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The Meaning of Life

Many major historical figures in philosophy have provided an answer to the question of what, if anything, makes life meaningful, although they typically have not put it in these terms. Consider, for instance, Aristotle on the human function, Aquinas on the beatific vision, and Kant on the highest good. While these concepts have some bearing on happiness and morality, they are straightforwardly construed as accounts of which final ends a person ought to realize in order to have a life that matters. Despite the venerable pedigree, it is only in the last 50 years or so that something approaching a distinct field on the meaning of life has been established in Anglo-American philosophy, and it is only in the last 30 years that debate with real depth has appeared. Concomitant with the demise of positivism and of utilitarianism in the post-war era has been the rise of analytical enquiry into non-hedonistic conceptions of value, including conceptions of meaning in life, grounded on relatively uncontroversial (but not certain or universally shared) judgments of cases, often called “intuitions.” English-speaking philosophers can be expected to continue to find life's meaning of interest as they increasingly realize that it is a distinct topic that admits of rational enquiry to no less a degree than more familiar ethical categories such as well-being, virtuous character, and right action.

This survey critically discusses approaches to meaning in life that are prominent in contemporary Anglo-American philosophical literature. To provide context, sometimes it mentions other texts, e.g., in Continental philosophy or from before the 20 th century. However, the central aim is to acquaint the reader with recent analytic work on life's meaning and to pose questions about it that are currently worthy of consideration.

When the topic of the meaning of life comes up, people often pose one of two questions: “So, what is the meaning of life?” and “What are you talking about?” The literature can be divided in terms of which question it seeks to answer. This discussion starts off with works that address the latter, abstract question regarding the sense of talk of “life's meaning,” i.e., that aim to clarify what we are asking when we pose the question of what, if anything, makes life meaningful. Afterward, it considers texts that provide answers to the more substantive question about the nature of meaning as a property. Some accounts of what make life meaningful provide particular ways to do so, e.g., by making certain achievements (James 2005), developing moral character (Thomas 2005), or learning from relationships with family members (Velleman 2005). However, most recent discussions of meaning in life are attempts to capture in a single principle all the variegated conditions that can confer meaning on life. This survey focuses heavily on the articulation and evaluation of these theories of what would make life meaningful. It concludes by examining nihilist views that the conditions necessary for meaning in life do not obtain for any of us, i.e., that all our lives are meaningless.

1. The Meaning of “Meaning”

  • 2.1 God-Centered Views
  • 2.2 Soul-Centered Views

3.1 Subjectivism

3.2 objectivism, 4. nihilism, works cited, collections, books for the general reader, other internet resources, related entries.

One part of the field of life's meaning consists of the systematic attempt to clarify what people mean when they ask in virtue of what life has meaning. This section addresses different accounts of the sense of talk of “life's meaning” (and of “significance,” “importance,” and other synonyms). A large majority of those writing on life's meaning deem talk of it centrally to indicate a positive final value that an individual's life can exhibit. That is, comparatively few believe either that a meaningful life is a merely neutral quality, or that what is of key interest is the meaning of the human species or universe as a whole (for discussions focused on the latter, see Edwards 1972; Munitz 1986; Seachris 2009). Most in the field have ultimately wanted to know whether and how the existence of one of us over time has meaning, a certain property that is desirable for its own sake.

Beyond drawing the distinction between the life of an individual and that of a whole, there has been very little discussion of life as the logical bearer of meaning. For instance, is the individual's life best understood biologically, qua human being, or instead as the existence of a person that may or may not be human (Flanagan 1996)? And if an individual is loved from afar, can it logically affect the meaningfulness of her “life” (Brogaard and Smith 2005, 449)?

Returning to topics on which there is consensus, most writing on meaning believe that it comes in degrees such that some periods of life are more meaningful than others and that some lives as a whole are more meaningful than others (perhaps contra Britton 1969, 192). Note that one can coherently hold the view that some people's lives are less meaningful than others, or even meaningless, and still maintain that people have an equal moral status. Consider a consequentialist view according to which each individual counts for one in virtue of having a capacity for a meaningful life (cf. Railton 1984), or a Kantian view that says that people have an intrinsic worth in virtue of their capacity for autonomous choices, where meaning is a function of the exercise of this capacity (Nozick 1974, ch. 3). On both views, morality could counsel an agent to help people with relatively meaningless lives, at least if the condition is not of their choosing.

