Moksha through worship of Vishnu (practice of Bhakti yoga will also help!)
  • Jainism: Achieve Moksha and enlightenment through self discipline

All those earthly attachments might be holding you back...
All those earthly attachments might be holding you back...

The Meaning of Life According to Buddhism

Early Buddhism: End suffering by embracing cravings and attachments, but letting them go (they pass right through you without taking hold, essentially)

Mahayana Buddhism: End suffering by achieving partial enlightenment, then continuing to be reborn until all humans can be brought to enlightenment (i.e. end suffering for everyone)

The Meaning of Life According to Sikhism

  • Attain salvation through guidance provided by the holy scripture and Sikh gurus

The Meaning of Life According to East Asian Religions

  • Taoism: Become one with the universe (realize the temporal nature of existence)
  • Shinto: Preserve the objective personality of the divine spirit in its highest form by prolonging individual human life forever on earth

Try not to think about death every time you cross the street!
Try not to think about death every time you cross the street!

The Meaning of Life According to Scientific Inquiry and Perspectives

  • Terror Management Theory: Escape mental reminders of death
  • Ethical Naturalism: Allow all conscious creatures to flourish
  • From a biological perspective: Replicate your DNA so your genes survive

Don't let your genes succumb to extinction!
Don't let your genes succumb to extinction!

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Theory

The Meaning of Life According to Popular Culture

  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: 42
  • Monty Python’s Meaning of Life: Be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book occasionally, walk occasionally, and live in peace and harmony with others

Tell us!

Which of these views does your theory most resemble?

See results

The Meaning of Life According to Generally Popular Views

  • Realize your potential and ideals
  • Achieve biological perfection
  • Seek wisdom and knowledge
  • Do the right thing
  • Worship or attain oneness with God
  • Enjoy life and live to the fullest
  • Seek pleasure
  • Attain power
  • Help as many people as possible
  • Don’t try to figure out the meaning of life (we’re too dumb to comprehend it)
  • Life has no meaning

Now that you have considered each one, how are you feeling about your original, self-formulated theory?

Submit Your Theory to the Test of Time

Once you have found meaning in life that can stand up to both the rigors of life and a litany of popular competitors, the only thing you can do is wait.

If your theory continues to inspire you, guide you, get you out of bed in the morning, and help you get through tough times, it is solid. Should it lose its luster over time, head back to the drawing board.

Never, at any point, become disheartened by any lack of certainty. Never stop looking for meaning! Never stop questioning your beliefs and actions!

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