What is the meaning of life?

This page last updated November 27th, 2019

This page in brief ….

Psychologists tell us that meaning and purpose are important ingredients for a fulfilled and happy life. For thousands of years, religion provided a sense of meaning and purpose in people’s lives. But with the decline of religious belief in western countries, where can we find meaning and purpose?

Some thinkers concluded that life without God is absurd, but in recent times psychologists have been encouraging us to develop our own meaning in whatever way seems right to us – and encouraging us to choose more altruistic values. But perhaps a meaning we create for ourselves isn’t as lasting and fulfilling as a meaning which comes from outside us?

Everyone wants to find meaning in their lives

Psychologists tell us that having a sense of meaning in life is necessary for our wellbeing and psychological health. If we have a sense of purpose we are more likely to be happy, have a positive sense of our own identity and be more resilient under stress.

So it is hardly surprising that, worldwide, more than three quarters of people think about the meaning of life. Less than 10% apparently feel their lives have no meaning.

And it seems people have been seeking some sort of meaning as long as the human race has been around. More than 100,000 years ago, people were burying their dead in a ritualistic way that seems to indicate they thought the life of that person was significant in some way. Many people think that religious belief and rituals arose as a way of giving life meaning and purpose.

So what is meaning in life, and where does it come from?

What is meaning?

Meaning seems to require several factors:

  • Purpose: our lives are directed towards goals or intentions.
  • Significance: our lives are intelligible beyond our own selves, we have made a difference.
  • Values: having a basis for knowing what is good and bad.
  • Efficacy: having the ability to actually make a difference, based on our purpose and values.
  • Self worth: we feel good about ourselves and what we have achieved.

Happiness is not the same as meaning. Having meaning and purpose can make us happy but pleasure doesn’t give our life meaning. Happiness tends to be focused on the present whereas meaning tends to be focused on the whole of life.

Meaning or meaningless?

How the human race has viewed and obtained meaning has varied over time.

Religion and meaning

Religious belief and rituals have been, and still are, a major source of meaning for many people, though the way religion achieves this can vary – e.g. a Buddhist or Hindu will see life’s purpose very differently to how a Jew or a Christian will see it.

The monotheistic religions find their meaning in God. For Christians, our purpose is to serve God, or to please him (God is seen as masculine in most religions), or to worship or appease him. Our significance and self worth is found in our status as his “children”, and we get our values from him. And in Christianity, God gives us the ability to achieve his purposes.

Life is absurd?

If religion is associated with meaning, then it is hardly surprising that the meaning of life has been questioned in the increasingly secular first world.

Dostoevsky famously wrote “If God does not exist …. everything is permitted” (see note 1, below), and Jean-Paul Sartre claimed this thought was the basis for existentialism. Existentialists like Sarte (“life is a useless passion”), Albert Camus (“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”) and Franz Kafka (“The meaning of life is that it stops.”) believed that the end of religion was the end of meaning, life is absurd, and each individual has to decide whether life is worth living, and if so, we each have to choose our own meaning.

These ideas were commonly expressed through novels, theatre, “noir” films, black humour, and some electronic music, but had a less obvious influence on most people.

Choose your own meaning

Thinking life is absurd is not an easy philosophy to live by, so the last few decades have seen the rise of secular alternatives to religious meaning, in which we are encouraged to choose our own meaning, to be fully ourselves, and to get on with life. Philosophers and psychologists tell us it is counter-productive to hanker after transcendent meaning, we should learn to live with what is achievable.

The psychologists all say meaning is important, and their advice to us on choosing our meaning is very comprehensive, and somewhat varied:

  • Anthony Synnott says we can give our lives many meanings, and suggests 12 possible sources of meaning, including hedonism, materialism, altruism, theism, self actualisation, seeking new experiences, and many others.
  • Gleb Tsipursky says we each have to find our own meaning, and points out that while religion is very helpful for finding purpose and meaning, there are secular and atheist organisations that can help, and recommends serving others as a good source of meaning.
  • Martin Seligman agrees, saying that the meaningful life is “using your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are.”
  • Roy Baumeister says “A life will be meaningful if it finds responses to the four questions of purpose, value, efficacy, and self-worth.” Therefore, he suggests, “meaningfulness is about doing things that express yourself”
  • Michael Steger says finding meaning is important for happiness, but he can’t tell us the answer. We just have to “take the millions of bits of information constantly swarming around us and pull from them some coherent and interpretable reality”.

Religion won’t go away

However others are not so sure that meaning can be found this way. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that religion is making a comeback “because it is hard to live without meaning” and christian philosopher William Lane Craig has a chapter in his book Reasonable Faith on The Absurdity of life without God.