Another uncontroversial element of the sense of “meaningfulness” is that it connotes a good that is conceptually distinct from happiness or rightness (something emphasized in Wolf 2010). First, to ask whether someone's life is meaningful is not one and the same as asking whether her life is happy or pleasant. A life in an experience or virtual reality machine could conceivably be happy but very few take it to be a prima facie candidate for meaningfulness (Nozick 1974: 42–45). Indeed, many would say that talk of “meaning” by definition excludes the possibility of it coming from time spent in an experience machine (although there have been a small handful who disagree and contend that a meaningful life just is a pleasant life. Goetz 2012, in particular, bites many bullets.) Furthermore, one's life logically could become meaningful precisely by sacrificing one's happiness, e.g., by helping others at the expense of one's self-interest.

Second, asking whether a person's existence is significant is not identical to considering whether she has been morally upright; there seem to be ways to enhance meaning that have nothing to do with morality, at least impartially conceived, for instance, making a scientific discovery.

Of course, one might argue that a life would be meaningless if (or even because) it were unhappy or immoral, particularly given Aristotelian conceptions of these disvalues. However, that is to posit a synthetic, substantive relationship between the concepts, and is far from indicating that speaking of “meaning in life” is analytically a matter of connoting ideas regarding happiness or rightness, which is what I am denying here. My point is that the question of what makes a life meaningful is conceptually distinct from the question of what makes a life happy or moral, even if it turns out that the best answer to the question of meaning appeals to an answer to one of these other evaluative questions.

If talk about meaning in life is not by definition talk about happiness or rightness, then what is it about? There is as yet no consensus in the field. One answer is that a meaningful life is one that by definition has achieved choice-worthy purposes (Nielsen 1964) or involves satisfaction upon having done so (Hepburn 1965; Wohlgennant 1981). However, for such an analysis to clearly demarcate meaningfulness from happiness, it would be useful to modify it to indicate which purposes are germane to the former. On this score, some suggest that conceptual candidates for grounding meaning are purposes that not only have a positive value, but also render a life coherent (Markus 2003), make it intelligible (Thomson 2003, 8–13), or transcend animal nature (Levy 2005).

Now, it might be that a focus on any kind of purpose is too narrow for ruling out the logical possibility that meaning could inhere in certain actions, experiences, states, or relationships that have not been adopted as ends and willed and that perhaps even could not be, e.g., being an immortal offshoot of an unconscious, spiritual force that grounds the physical universe, as in Hinduism. In addition, the above purpose-based analyses exclude as not being about life's meaning some of the most widely read texts that purport to be about it, namely, Jean-Paul Sartre's (1948) existentialist account of meaning being constituted by whatever one chooses, and Richard Taylor's (1970, ch. 18) discussion of Sisyphus being able to acquire meaning in his life merely by having his strongest desires satisfied. These are prima facie accounts of meaning in life, but do not essentially involve the attainment of purposes that foster coherence, intelligibility or transcendence.

The latter problem also faces the alternative suggestion that talk of “life's meaning” is not necessarily about purposes, but is rather just a matter of referring to goods that are qualitatively superior, worthy of love and devotion, and appropriately awed (Taylor 1989, ch. 1). It is implausible to think that these criteria are satisfied by subjectivist appeals to whatever choices one ends up making or to whichever desires happen to be strongest for a given person.

Although relatively few have addressed the question of whether there exists a single, primary sense of “life's meaning,” the inability to find one so far might suggest that none exists. In that case, it could be that the field is united in virtue of addressing certain overlapping but not equivalent ideas that have family resemblances (Metz 2013, ch. 2). Perhaps when we speak of “meaning in life,” we have in mind one or more of these related ideas: certain conditions that are worthy of great pride or admiration, values that warrant devotion and love, qualities that make a life intelligible, or ends apart from base pleasure that are particularly choice-worthy. Another possibility is that talk of “meaning in life” fails to exhibit even this degree of unity, and is instead a grab-bag of heterogenous ideas (Mawson 2010; Oakley 2010).

