Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
THE PURSUIT OF THE MEANING OF LIFE
The question of the meaning of life is one that fascinates most people alike. Although in different manners and terms, most of the great thinkers in history, philosophers in particular, have contemplated the question of what, if anything, makes life meaningful. Their thoughts are mostly constructed as considering which final ends we must strive to realize in order to have a life that matters. The debate continues to get more interesting with time as science reveals life as bereft of any preordained purpose.
Simultaneous with the death of positivism and of utilitarianism in the post-war period has been the upsurge of logical enquiry into non-epicurean notions of value, including ideas of meaning in life, based on relatively uncontentious (but not scientific or universally acknowledged) judgments. It is a diverse theme that involves rational investigation to no less an extent than more familiar ethical classifications such as wellbeing, honorable character, and right action.
More methodical efforts recognized numerous facets of meaning, encompassing purpose, acceptance of death, goal achievement, awareness that the future will hold meaning, existential vacuum, feelings of control in life, and a desire to seek more meaning. As the thought on the subject advanced, certain aspects came to be viewed as more essential and fundamental to meaning in life, while other dimensions were better understood as possible forerunners and consequences of meaning.
The question itself is possibly ambiguous. In inquiring about the meaning of life, one may be inquiring about the purpose of life, about life’s essence, about whether and why anything matters, or about many other things. The conditions that are more likely to prompt one to ask about life’s meaning comprise those in which: one is comfortable but troubled by either a sense of dissatisfaction or the possibility of bad things to come; one is young at heart; one has a sense of wonder; one is confounded by the dissonant multiplicity of things and wants to find some accord in all the diversity of existence; or one simply wants to know how to live in order to have a meaningful life.
WHAT THE QUESTION INVOLVES
While it seems that searching for the meaning of life has been a human pursuit from the beginning, it became a major theme for writing only early in the nineteenth century. The first English use of the phrase “the meaning of life” appeared in 1834 in Thomas Carlyle’s (1795-1881) Sartor Resartus II. ix, where Teufelsdrockh notes, “our Life is compassed round with Necessity; yet is the meaning of Life itself no other than Freedom.” The usage soon caught on, and over the next century and a half the phrase became common.
A plausible explanation of the upsurge of questions about life’s meaning in the last two centuries indicates four different but not entirely unrelated reasons: (1) scientific discovery and progress at unprecedented scales; (2) the Protestant Reformation in the Christian world; (3) voyages and travels of exploration and discovery, which brought people of different cultures and geographies with very different outlooks on the nature of the universe and the meaning of life closer and made it more difficult to dehumanize those who were different from what one was used to; and (4) dilution of widely held religious conceptions of the nature of things.
While the quest for the meaning of life seems a standardized and simple question, it can be approached in many senses. For example:
i) The inquirer is seeking the core reality or the essence fundamental to life. Such a person feels that if they discover their essence, their true self, then they can find the meaning of life.
ii) In some instances the query is about the purpose and goal of one’s own life. Here the seeker is likely looking to discover some pre-existing purpose.
iii) Sometimes the questioner is seeking to invent an aim or object of their life. So that when they are successful, they can claim having given a meaning to their life.
iv) Another way to approach the question is whether our lives, and anything we do within them, really matter, or have any sort of significance. If they matter, then one will have provided a functional answer to the question of the meaning of life.
v) Some people are troubled by the dissonance, complexity, and disordered nature of their experiential life as it is really lived. Hence they strive to see their life as intelligible, as something that has a meaning and a sense.
vi) In some cases people seek to feel a sense of meaning while living life, asking how one should live in order to have a meaningful life. They look for its meaning in religious rituals, volunteering, philanthropy etc.
vii) Some people confront their life with the basic question if it is worth living. They probably think that it would make sense to continue living only if life had a suitable meaning.
These mutations of the question of the meaning of life are by no means mutually exclusive. A person may very well be intrigued by several of them at once and see them as closely connected. In fact, in most cases more than one of the questions press themselves on the inquirer all at once. Therefore, often discussions of meaning in life attempt to capture in a single principle all the diverse state of affairs that can confer meaning on life.
THEORIES ABOUT WHAT WOULD MAKE LIFE MEANINGFUL
Let’s indulge in succinct articulation of some of the more prominent theories of what would make life meaningful.
