Most of us want to be happy, and most of us want our lives to be meaningful. And psychologists confirm that we are happier when we feel our lives have meaning and purpose
But what gives our lives meaning?
It used to be that religion gave life meaning. Even if life was hard drudgery, or worse, dangerous and painful, the hope of a better life in the age to come gave meaning and purpose even to the suffering.
But with religion in decline in first world countries, what gives lives meaning now? Some say nothing can. But most say we can, and have to, choose our own meaning and invest our lives in that.
But does it work? Can life have meaning without God?
What is meaning?
We all have an understanding of what makes life meaningful for us, although it isn’t easy to put it into words. But it has something to do with:
- having a goal or purpose,
- that has value or worth, and
- which we can achieve,
- so we can feel good about it.
So is meaning subjective: we can we simply choose whatever we like to make our lives meaningful? Or is it objective: only some things meaningful, and we have to find what they are?
Not surprisingly, there are different views on this. Here are five.
Positive psychology – we can all find our own meaning
This excellent article by Courtney Ackerman summarises so much about meaning in life – different definitions, theories (modernism, logical positivism, postmodernism and existentialism), and how we can find meaning. It is well worth reading.
Generally, the definitions of meaning she quotes include the components I’ve listed above.
She outlines ways experiences may lead us to find meaning in life, experiences like falling in love, having a child, learning a new skill, experiencing new cultures or even owning a pet. These experiences may lead us to come to terms with a stressful event, feeling we have matured through life and made positive changes, or to change beliefs or create new goals.
Courtney is noncommittal about God. She follows positive psychology in recognising that religious belief can provide meaning, and recommends reading the source books for several world religions, but doesn’t believe that belief in God is necessary for life to have meaning.
In the end, she concludes that “the meaning of life is different to each and every one of us. …. it is truly up to us to tease out that which is the most important, the most life-giving, and the most significant. Within this soup of values, experiences, goals, and beliefs, we can piece together that which gives us the best sense of meaning in our own lives.”
Anthony Synott agrees, offering a dozen different sources of meaning we may choose, mix and match, and so construct a meaningful life.
Positive psychology provides many helpful insights into happiness and meaning, and we can all surely learn from it. It tends to show that many of the “old fashioned” virtues are still worth embracing. However I sometimes wonder whether it works for people who experience depression or deep grief, or whose life is “unsuccessful” in love, health or career. Or those living in poverty, or in a war zone. It may be hard for such people to find meaning through the things Courtney suggests.
Purpose is one thing, meaning is another
Dan Kent distinguishes between purpose and meaning, and illustrates with the Greek legend of Sisyphus. He was a mythical king who offended the gods, and so he was condemned to an eternity of pushing a heavy boulder up a steep hill. When he finally got it to the top, it rolled down the other side, and he had to start all over again. And again. And again, for eternity.
Kent argues that Sisyphus had purpose, but no meaning. Purpose, he says, is local and contingent, it explains why we do some particular action. But meaning is much larger, involving the ultimate reason behind the action. Again he uses an example. If life is a train track and we are a train, purpose is moving along the track from point A to point B. meaning is the reality that point B is somewhere actually worth reaching.
Lack of meaning is inevitable in a universe without God, he says. “Meaning, by definition, is something that is meant to be. It requires intention. But you can’t have intention from a source—like the universe—that does not have the capacity to intend.”
On the other hand, he says “a universe created by God can therefore have intention ….. It can have meaning.”
Kent’s definition of meaning is perhaps stronger than what positive psychologists use. They say that we choose the meaning of our lives – we can choose whether reaching point B is satisfying to us or not. But his definition is more objective, and it seems clear that the possible meanings suggested by positive psychology can never be objective in the way Kent envisages it.
Nihilism is the view that all values and purposes in life are without any real basis, and therefore that life is pointless, absurd. For some, this view follows logically from concluding that no God exists, though that conclusion isn’t so common these days.
Nihilism, if followed consistently, can easily lead to pessimism and despair. But psychologists know that despair and loss of meaning reduces wellbeing, and so makes life far less happy and purposeful, so the jump from atheism to a sense of meaningless is generally discouraged.
Even a “hard core” atheist and determinist like Alex Rosenberg, who believes there is no meaning in life, no free will, no morality, nevertheless recommends embracing the reality of atheism as a “rigorous, breathtaking grip on reality.” It appears for him there is no point to anything, so we should just try to enjoy whatever we choose to do. This is a “nice nihilism, a surprisingly sanguine perspective atheists can happily embrace”.
