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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.


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!

So then... why do YOU exist?

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    • Arthur Nwokolo profile image

      Factable News 

      6 years ago from Lagos

      Life means different things to different people depending on the angle you view it from...

      Nice article

    • SANJAY LAKHANPAL profile image

      Sanjay Sharma 

      7 years ago from Mandi (HP) India

      A marvelous hub with a detailed analysis of the subject. Besides the points referred to in the hub, the Life Force of GB Shaw, the pursuit for perfection by Mathew Arnold, the blood theory of Lawrence, the Gandhian thought of all action to be related to the existence of poor, the Darwinism, Whitman's leaves of grass, sadism, the passion of workaholics, jingoism, bigotry etc., are the many concepts which induce for deep introspection about the meaning of life.

      When we think of life in terms of time, which is there and is not there, as the present is a fraction between past and future, which ends the moment it is there. Does the meaning, lie in past or present or future ?

      The subject could not be concluded, as the truth itself is not perfect or ultimate, because the superstitions are the ruins of old truth. What seems to be true, may prove untrue in future.

      The meaning of life changes from generation to generation, though the individuals are slightly different in their choice of meaning, but they follow the general formula of the age in which they live. And thereby attach different meanings to life......

    • thelesleyshow profile image


      7 years ago from US

      The meaning of life is to know Jesus and to share the Good News to all the nations. Proclaim that Jesus came to set you free from sin so that you can be with God for eternity.

    • Lady Guinevere profile image

      Debra Allen 

      7 years ago from West By God

      Excellent article. I do like all the different cultures according to their definition of what or how to have purpose in life.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I think I know what you mean SS. Keep on Hubbing. Blake4d

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      7 years ago from Pahrump NV

      Great stuff Simone! What a lot of work you've put into this thought-provoking hub. You certainly have me thinking and that is no easy task. :)

      Sure do miss you - vocalcoach

    • sassypiehole profile image

      Lisa René LeClair 

      7 years ago from the ATL

      If I guess right, do I win a prize?

      Nice hub... One day, maybe we'll all know the answer (if there IS one). ;-)

    • kerlund74 profile image


      7 years ago from Sweden

      Awsome, i like this hub. I know I am in a "seeking period of life". Great written and easy to follow. I like that you present a lot of different angels and views.

    • joejagodensky profile image


      8 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

      Very well done. St. Peter in Rome is a Basilica, not a cathedral. Thanks.

    • Ancillotti profile image


      8 years ago from Brasil, Vitoria - ES

      Wow! Certainly I am one of the people away from the head this kind of question! When we started to think about it, the questions arise and stop not more. A theme that dangerous, girl!

      I'll think about a big hug!

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Calhoun 

      8 years ago from Western NC

      Looking at this now, it's like it's a prophetic hub for you. I wish you the best in your future endeavors. I haven't been writing here as much - been building my blog and website up - but you actually gave me a great post idea. Thank you. You rock, you know. :)

    • Kathryn Stratford profile image


      8 years ago from Windsor, Connecticut

      Your list of "meanings of life" based on religion and philosophy is quite long! You must have put a lot of work and research into this one.

      I got to the point in my life where I realized I was clinging on to what I was taught as a child, without evaluating my own thoughts and ideas, a few years ago. Once you think through what is important in your life, it is so much easier to focus on what is important to you, and feel like your life has meaning. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    • ocfireflies profile image


      8 years ago from North Carolina

      Let us live so that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.

      -Mark Twain

      Glad I stumbled upon this hub


    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      8 years ago from Nepal

      Victor Frankle was a holocaust survivor. He has written a fantastic book titled Man's Search for Meaning. During his stay in concentration camp he found that, men who thought some one was waiting for them outside the wall or their loved ones are still alive in another camp, survived despite poor health, and those who did not see hope died. Frankle says, as long as man has meaning in his life he will live.

      You have rightly highlighted Hindu world view. I believe in Karma, and the cycle of birth and rebirth.

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 

      8 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      This is a real thought provoker. Now, especially in more terrorist activity (again) we must think of the prophets of old as trying to teach us how to live in peace and harmony. One God who loves us all. Thanks for a terrific article.