Existentialism states that our lives have no inherent meaning or purpose, but rather it is the purpose we create for our lives that gives them a sense of meaning. This consists of the systematic attempt to denote life’s choices as a logical bearer of positive final value that an individual’s life can exhibit. These people want to know whether and how the existence of an individual over time has meaning, a certain quality that is necessary for its own sake independent of the meaning of the human species or universe as a whole.
Simply speaking, existentialism suggests that each human creates their own meaning, rather than finding meaning in the world around them. Humans are at liberty to create meaning for themselves, but there is no intrinsic meaning in the universe they inhabit. This theory also implies that some phases of life are more meaningful than others and that some individual lives overall are more meaningful than others. However, all people still have an equal moral status. One’s life logically could become meaningful exactly by forgoing one’s pleasures, e.g., by helping others to the detriment of one’s self-interest. It maintains that the inability to find a primary sense of life’s meaning so far suggests that none exists. The idea of a worthwhile life is probably not identical to that of a meaningful one
This includes most theories that are meant to capture all the specific ways that a life could find meaning. These theories are normally divided on a metaphysical basis, in terms of which kinds of properties are thought to create the meaning. Spiritualism contains theories arguing that meaning in life must be founded by a relationship with a spiritual realm. These theories entail that if one fails to establish the right relationship with God or soul then one’s life is meaningless.
In the religious tradition, these theories are broadly divided into those with God-centered views and soul-centered views. The former take some kind of relationship with God to create meaning in life, regardless of whether one has a soul. The latter believe possessing a soul and placing it into a positive state to be what makes life meaningful, even if there is no God.
God-centered Beliefs: Simply put, God-centered theory of meaning in life is that the better one fulfills a purpose God has assigned the more meaning one’s life has. It is founded in the idea that God has a scheme for the universe and that one’s life is meaningful to the extent that one serves God to fulfill this scheme, preferably in the precise way God wants one to do so. Regardless of the existence of an afterlife, realizing God’s intent by choice is the sole source of meaning, without which life would be meaningless.
Of course, theorists hold different views on what it is about God’s plan that makes it exclusively able to bestow meaning on human lives. The opponents of God-centered views of meaning of life usually offer three main arguments.
First, a solely physical world appears able to do the job for which God is supposedly necessary. Nature seems able to instruct a universal ethics and the more or less final value from which meaning might arise.
Second argument is the existence of apparent counterexamples showing that a supernatural realm is not necessary for an ultimate meaning. If we think of the normal lives of Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Mother Teresa, and Sigmund Freud, they seem meaningful even if we suppose there is no God.
Third argument points out a dilemma. On one side, in order for God to be the only fount of meaning, God must be completely unlike us; because the more God were like us, the more reason there would be to think we could get meaning from ourselves, without God. On the other hand, the more God is completely unlike us, the less clear it is how we could achieve meaning by relating to someone not like us.
Soul-centered Beliefs: This theory advocates that meaning in life emanates from relating in a certain manner to an immortal, nonphysical constituent that imposes on one’s body when it is alive and that will forever survive the body’s demise. It deems immortality necessary to fulfill the main principle about what is required for meaning. If one lacks a soul, or if one has a soul but connects to it in an improper way, then one’s life is meaningless. The basic approach here is to appeal to the value of perfection – a perfect purpose to honor, a perfectly fair reward to enjoy, or a perfect being with which to connect.
This view is supported by Tolstoy who contends that for life to be meaningful something must be worth doing, that nothing is worth doing if nothing one does will make a lasting difference to the world, and that doing so requires having an immortal, spiritual self. Some opponents of this view argue that having an infinite effect is necessary for meaning. Some others point out that an immortal entity is not required to create and leave an infinite effect.
Another major justification proffered for a soul-centered theory of life’s meaning is that a soul is indispensable for perfect justice, which, in turn, is essential for a meaningful life.
There are two prominent arguments for a soul-based perspective. It argues that life appears illogical when the evil flourish and the virtuous suffer if we suppose there is no other world in which these injustices will be remedied, whether by God or by Karma. However, the inferential construction of this one looks weak because even if an afterlife were necessary for just outcomes, it is not clear why an eternal afterlife should be thought necessary.
To me, another problem with arguments supporting soul-centered theory for meaning is even if they show that meaning requires immortality, they do not yet show that it requires having a soul. There is no basis to deduce that if one is immortal, then one has a soul.
The more assuring spiritualist theories for meaning seem to be ones that argue for the more complex view that both God and a soul combine to create meaning. Thinkers supporting this view, like Thomas Aquinas and Leo Tolstoy, claim that one must have a soul uniting with God in a spiritual realm such as Heaven. For some meaning comes from honoring what is divine within oneself.