Many philosophers, both theistic and atheistic, disagree with Rosenberg’s conclusions, and critics don’t find his bleak perspective to be helpful or attractive, but his response is that it is the truth. But truth or not, it seems few people can live that way. Psychologists recommend we seek or construct our own meaning in life, which is contrary to Rosenberg’s nihilism.
God isn’t helpful to meaning
Some psychologists are less committed, and some even critical, of any connection between God and meaning, and so have a harder edge than positive psychologists to their belief that we can construct our own meaning.
Gleb Tsipursky teaches that while having purpose and meaning in life is important for wellbeing, “the source of the purpose itself is not so important.” Each of us is free to work out our own answers. He says that: “Religion is only one among many ways of developing a personal sense of life meaning and greater sense of personal agency”. So he concludes that “Religion is optional”, but you get the clear impression he finds science and choice much better options.
Daniel Florien is an ex-christian who believes his life as an atheist is as beautiful, exciting and meaningful now as when he was a christian, perhaps even a little more so. He admits his life doesn’t have any “absolute purpose”, but finds creating his own purpose to be “thrilling”. He says “Life is as happy and meaningful as you make it”.
Neel Burton agrees that “the meaning of life is that which we choose to give it”, but he thinks belief in God takes away from meaning. He appears to be an atheist, but, he says, even if God exists, we don’t know what purpose he wants for us, and “unless we can be free to become the authors of our own purpose or purposes, our lives may have, at worst, no purpose at all, and, at best, only some unfathomable and potentially trivial purpose that is not of our own choosing”. He also argues against Dan Kent’s view that we need objective meaning and purpose, not just subjective, saying (rightly, I think) that things can have a purpose even if they weren’t created with a purpose.
But he seems to have missed that christian belief claims to know God’s purpose in creating us, and he ignores Kent’s distinction between purpose and meaning.
Overall, these more negative view of the role of religion in giving life meaning seem to ignore the fact that studies show that religious belief and practice seems to lead to a greater sense of wellbeing, happiness, health and meaning. It may be that the same outcomes can be achieved in other ways, but it seems that it rarely works out that way in practice.
Discovered meaning and created meaning
Tim Keller, in his book Making Sense of God distinguishes discovered meaning from created meaning. Discovered meaning is objective, inherent – God-given meaning is the obvious example. Created or assigned meaning is subjective and can be given by whatever we choose or seek.
He then argues that discovered meaning is better than created meaning in three ways.
- Discovered meaning is more rational than created meaning. According to positive psychology, one of the most important factors in wellbeing is living for a cause greater than oneself, but without God, what can give that cause meaning?
- Discovered meaning is more communal than created meaning. Creating our own meaning can be selfish, and less likely to lead society as a whole to a shared meaning.
- Discovered meaning is more durable than created meaning. Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl observed that in the death camps, those whose sense of meaning came from this life only were less abe to sustain hope than those who believed in an ultimate meaning that life’s circumstances couldn’t take away.
Keller is, of course, a christian, and so believes that the God he believes is true is able to give life meaning that is rational, communal and durable, and hence “better” and more meaningful that the meaning we may construct for ourselves.
Choose your own meaning?
So that’s five different understandings.
Do you agree we need our lives to have meaning?
Do you think we can make our own meaning? Or do you think finding an objective meaning is better, or even the only way?
- What is the meaning of life? (On this website.)
- How Meaning (of Life) is Approached in Positive Psychology. Courtney Ackerman in Positive Psychology Program
Photo by Anthony Tori on Unsplash
I honestly don’t understand how it’s even possible to create my own meaning. Without a concept of “God”, I can’t explain my own existence. If I don’t know “how” I came to be, there’s no way I can explain “why” I’m here. My accidental existence is no more significant than a trout or a sunflower. Can a trout create meaning?
Hi John, yes it’s an interesting question about creating meaning. I think it really depends on objective vs subjective. I feel the same as you that what we create ourselves feels like meaning, but it may not be. For example, if I choose to believe my life will be meaningful if I makes the world’s biggest snowman, and I make the world’s biggest Guinness Book of Records snowman and then I die, was that really a meaningful life? I think not, but for some people, that would be OK.