As the field reflects more on the sense of “life's meaning,” it should not only try to ascertain in what respect it admits of unity, but also try to differentiate the concept of life's meaning from other, closely related ideas. For instance, the concept of a worthwhile life is probably not identical to that of a meaningful one (Baier 1997, ch. 5; Metz 2012). For instance, one would not be conceptually confused to claim that a meaningless life full of animal pleasures would be worth living. Furthermore, it seems that talk of a “meaningless life” does not simply connote the concept of an absurd (Nagel 1970; Feinberg 1980), unreasonable (Baier 1997, ch. 5), futile (Trisel 2002), or wasted (Kamm 2003, 210–14) life.

Fortunately the field does not need an extremely precise analysis of the concept of life's meaning (or definition of the phrase “life's meaning”) in order to make progress on the substantive question of what life's meaning is. Knowing that meaningfulness analytically concerns a variable and gradient final good in a person's life that is conceptually distinct from happiness, rightness, and worthwhileness provides a certain amount of common ground. The rest of this discussion addresses attempts to theoretically capture the nature of this good.

2. Supernaturalism

Most English speaking philosophers writing on meaning in life are trying to develop and evaluate theories, i.e., fundamental and general principles that are meant to capture all the particular ways that a life could obtain meaning. These theories are standardly divided on a metaphysical basis, i.e., in terms of which kinds of properties are held to constitute the meaning. Supernaturalist theories are views that meaning in life must be constituted by a certain relationship with a spiritual realm. If God or a soul does not exist, or if they exist but one fails to have the right relationship with them, then supernaturalism—or the Western version of it (on which I focus)—entails that one's life is meaningless. In contrast, naturalist theories are views that meaning can obtain in a world as known solely by science. Here, although meaning could accrue from a divine realm, certain ways of living in a purely physical universe would be sufficient for it. Note that there is logical space for a non-naturalist theory that meaning is a function of abstract properties that are neither spiritual nor physical. However, only scant attention has been paid to this possibility in the Anglo-American literature (Williams 1999; Audi 2005).

Supernaturalist thinkers in the monotheistic tradition are usefully divided into those with God-centered views and soul-centered views. The former take some kind of connection with God (understood to be a spiritual person who is all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful and who is the ground of the physical universe) to constitute meaning in life, even if one lacks a soul (construed as an immortal, spiritual substance). The latter deem having a soul and putting it into a certain state to be what makes life meaningful, even if God does not exist. Of course, many supernaturalists believe that certain relationships with God and a soul are jointly necessary and sufficient for a significant existence. However, the simpler view is common, and often arguments proffered for the more complex view fail to support it any more than the simpler view.

2.1 God-centered Views

The most widely held and influential God-based account of meaning in life is that one's existence is more significant, the better one fulfills a purpose God has assigned. The familiar idea is that God has a plan for the universe and that one's life is meaningful to the degree that one helps God realize this plan, perhaps in the particular way God wants one to do so (Affolter 2007). Fulfilling God's purpose by choice is the sole source of meaning, with the existence of an afterlife not necessary for it (Brown 1971; Levine 1987; Cottingham 2003). If a person failed to do what God intends him to do with his life, then, on the current view, his life would be meaningless.

What I call “purpose theorists” differ over what it is about God's purpose that makes it uniquely able to confer meaning on human lives. Some argue that God's purpose could be the sole source of invariant moral rules, where a lack of such would render our lives nonsensical (Craig 1994; Cottingham 2003). However, Euthyphro problems arguably plague this rationale; God's purpose for us must be of a particular sort for our lives to obtain meaning by fulfilling it (as is often pointed out, serving as food for intergalactic travelers won't do), which suggests that there is a standard external to God's purpose that determines what the content of God's purpose ought to be (but see Cottingham 2005, ch. 3). In addition, some critics argue that a universally applicable and binding moral code is not necessary for meaning in life, even if the act of helping others is (Ellin 1995, 327).