    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 

      8 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Thanks, Simone, for encouraging independent thinking and exploring this question in depth. (I think most readers learned something new here!) For me, it's all about the elimination of suffering (first in myself, then helping others do it for themselves), so the Buddhist path is closest to my heart.

      And as for your really important question: You are undoubtedly sexy because you think about the meaning of life!

      Now I'm off to meditate and let your wisdom and sexiness flow through me without sticking . . .

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      8 years ago from North Central Florida

      A meaningful purposeful life has been for me a journey. I submit that my life is both meaningful and purposeful. I am able to determine that because of the sense of fulfillment and contentment that I feel each day as I rise and begin anew.

      There are so many factors that play into the reason for my feeling this way..not the least of which family and friends who make each day brand new.

      This is a topic that deserves consideration....having direction and feeling purpose for each day at least for me is exciting and causes me to embrace each day with the verve and newness of a child.

      Thanks for sharing this.

      Voted up++++ and shared. :)

    • skperdon profile image


      8 years ago from Canada

      wow! I think about life and all its glorious philosophies all the time. This hub and your other hubs are so inspiring Simone! I've often wished everyone could find the meaning of their life, but I didn't have the courage to write a hub about it. I enjoyed reading your take on finding the meaning of life.

    • poshcoffeeco profile image

      Steve Mitchell 

      8 years ago from Cambridgeshire

      I like your version of 'what is it all about'. I have often wondered why we are's for the toasted cheese sarnies, yay!

    • Simone Smith profile imageAUTHOR

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      That's why I think it's key to come up with one's own theory first, Victoria Lynn. It's too easy to get overwhelmed by choices and to be influenced by the wrong things! Forget what you've heard and explore what you personally know and can affirm. ;)

      That's quite the altruistic purpose, carol7777! Love it.

      I love that mantra, kikibruce.

      I agree entirely, Lesleysherwood- and your grandmother knows what she's doing!

      Lizam1, I love how you consider that broader issue when creating educational materials. That's key, isn't it? What's the point of having a philosophy and a purpose if you do not put it into practice?

      Thanks so much for stopping by the article, aylsbillones. I had a lot of fun putting it together. :)

    • aylsbillones profile image

      Aileen Billones 

      8 years ago from Naga City, Philippines

      Thanks for sharing this, I enjoy reading articles about life and more inspiring hubs.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Very nice hub and you are so right. It is important to us to know what is important, what gives us meaning. Today I have been working a little bit on this as I develop online courses. The most important thing for me as I develop any educational or teaching materials is why am I doing it and what is the important message I hope to share with others on an equal platform.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Its so important to ask these questions otherwise we just sail along in life without ever thinking until maybe its too late. Wise words from my grandmother when she was in her eighties. The day we stop having goals and desires is the day we stop living.

    • kikibruce profile image


      8 years ago from New York

      My friend taught me the following life affirming philosophy/mantra:

      "I am cool, and therefore everything I do is cool." Sounds simple, but it works!

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 

      8 years ago from Arizona

      Along with our personal goals and concerns in is about helping just one person. Maybe you help someone get back on his feet, maybe you are a good friend to people and look to you for advice. I think many of us want to make a statement in life and be recognized for it. Though others seem to wander through without direction. Bringing successful children into the world is a wonderful meaning as it propagates the race with caring people.

    • Victoria Lynn profile image

      Victoria Lynn 

      8 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      I'll take RealHousewife's cake, too! Dang, there are so many meanings to choose from. Like Kelly, sometimes I just try to get through the day without anything too bad happening. I think I need to work on my focus a bit more! :-) Great hub!

    • Simone Smith profile imageAUTHOR

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      I hear ya, RealHousewife! I find contemplating these things to be rather painful. I'm glad I pushed myself through this though. I encourage you to think on it when there are no immediate threats to your confectionary treats or kitchen floor. Also... I WANT SOME CAKE!

      Isn't it hilarious, DzyMsLizzy, how so many famous works that 'have all the answers'' really just present more questions???

      Good "breadth of thought" is definitely something I aspire to (and am horrid at), so I really appreciate the compliment, cclitgirl!