Your use of the word “significant” is interesting. The definition of meaning I used included the words “significance” and “worth”, and it’s hard to see how many people’s lives have that. But there would be some people who were not God-believers whose lives were significant and worthy, so it isn’t a simple matter.
My post didn’t try to draw a conclusion, but to leave the question “out there”, and your response seems to me to be a reasonable one. Thanks.
I think the notion of created meaning is a bit flawed and often mischaracterized when put forth as the religious take on secular meaning (and I’m not talking about this post). Just as we don’t choose what we find beautiful, or delicious, or exciting, I think it’s unlikely that we can do much to choose what gives us fulfillment. However, we can explore different avenues and in that way actively engage in a search for meaning, which is likely to yield different results for different people (even within those who find it in religion). The discovery of meaning, even meaning that transcends the self, does not require a meaning which transcends the natural world.
Hi Travis, always interested to hear your thoughtful take on things.
I tried to leave this post fairly open-ended, with a few comments but not any strong conclusion. I think one of the difficulties is how we define “meaning”. If we adopt the 5-part definition I mentioned in the post, it may be possible to assess different people’s ideas about the meaning of their lives objectively, but otherwise it is fairly subjective. I tend to agree, though, that purpose and meaning are not the same, and I also think purpose is much more common than meaning..
I’d be interested to hear what you think the meaning of life is, or your life, or other people’s lives that you know.
The distinction between purpose and meaning, as outlined in the post, appears to just be the ability to continue asking “why?”. By defining meaning as only non-contingent and intentional, it pretty much begs the question for God. So I can see that it is a useful distinction for apologetic purposes, but there are plenty of people and cultures who don’t find anything lacking by omitting that distinction.
What is the meaning of life? Given that I don’t accept the requirement that it come from an ultimate intention, I would describe it more as a sense of fulfillment, perhaps not readily describable, but something like eudaimonia; finding in oneself an absence of wanting for something more.
I don’t think the distinction between purpose and meaning is artificial, because we can easily think of things that have purpose (= the reason why some action is taken, or the end result) but not meaning (= the significance and value of the action). Sisyphus is one example. And I recall an old science fiction story (The voices of time by JG Ballard) in which a few professionals carry out strange tasks, e.g. one of them every day goes out, mixes concrete and repairs holes in a concrete target used for weapons practice. It turns out they are the last dying survivors after a nuclear war, and these actions have short term purpose (repairing holes) but no real meaning (i.e. no significance or value).
I didn’t intend to define “meaning as only non-contingent” (I didn’t even think in those terms) – maybe that’s what I did, but I don’t think so. Using the definitions I have used, I would say the life of non-theist Kiwi/Aussie, Prof Fred Hollows, had meaning. He was an ophthalmologist who is credited with helping more than a million people, many in poor circumstances, to see. That seems to me to be a significant and valuable life, and therefore meaningful.
So I am interested in your comment that “it pretty much begs the question for God”. Atheist Fred Hollows and the random and selfish lives of some christians shows that isn’t necessarily so, I think, but I think it is true that religious belief can give meaning even if it isn’t true (just as I think Hollows life had meaning even though I don’t think his atheism is true). So, as many of the positive psychologists say, altruism and religion can be good sources of meaning, perhaps better than most others.
But it raises an interesting question for me that I may explore in another post. Christian belief, whether true or not, offers a number of positives in its answers to some of the big questions, and non-belief seems less able in principle (even if it is true) to match this. This seems to lead to some level of deconstruction for non-believers, and an inevitable settling for something less. As many atheists say, if atheism is true, it should be accepted even if it is less satisfying in some senses. But I am wondering about the deconstruction, or lessening of aspirations that seems to be involved. I haven’t expressed that well, because I have just started thinking about it, but I think there is something worth exploring there.
I was responding to Kent’s definition, which I thought you were adopting by making that distinction. I agree that your revised distinction does not beg the question for God, and I can appreciate the difference you’re identifying. So then the question is who gets to say when something has value or significance?
Yes, interesting question. I think value and significance are at least in part ethical questions, and so we get to whether ethics are objective or subjective. I guess it is no surprise to know I am a moral realist, and hence that gives a basis for objective meaning and purpose. For those who are not moral realists, I guess meaning will be quite subjective, although they may sometimes act as if their ethics and meaning are objective.
Then again, there is this. 🙂
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