Other purpose theorists contend that having been created by God for a reason would be the only way that our lives could avoid being contingent (Craig 1994; cf. Haber 1997). But it is unclear whether God's arbitrary will would avoid contingency, or whether his non-arbitrary will would avoid contingency anymore than a deterministic physical world. Furthermore, the literature is still unclear what contingency is and why it is a deep problem. Still other purpose theorists maintain that our lives would have meaning only insofar as they were intentionally fashioned by a creator, thereby obtaining meaning of the sort that an art-object has (Gordon 1983). Here, though, freely choosing to do any particular thing would not be necessary for meaning, and everyone's life would have an equal degree of meaning, which are both counterintuitive implications (see Trisel 2012 for additional criticisms). Are all these objections sound? Is there a promising reason for thinking that fulfilling God's (as opposed to any human's) purpose is what constitutes meaning in life?

Not only does each of these versions of the purpose theory have specific problems, but they all face this shared objection: if God assigned us a purpose, then God would degrade us and thereby undercut the possibility of us obtaining meaning from fulfilling the purpose (Baier 1957, 118–20; Murphy 1982, 14–15; Singer 1996, 29). This objection goes back at least to Jean-Paul Sartre (1948, 45), and there are many replies to it in the literature that have yet to be assessed (e.g., Hepburn 1965, 271–73; Brown 1971, 20–21; Davis 1986, 155–56; Hanfling 1987, 45–46; Moreland 1987, 129; Walker 1989; Jacquette 2001, 20–21).

Robert Nozick presents a God-centered theory that focuses less on God as purposive and more on God as infinite (Nozick 1981, ch. 6, 1989, chs. 15–16; see also Cooper 2005). The basic idea is that for a finite condition to be meaningful, it must obtain its meaning from another condition that has meaning. So, if one's life is meaningful, it might be so in virtue of being married to a person, who is important. And, being finite, the spouse must obtain his or her importance from elsewhere, perhaps from the sort of work he or she does. And this work must obtain its meaning by being related to something else that is meaningful, and so on. A regress on meaningful finite conditions is present, and the suggestion is that the regress can terminate only in something infinite, a being so all-encompassing that it need not (indeed, cannot) go beyond itself to obtain meaning from anything else. And that is God.

The standard objection to this rationale is that a finite condition could be meaningful without obtaining its meaning from another meaningful condition; perhaps it could be meaningful in itself, or obtain its meaning by being related to something beautiful, autonomous or otherwise valuable for its own sake but not meaningful (Thomson 2003, 25–26, 48).

The purpose- and infinity-based rationales are the two most common instances of God-centered theory in the literature, and the naturalist can point out that they arguably face a common problem: a purely physical world seems able to do the job for which God is purportedly necessary. Nature seems able to ground a universal morality and the sort of final value from which meaning might spring. And other God-based views seem to suffer from this same problem. For two examples, some claim that God must exist in order for there to be a just world, where a world in which the bad do well and the good fare poorly would render our lives senseless (Craig 1994; cf. Cottingham 2003, pt. 3), and others maintain that God's remembering all of us with love is alone what would confer significance on our lives (Hartshorne 1984). However, the naturalist will point out that an impersonal, Karmic-like force of nature conceivably could justly distribute penalties and rewards in the way a retributive personal judge would, and that actually living together in loving relationships would seem to confer much more meaning on life than a loving fond remembrance.

A second problem facing all God-based views is the existence of apparent counterexamples. If we think of the stereotypical lives of Albert Einstein, Mother Teresa, and Pablo Picasso, they seem meaningful even if we suppose there is no all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good spiritual person who is the ground of the physical world. Even religiously inclined philosophers find this hard to deny (Quinn 2000, 58; Audi 2005), though some of them suggest that a supernatural realm is necessary for a “deep” or “ultimate” meaning (Nozick 1981, 618; Craig 1994, 42). What is the difference between a deep meaning and a shallow one? And why think a spiritual realm is necessary for the former?