This theory maintains that meaning in life is possible without a spiritual realm. Among those who believe that life can have a meaning in a purely physical world as known by science, there is argument on two things. One, the degree to which the human mind founds meaning. Two, if there are conditions of meaning that are constant among human beings. This divides naturalists into two groups, subjectivists and objectivists.
Subjectivists: Subjectivists believe that there are no unchanging criteria for meaning because meaning is relative to the subject and is contingent on an individual’s attitudes such as desires, ends, and choices. They maintain that meaning in life differs from person to person, depending on each one’s mental states. Something is meaningful for a person if they believe it to be or look for it. They think that one’s life is more meaningful the more one obtains what one wants strongly, the more one achieves one’s prioritized goals, or the more one does what one considers to be truly important.
Subjectivists are distrustful of endeavors to justify beliefs about objective value because they do not see how meaning could be based on something independent of the mind, whether it is the natural, the non-natural, or the supernatural. In contrast, it seems clear-cut to represent what is meaningful in terms of what people find meaningful or what people want out of life. This seems credible since it makes sense to think that a meaningful life is an authentic one.
Objectivists: Objectivists maintain, in contrast to subjectivists, that there are some invariable standards for meaning because it is at least partly independent of mind. Instead, it is something that exists irrespective of being the purpose of anyone’s mental states. Something is meaningful (to some extent) by dint of its intrinsic nature, independent of whether it is believed to be meaningful or sought after.
Actions that are rooted in morality and creativity are deemed to bestow meaning on life, while brushing teeth or eating ice-cream are not. The former actions are meaningful irrespective of whether anyone judges them to be meaningful or looks to engage in them, while the latter actions simply lack meaning and cannot acquire it if someone believes them to have it or engages in them. To achieve meaning in one’s life one needs to pursue the former actions.
Most objectivists concede that a life is more meaningful not only by virtue of objective factors, but also in part because of subjective ones such as thought, reasoning, affection, and emotion. As Susan Wolf, an American moral philosopher and philosopher of action who is currently the Edna J. Koury Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, puts it pithily: “Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness.” Pure objectivists refute that subjective attraction plays any constitutive part in conferring meaning on life. However, they only represent a small minority of objectivists.
Nihilism questions assumptions in keeping with which some lives can be meaningful. According to nihilism nothing can make a life meaningful. Atheism is prone to embracing nihilistic views on meaning of life. Albert Camus is well-known for articulating this kind of viewpoint, suggesting that the absence of an afterlife and of a rational, divinely ordered universe undercuts the possibility of meaning.
However, one does not have to be an atheist to be a nihilist and vice versa. Many contemporary nihilists share the view that there is something intrinsic to the human condition that prevents meaning from occurring, even allowing that God exists. They invoke the external perspective that supposedly reveals our lives to be unimportant. What one does in a certain society on Earth over let’s say an 80 years life-span just does not add up to much when considering the billions of years and probably trillions of beings that are a part of space-time.
As we have seen above, philosophical questions about the meaning of life look at life and the universe as a whole and ask what, in general, is the point of life, why does it exist, and what purpose does it serve? These purely philosophical questions are, however, “out of reach of modern objectivist scientific methodology” (Dominique Louis Debats et al., 1995, University of Groningen).
The goal of psychological investigation on meaning of life is less ambitious. It tries to study the subjective experiences of human beings and inquires what makes them experience meaningfulness in their lives. The fast progress over the past few decades in well-being and positive psychology research has helped to distinguish some philosophical constructs from meaning of life, thus directing emphasis on validating fewer aspects. From the perspective of psychology all accounts of meaning of life converge at sense making, which is about the ways that we make sense of ourselves and our environment.
In order to live in the world as reflective beings, humans appear to require three things: they require understanding the world around them, they require discovering direction for their actions, and they require finding value in their lives.
This has led to the current focus on seeing three aspects of meaning of life as central. These include Coherence, Purpose, and Significance. 1) Coherence or cognitive component is about making sense of one’s experiences in life, 2) Purpose or motivational component is about pursuit and attainment of worthwhile goals, and 3) Significance or affective component is about feelings of satisfaction, fulfillment, and happiness accompanying goal attainment.
Cognitive component is regarded as the foundation of meaning that both guides the selection of goals and produces feelings of worthiness. It reflects that humans have an inherent need to make sense of their environment.