      I like your practical view, Vickiw. I do agree it is important to think carefully, establish what matters to you, and move on. Perhaps some of that might entail being blissfully unaware, though I'll always advocate that we keep our minds open to new ideas (and LOTS of jokes).

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Very deep topic indeed. Something that the greatest philosophers struggled with all their lives, and then, they died. Seems like a bit of a waste of time. Perhaps it's better to cut to the chase, adopt a few principles you really like, and stick with them. For instance, admire nature, help your fellow man/woman/child, be kind to your four-footed friends, educate yourself, and regard each day as an adventure. There are many more ways to discover the purpose in life, and why you exist, but they always seem to include thinking about others. Perhaps it is best to remain blissfully unaware, and enjoy as many things in life as possible! Loved your tongue-in-cheek approach to this, Simone, and relieved to know that in your search for the answer you discovered your own beauty.

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Calhoun 

      8 years ago from Western NC

      And this...this is the question for which so many humans have sought the answers...I'm thinking since the dawn of time. But ya know, since we're asking and discussing, I have to say that this is a pretty good run down from multiple perspectives. I once had an AP English teacher say that I had good "breadth of thought" - I'd apply that same sentiment here. :)

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      8 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Yeeks! I have, indeed, pondered this topic on many an occasion, and it still escapes any answers.

      I vacillate between "there is no meaning," and "we'll find out when we cross to the other side--meanwhile, I'll just live my life."

      I subscribe to the old adage of, "Do as ye will, nay harm ye none."

      (Your final quiz capsule shows a flaw in the HP quiz capsule system--the inability to choose more than a single applicable answer--I did not check any, because there were a few of equal weight.)

      A very weighty topic, for Plato--pffft...I tried to read "Plato's Republic," and could not even finish reading the introduction before becoming bored out of my mind and reaching the conclusion that he had no answers, either, only question, and spent a LOT of words to say nothing at all.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      8 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Kelly's purpose in life is to make me hungry. :)

    • RealHousewife profile image

      Kelly Umphenour 

      8 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      I'm just shattered...I never realized that I haven't even thought about this before! I'm just trying to get through today without anyone tinkling on my floor. I hope all my cakes come out perfect and if you come to my door and you're hungry - we shall have cake!

      I don't like thinking all deep and stuff - it hurts my head! Maybe I should...oh dear...I'll get the cake:)

    • Simone Smith profile imageAUTHOR

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      Agreed, HSchneider! And it is indeed useful to ask those questions, but... IT HURTS!!! Thanks so much for the kind words and I'll have to check out that Hub of yours. :D

      True that billybuc! And it's also important to have a GOOD higher purpose... I think I've always had a purpose, but it often involved going for meaningless things. It took me a long time to figure that out.

      SubRon7, my humor is present to make up for my utter lack of qualification when it comes to this article's subject matter. Perhaps you are simply too competent. And that question to which you allude is quite the enigma, is it not??? Good luck getting out of bed (Here's a tip: put a heating blanket set to maximum, singing heat on a timer. You'll spring out of bed in time, but still wake up gradually!).

    • SubRon7 profile image

      James W. Nelson 

      8 years ago from eastern North Dakota

      Four times I'm reading along about the meaning of life and out of nowhere comes humor! I don't know how you do that, Simone, but you are very good at it. I wish I could produce humor. I can't. I don't even "get" humor, until a couple weeks pass and I just break out laughing, and nobody else has any idea what???? I especially liked the last question you asked in that second group of questions.

      I'm pretty sure I've found my own meaning of, if I could just get out of bed in the morning.

      Great hub!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      8 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Well done, Simone! I can't imagine not having a meaning in life. Without a higher purpose we are just skin and bones walking around aimlessly.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      8 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      This question and other related questions are the essential questions in life. One must delve into these and dig deep down for one's own meaning. It is very useful and I believe essential to inform oneself on other philosophies on this subject. You gave a wonderful overview in this Hub as to how one goes about doing this, Simone. I wrote my own view on this a couple of years ago in my Hub, "Musings on the Meaning of Life".


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