At this point, the supernaturalist could usefully step back and reflect on what it might be about God that would make Him uniquely able to confer meaning in life, perhaps as follows from the perfect being theological tradition. For God to be solely responsible for any significance in our lives, God must have certain qualities that cannot be found in the natural world, these qualities must be qualitatively superior to any goods possible in a physical universe, and they must be what ground meaning in it. Here, the supernaturalist could argue that meaning depends on the existence of a perfect being, where perfection requires properties such as atemporality, simplicity, and immutability that are possible only in a spiritual realm (Metz 2013, chs. 6–7; cf. Morris 1992; contra Brown 1971 and Hartshorne 1996). Meaning might come from loving a perfect being or orienting one's life toward it in other ways such as imitating it or even fulfilling its purpose, perhaps a purpose tailor-made for each individual (as per Affolter 2007).

Although this might be a promising strategy for a God-centered theory, it faces a serious dilemma. On the one hand, in order for God to be the sole source of meaning, God must be utterly unlike us; for the more God were like us, the more reason there would be to think we could obtain meaning from ourselves, absent God. On the other hand, the more God is utterly unlike us, the less clear it is how we could obtain meaning by relating to Him. How can one love a being that cannot change? How can one imitate such a being? Could an immutable, atemporal, simple being even have purposes? Could it truly be a person? And why think an utterly perfect being is necessary for meaning? Why would not a very good but imperfect being confer some meaning?

2.2 Soul-centered Views

A soul-centered theory is the view that meaning in life comes from relating in a certain way to an immortal, spiritual substance that supervenes on one's body when it is alive and that will forever outlive its death. If one lacks a soul, or if one has a soul but relates to it in the wrong way, then one's life is meaningless. There are two prominent arguments for a soul-based perspective.

The first one is often expressed by laypeople and is suggested by the work of Leo Tolstoy (1884; see also Hanfling 1987, 22–24; Morris 1992, 26; Craig 1994). Tolstoy argues that for life to be meaningful something must be worth doing, that nothing is worth doing if nothing one does will make a permanent difference to the world, and that doing so requires having an immortal, spiritual self. Many of course question whether having an infinite effect is necessary for meaning (e.g., Schmidtz 2001; Audi 2005, 354–55). Others point out that one need not be immortal in order to have an infinite effect (Levine 1987, 462), for God's eternal remembrance of one's mortal existence would be sufficient for that.

The other major rationale for a soul-based theory of life's meaning is that a soul is necessary for perfect justice, which, in turn, is necessary for a meaningful life. Life seems nonsensical when the wicked flourish and the righteous suffer, at least supposing there is no other world in which these injustices will be rectified, whether by God or by Karma. Something like this argument can be found in the Biblical chapter Ecclesiastes , and it continues to be defended (Davis 1987; Craig 1994). However, like the previous rationale, the inferential structure of this one seems weak; even if an afterlife were required for just outcomes, it is not obvious why an eternal afterlife should be thought necessary (Perrett 1986, 220).

Work has been done to try to make the inferences of these two arguments stronger, and the basic strategy has been to appeal to the value of perfection (Metz 2013, ch. 7). Perhaps the Tolstoian reason why one must live forever in order to make the relevant permanent difference is an agent-relative need for one to honor an infinite value, something qualitatively higher than the worth of, say, pleasure. And maybe the reason why immortality is required in order to mete out just deserts is that rewarding the virtuous requires satisfying their highest free and informed desires, one of which would be for eternal flourishing of some kind (Goetz 2012). While far from obviously sound, these arguments at least provide some reason for thinking that immortality is necessary to satisfy the major premise about what is required for meaning.

However, both arguments are still plagued by a problem facing the original versions; even if they show that meaning depends on immortality, they do not yet show that it depends on having a soul . By definition, if one has a soul, then one is immortal, but it is not clearly true that if one is immortal, then one has a soul. Perhaps being able to upload one's consciousness into an infinite succession of different bodies in an everlasting universe would count as an instance of immortality without a soul. Such a possibility would not require an individual to have an immortal spiritual substance (imagine that when in between bodies, the information constitutive of one's consciousness were temporarily stored in a computer). What reason is there to think that one must have a soul in particular for life to be significant?

The most promising reason seems to be one that takes us beyond the simple version of soul-centered theory to the more complex view that both God and a soul constitute meaning. The best justification for thinking that one must have a soul in order for one's life to be significant seems to be that significance comes from uniting with God in a spiritual realm such as Heaven, a view espoused by Thomas Aquinas, Leo Tolstoy (1884), and contemporary religious thinkers (e.g., Craig 1994). Another possibility is that meaning comes from honoring what is divine within oneself, i.e., a soul (Swenson 1949).