Motivational construal of meaning of life is that meaning arises when one has a clear purpose in life. While purpose is in many cases used synonymously with meaning, here purpose alludes precisely to having direction and future-oriented goals in life. These overarching goals then lend significance to one’s present actions. The efficacy of a given purpose relies upon its scope, its strength, and its presence in one’s awareness. Ideally purpose should have nobility and breadth of impact to be measured in terms of a lifespan or years rather than a day.
Affective component focuses on value, worth and importance. It can be defined as a value-laden evaluation of one’s life as a whole concerning how significant, worthwhile, and inherently valuable it feels.
Coherence or cognitive component is value-neutral and descriptive whereas purpose or motivational component and significance or affective component are inherently evaluative and normative. Coherence is about describing the world as it appears to the individual, while significance and purpose aim to find value in the world in the present, as well as in the world that might arise from the pursuit of one’s purpose.
The profound, intangible, conceptual work necessary to find coherence, purpose, and significance in life may be the most fundamentally human competence we have. This capacity for contemplatively construing one’s life is what fuses all three facets of meaning in life. Coherence, purpose, and significance relate to different aspects of experience, but they are all about a thoughtful attitude to their respective aspects. Therefore, coherence is about not just experiencing the world as it is, but about creating a coherent mental representation about that world, having a cognitive map of the world that makes sense out of our experiencing. Purpose is not just about doing things, but about expressed and esteemed motivations engendering intentional behavior toward goals and aspirational strivings in life that have been intentionally chosen. Similarly, significance is not just about positive and negative feelings in life, but about the sense of value that arises when we measure our lives against some conceptual criteria that elicit certain emotions.
Hence, meaning of one’s life can be summed up as arising from an integrative process of associations, interpretations, ambitions, and assessments that (1) make one’s experiences understandable, (2) guide one’s efforts toward the future one desires, and (3) provide a feeling that one’s life matters and is worthwhile.
These three facets are connected with each other in many ways, which serves to explain why they are often treated as one phenomenon. One important connection lies in the fact that making sense of our lives is a precondition for valuing our lives. This is basically what Socrates said when he contended that unexamined life is not worth living. When our lives feel unintelligible, finding the things that make our lives worth living might be hard if not impossible. Lack of coherence can cause lack of significance and finding coherence can help in discovering significance.
Another connection is when purpose is an important source of significance. When we have some objective in the future that we covet, it can make our present efforts and our present life valued. Discovery of a strong sense of purpose in life can often function as a potent way of returning a sense of significance to our lives.
Finally, coherence and purpose have a great potential for synergy. Cognitive component can direct motivational component in the selection of goals by helping one to decide what would be an appropriate purpose. One could thus say that coherence creates the field from which one sources one’s purposes. At the same time, purpose is important for coherence as well, as a clear purpose adds structure to one’s life by ensuring behavioral consistency.
As we have seen above, finding meaning is ultimately a personal journey and can mean different things for different people. Viktor Frankl backs the idea that finding meaning is a unique journey when he writes In Man’s Search for Meaning: “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance that will satisfy his own will to meaning.”
During his torment in Nazi concentration camps, Frankl found out that the only way he could survive and preserve his sanity was to cling tightly to a sense of meaning and purpose. For Frankl, personally, meaning emanated from serving his fellow inmates as a psychiatrist and physician. The following passage from his illustrious book, Man’s Search for Meaning, poignantly explains how reflecting on his love for his wife Tilly became a source of meaning for Frankl.
“We stumbled on in the darkness. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: ‘If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.’ That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. My mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.”
After having survived an ordeal that would have left most people dead or completely shattered, Frankl spent his life promoting the significance of meaning as a solace against suffering and the secret to happiness. Meaning helped him sustain through the Holocaust and shaped his entire approach to life. However, Frankl aptly provides the following warning: “One should not search for an abstract meaning of life.” In the preface of his book Frankl beautifully illustrates what he means by this, “Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”
Frankl, thus, advocates that meaning cannot be chased as a goal in itself. It must arise as a byproduct of following other goals. If what you really want is to find meaning, he teaches, “You have to let it happen by not caring about it.” In its place, he recommends espousing activities that unite you with something greater. This can comprise any number of activities like writing a book, pursuit of knowledge, dedicating yourself to a profession, looking after people who need care, volunteer work, or raising a family.