Critics of the idea that we can create our own meaning argue that it is narcissistic, it means we centre our lives around ourselves and our fulfilment, and is questionable for three reasons:

  • While psychologists say we can choose our own meaning, many say that altruism and selfless service of others is the best way to have a sense of meaning in life. Altruism and centering our lives around our own fulfilment seem to be opposite goals.
  • If everyone is seeking their own fulfilment and meaning, we will to some degree be in competition, which will work against both individual meaning and societal cooperation.
  • The uncertainties of life – death , bereavement, illness, losing our job, divorce or financial loss can all make a mockery of our self-chosen goals. Some people never have the opportunity in life to set self-fulfilment goals.

Discovered meaning vs 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.

Keller argues that discovered meaning is better than created meaning in three ways.

Discovered meaning is more rational than created meaning

If the positive psychologists are right, to create our own meaning we have to connect what we do to some “larger” cause or purpose. But we can then ask what is the meaning of that cause or purpose, and to give it meaning we’ll have to connect it to some even larger cause or purpose. And of course the questions can go on forever, but we never find an objective basis for meaning. We may make a difference with our lives, but who can say whether it was a “good” difference?

This is perhaps why many people say we shouldn’t ask such questions, but just live according to the values and meaning we have chosen.But this is hard for many people to do, for two reasons.

  1. Many non-theists have built their worldview on the idea that everything we believe and do should have a rational basis. But here is a core part of life which appears cannot have a rational, objective basis.
  2. Living this way requires that we pretend that things are more than we actually believe they are. Human beings, including the person we love, are “really” nothing more than a bunch of chemicals. Morality is “really” no more than a personal choice. Except “really”, we have no choice, so even the meaning we chose was determined by factors outside our control. This is a difficult, almost impossible, view to live by.
Discovered meaning is more communal than created meaning

Created meanings are individual and so in many senses selfish, especially if we don’t allow anyone else to dictate what we value and do. “Be yourself but don’t harm others” is a fine dictum, but ethical decisions about what harms others are, in the end, subjective.

It thus becomes difficult to argue for a coherent meaning and set of values for society. Our values and choices become private commodities rather than communal values.

Discovered meaning is more durable than created meaning

Discovered meanings are more able to help a person through adversity, because they are objective motivation rather than subjective. This is particularly true regarding death and bereavement. Secularism requires that meaning be gained in this life (because there is no other), and untimely death can negate meaning, whereas religious beliefs (christian belief at any rate) believe “this life is not the whole story”.

Holocaust survivor and doctor, Viktor Frankl, said that those whose life purposes were based on this life had all those meanings swept away in the death camps. They often either gave up and died, or collapsed morally and betrayed friends, stole and used violence to survive. Those who didn’t crumble in these ways were those with meanings that transcended the conditions they were living and dying in. Usually, of course, this was because they had religious faith.

So what is the meaning of life?

The key question is whether meaning is objective or subjective. If it is subjective, we have to make a choice, and the choice will in a sense be arbitrary, because it is hard to find any objective values on which to base our choice.

It turns out, according to the psychologists, that choosing to live for immediate pleasure won’t make us happy in the longer term, and our lives will have little meaning. If we want to have a greater sense of purpose and wellbeing, we will build relationships, seek to serve others, and live for some cause greater than ourselves. We may find it hard to persist when the going gets tough, because we’ll know it was a subjective choice, and we may change our purpose as we go through life.

Some of us won’t be satisfied with that, and will either give up on meaning and just live for the day, or we’ll search for some objective meaning. The most common source of objective meaning is religious belief, but some people may find that politics, environmental care, patriotism or family can be an objective meaning for them.

Christian believers will find their meaning in serving God and following Jesus. This should lead them into a life of altruism, serving the poor, the sick, the dispossessed and the suffering. This will give their lives a great sense of purpose, with a goal at the end that death cannot take away, for it is the gateway to a new life. But they will learn that a life of meaning is not always a life of pleasure, though they will be happy enough with that.

What does this all mean?

There is no doubt that people of all beliefs, and none, can and do find meaning and purpose in life. But there is also little doubt that those who have to choose their own subjective meaning can often have less resources when the going gets tough, and less satisfying reasons to choose their values. Many “deconverts” seem to retain some of the values that they had as believers.

It is true that none of this is “proof” that religion is true and secularism is false. It is quite possible for the secularist to argue that we have evolved to find our meaning, purpose and values in religion, but nevertheless theirs is the true worldview. There is nothing stopping them choosing to be altruistic. Some can even feel noble about persisting with such a view in the face of their emotions when things are difficult.

But one of the tests that a conclusion is true is if it “works” in the real world. So the fact that religious belief seems to provide some life advantages when it comes to meaning, purpose and a fulfilled life surely is a small piece of evidence that we may know better in our hearts than our secular worldviews lead us to think?

Note 1:

Dostoevsky, writing in Russian, put these words into the mouth of Mitya Karamazov in his novel The Brothers Karamazov, and this is considered to be the best English translation.

Photo Credit: mikecogh Flickr via Compfight cc

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