As with God-based views, naturalist critics offer counterexamples to the claim that a soul or immortality of any kind is necessary for meaning. Great works, whether they be moral, aesthetic, or intellectual, would seem to confer meaning on one's life regardless of whether one will live forever. Critics maintain that soul-centered theorists are seeking too high a standard for appraising the meaning of people's lives (Baier 1957, 124–29; Baier 1997, chs. 4–5; Trisel 2002; Trisel 2004). Appeals to a soul require perfection, whether it be, as above, a perfect object to honor, a perfectly just reward to enjoy, or a perfect being with which to commune. However, if indeed soul-centered theory ultimately relies on claims about meaning turning on perfection, such a view is attractive at least for being simple, and rival views have yet to specify in a principled and thoroughly defended way where to draw the line at less than perfection (perhaps a start is Metz 2013, ch. 8). What less than ideal amount of value is sufficient for a life to count as meaningful?

Critics of soul-based views maintain not merely that immortality is not necessary for meaning in life, but also that it is sufficient for a meaningless life. One influential argument is that an immortal life, whether spiritual or physical, could not avoid becoming boring, rendering life pointless (Williams 1973; Ellin 1995, 311–12; Belshaw 2005, 82–91; Smuts 2011). The most common reply is that immortality need not get boring (Fischer 1994; Wisnewski 2005; Bortolotti and Nagasawa 2009; Chappell 2009; Quigley and Harris 2009, 75–78). However, it might also be worth questioning whether boredom is truly sufficient for meaninglessness. Suppose, for instance, that one volunteers to be bored so that many others will not be bored; perhaps this would be a meaningful sacrifice to make.

Another argument that being immortal would be sufficient to make our lives insignificant is that persons who cannot die could not exhibit certain virtues (Nussbaum 1989; Kass 2001). For instance, they could not promote justice of any important sort, be benevolent to any significant degree, or exhibit courage of any kind that matters, since life and death issues would not be at stake. Critics reply that even if these virtues would not be possible, there are other virtues that could be. And of course it is not obvious that meaning-conferring justice, benevolence and courage would not be possible if we were immortal, perhaps if we were not always aware that we could not die or if our indestructible souls could still be harmed by virtue of intense pain, frustrated ends, and repetitive lives.

There are other, related arguments maintaining that awareness of immortality would have the effect of removing meaning from life, say, because our lives would lack a sense of preciousness and urgency (Lenman 1995; Kass 2001; James 2009) or because external rather than internal factors would then dictate their course (Wollheim 1984, 266). Note that the target here is belief in an eternal afterlife, and not immortality itself, and so I merely mention these rationales (for additional, revealing criticism, see Bortolotti 2010).

3. Naturalism

I now address views that even if there is no spiritual realm, meaning in life is possible, at least for many people. Among those who believe that a significant existence can be had in a purely physical world as known by science, there is debate about two things: the extent to which the human mind constitutes meaning and whether there are conditions of meaning that are invariant among human beings.

Subjectivists believe that there are no invariant standards of meaning because meaning is relative to the subject, i.e., depends on an individual's pro-attitudes such as desires, ends, and choices. Roughly, something is meaningful for a person if she believes it to be or seeks it out. Objectivists maintain, in contrast, that there are some invariant standards for meaning because meaning is (at least partly) mind-independent, i.e., is a real property that exists regardless of being the object of anyone's mental states. Here, something is meaningful (to some degree) in virtue of its intrinsic nature, independent of whether it is believed to be meaningful or sought.

There is logical space for an intersubjective theory according to which there are invariant standards of meaning for human beings that are constituted by what they would all agree upon from a certain communal standpoint (Darwall 1983, chs. 11–12). However, this orthogonal approach is not much of a player in the field and so I set it aside in what follows.