Empirical research endorses Frankl’s viewpoint. As per a 2008 research titled Being good by doing good: Daily eudaimonic activity and well-being, Michael Steger (Colorado State University), Shigehiro Oishi (University of Virginia), and Todd Kashdan (George Mason University) accomplished an online survey of more than 8,000 people across the globe. To evaluate meaning, they employed a psychological test known as the Meaning in Life Questionnaire, which gives two distinct scores. The first score shows the extent to which people are actively searching for meaning, whereas the second score shows the degree to which they have already discovered it. The results are exactly what Frankl would have predicted: Greater search scores were associated with lower life satisfaction and happiness.
To sum it up, the paradoxical approach to discovering meaning may be to not look for it. The most gratifying forms of meaning may flourish not when we chase them directly, but when we instead pursue giving, beauty, love, justice, or, as Frankl writes, “a cause greater than oneself.” The code to a meaningful life may be to remind ourselves day after day to do what is right, love wholeheartedly, seek interesting experiences, and take on important tasks, not with the objective of increasing our sense of meaning in life, but because these quests are good in themselves. Life’s experiential analyses have taught us that certain techniques can be helpful in our pursuit of meaning. Here are some suggestions:
Nurture a Passion
Either motivation or passion drives our interest in activities. While motivation is useful for mundane activities, passion is the driving force for activities that have significance for us. Passion can be negative or positive. Negative passions are obsessions that conduce to unhealthy behaviors. One the other hand, positive passions improve our behavior and enhance our life.
When you have a passion for something, you feel a great deal of pleasure in the activity to pursue it. You may personify that passion in your understanding of your identity (e.g., you may consider yourself a writer, a painter, or a coach). Personalizing the activity into your understanding of your self-concept can play a vital role in how we find meaning in our lives.
Nurture Social Connections
Building and maintaining relationships with other individuals is a reliable way to develop a sense of meaningfulness (Heintzelman & King, 2014). Research shows that people who report fewer social connections and exclusion also report lower meaningfulness (Williams, 2007). Vallarand’s research (2012) showed that sharing one’s passions with a group of compatible individuals helps further develop harmonious passions, which, in turn, can generate a sense of meaningfulness.
Find Your Community
While social connections are important, not all social relationships are the same. Ensure to focus on relationships that make you feel like you belong, where you feel like you fit in with the members of that group and with the purpose.
Be Aware of Your Moods
Investigational laboratory studies have established a time-based relationship between positive mood and sense of meaning, suggesting that a positive mood results in a higher sense of meaning. If you are aware of your mood, you can manage it better by making time for interests and hobbies, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, eating healthily, developing mindfulness, and practicing meditation.
Monitor Your Environment
Research has shown that a cognitively coherent environment can boost feelings of meaningfulness (Heintzelman & King, 2014). Heintzelman and King show that schedules, routines, patterns of your behavior and that of your family, time-management, cleanliness, better hygiene can all play a role in increasing the ability to make sense of one’s environment, which then can contributes to an enhanced sense of meaningfulness.
However, do not be uncompromising in your expectations of your environment. Unexpected tasks will arise, your child will be cranky, you might drop your favorite crystal on the floor, or a visitor will arrive unannounced, but such challenges will have less of a negative impact if you already have a sense of control of your environment.
Tell your story
Curiosity about your own life can often help you discover meaning. What difficulties have you faced? What strengths enabled you to surmount them? How did other people help you? How did you use your gifts to help make life better for others? Emily Esfahani Smith, author of the book The Power of Meaning says “We all have the ability to make a narrative out of our own lives, it gives us clarity on our own lives, how to understand ourselves, and gives us a framework that goes beyond the day-to-day and basically helps us make sense of our experiences.”
Research has established that those who are able to tell a story of change and growth, where they managed to overcome the obstacles they came across, are likelier to see meaning in their lives. Creating a personal narrative can help us to view our own strengths and how employing those strengths can make a difference in the world, which increases our sense of meaning.
Find Meaning as You Advance in Years
Our life experiences and conditions change as we grow in years and each life stage presents us with unique challenges and achievements. We also experience heartache as we age – we may lose our parents, our partners, lose our jobs, have an accident, or develop an illness. Then you grow old, but older age is not synonymous with a less meaningful life. There is vast evidence that busy lives and positive psychological profiles in older adults act as a buttress against illness, loneliness, and depression. Find ways to meet new people and form new relationships. Use more free time available to develop a new hobby or passion. We have already discussed the role that motivation plays in developing passion and how passion leads to a meaningful life.