According to this view, meaning in life varies from person to person, depending on each one's variable mental states. Common instances are views that one's life is more meaningful, the more one gets what one happens to want strongly, the more one achieves one's highly ranked goals, or the more one does what one believes to be really important (Trisel 2002; Hooker 2008; Alexis 2011). Lately, one influential subjectivist has maintained that the relevant mental state is caring or loving, so that life is meaningful just to the extent that one cares about or loves something (Frankfurt 1982, 2002, 2004).

Subjectivism was dominant for much of the 20 th century when pragmatism, positivism, existentialism, noncognitivism, and Humeanism were quite influential (James 1900; Ayer 1947; Sartre 1948; Barnes 1967; Taylor 1970; Hare 1972; Williams 1976; Klemke 1981). However, in the last quarter of the 20 th century, “reflective equilibrium” became a widely accepted argumentative procedure, whereby more controversial normative claims are justified by virtue of entailing and explaining less controversial normative claims that do not command universal acceptance. Such a method has been used to defend the existence of objective value, and, as a result, subjectivism about meaning has lost its dominance.

Those who continue to hold subjectivism often are suspicious of attempts to justify beliefs about objective value (e.g., Frankfurt 2002, 250; Trisel 2002, 73, 79, 2004, 378–79). Theorists are primarily moved to accept subjectivism because the alternatives are unpalatable; they are sure that value in general and meaning in particular exists, but do not see how it could be grounded in something independent of the mind, whether it be the natural, the non-natural, or the supernatural. In contrast to these possibilities, it appears straightforward to account for what is meaningful in terms of what people find meaningful or what people want out of life. Wide-ranging meta-ethical debates in epistemology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of language are necessary to address this rationale for subjectivism.

There are two other, more circumscribed arguments for subjectivism. One is that subjectivism is plausible since it is reasonable to think that a meaningful life is an authentic one (Frankfurt 1982). If a person's life is significant insofar as she is true to herself or her deepest nature, then we have some reason to believe that meaning simply is a function of satisfying certain desires held by the individual or realizing certain ends of hers. Another argument is that meaning intuitively comes from losing oneself, i.e., in becoming absorbed in an activity or experience (Frankfurt 1982). Work that concentrates the mind and relationships that are engrossing seem central to meaning and to be so because of the subjective element involved, that is, because of the concentration and engrossment.

However, critics maintain that both of these arguments are vulnerable to a common objection: they neglect the role of objective value both in realizing oneself and in losing oneself (Taylor 1992, esp. ch. 4). One is not really being true to oneself if one intentionally harms others (Dahl 1987, 12), successfully maintains 3,732 hairs on one's head (Taylor 1992, 36), or, well, eats one's own excrement (Wielenberg 2005, 22), and one is also not losing oneself in a meaning-conferring way if one is consumed by these activities. There seem to be certain actions, relationships, states, and experiences that one ought to concentrate on or be engrossed in, if meaning is to accrue.

So says the objectivist, but many subjectivists also feel the pull of the point. Paralleling replies in the literature on well-being, subjectivists often respond by contending that no or very few individuals would desire to do such intuitively trivial things, at least after a certain idealized process of reflection (e.g., Griffin 1981). More promising, perhaps, is the attempt to ground value not in the responses of an individual valuer, but in those of a particular group (Brogaard and Smith 2005; Wong 2008). Would such an intersubjective move avoid the counterexamples? If so, would it do so more plausibly than an objective theory?

Objective naturalists believe that meaning is constituted (at least in part) by something physical independent of the mind about which we can have correct or incorrect beliefs. Obtaining the object of some variable pro-attitude is not sufficient for meaning, on this view. Instead, there are certain inherently worthwhile or finally valuable conditions that confer meaning for anyone, neither merely because they are wanted, chosen, or believed to be meaningful, nor because they somehow are grounded in God.

Morality and creativity are widely held instances of actions that confer meaning on life, while trimming toenails and eating snow (and the other counterexamples to subjectivism above) are not. Objectivism is thought to be the best explanation for these respective kinds of judgments: the former are actions that are meaningful regardless of whether any arbitrary agent (whether it be an individual,her society, or even God) judges them to be meaningful or seeks to engage in them, while the latter actions simply lack significance and cannot obtain it if someone believes them to have it or engages in them. To obtain meaning in one's life, one ought to pursue the former actions and avoid the latter ones. Of course, meta-ethical debates about the nature of value are again relevant here.

A “pure” objectivist thinks that being the object of a person's mental states plays no role in making that person's life meaningful. Relatively few objectivists are pure, so construed. That is, a large majority of them believe that a life is more meaningful not merely because of objective factors, but also in part because of subjective ones such as cognition, affection, and emotion. Most commonly held is the hybrid view captured by Susan Wolf's pithy slogan: “Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness” (Wolf 1997a, 211; see also Hepburn 1965; Kekes 1986, 2000; Wiggins 1988; Wolf 1997b, 2002, 2010; Dworkin 2000, ch. 6; Raz 2001, ch. 1; Schmidtz 2001; Starkey 2006; Mintoff 2008). This theory implies that no meaning accrues to one's life if one believes in, is satisfied by, or cares about a project that is not worthwhile, or if one takes up a worthwhile project but fails to judge it important, be satisfied by it, care about it or otherwise identify with it. Different versions of this theory will have different accounts of the appropriate mental states and of worthwhileness.

Pure objectivists deny that subjective attraction plays any constitutive role in conferring meaning on life. For instance, utilitarians with respect to meaning (as opposed to morality) are pure objectivists, for they claim that certain actions confer meaning on life regardless of the agent's reactions to them. On this view, the more one benefits others, the more meaningful one's life, regardless of whether one enjoys benefiting them, believes they should be aided, etc. (Singer 1993, ch. 12, 1995, chs. 10–11; Singer 1996, ch. 4). Midway between pure objectivism and the hybrid theory is the view that having certain propositional attitudes toward finally good activities would enhance the meaning of life without being necessary for it (Audi 2005, 344). For instance, might a Mother Teresa who is bored by her substantial charity work have a significant existence because of it, even if she would have an even more significant existence if she were excited by it?

There have been several attempts to theoretically capture what all objectively attractive, inherently worthwhile, or finally valuable conditions have in common insofar as they bear on meaning. Some believe that they can all be captured as actions that are creative (Taylor 1987), while others maintain that they are exhibit rightness or virtue and perhaps also involve reward proportionate to morality (Kant 1791, pt. 2; cf. Pogge 1997). Most objectivists, however, deem these respective aesthetic and ethical theories to be too narrow, even if living a moral life is necessary for a meaningful one (Landau 2011). It seems to most in the field not only that creativity and morality are independent sources of meaning, but also that there are sources in addition to these two. For just a few examples, consider making an intellectual discovery, rearing children with love, playing music, and developing superior athletic ability.

So, in the literature one finds a variety of principles that aim to capture all these and other (apparent) objective grounds of meaning. One can read the perfectionist tradition as proffering objective theories of what a significant existence is, even if their proponents do not frequently use contemporary terminology to express this. Consider Aristotle's account of the good life for a human being as one that fulfills its natural purpose qua rational, Marx's vision of a distinctly human history characterized by less alienation and more autonomy, culture, and community, and Nietzsche's ideal of a being with a superlative degree of power, creativity, and complexity.

More recently, some have maintained that objectively meaningful conditions are just those that involve: transcending the limits of the self to connect with organic unity (Nozick 1981, ch. 6, 1989, chs. 15–16); realizing human excellence in oneself (Bond 1983, chs. 6, 8); maximally promoting non-hedonist goods such as friendship, beauty, and knowledge (Railton 1984); exercising or promoting rational nature in exceptional ways (Hurka 1993; Smith 1997, 179–221; Gewirth 1998, ch. 5); substantially improving the quality of life of people and animals (Singer 1993, ch. 12, 1995, chs. 10–11; Singer 1996, ch. 4); overcoming challenges that one recognizes to be important at one's stage of history (Dworkin 2000, ch. 6); constituting rewarding experiences in the life of the agent or the lives of others the agent affects (Audi 2005); making progress toward ends that in principle can never be completely realized because one's knowledge of them changes as one approaches them (Levy 2005); realizing goals that are transcendent for being long-lasting in duration and broad in scope (Mintoff 2008); or contouring intelligence toward fundamental conditions of human life (Metz 2013).

One major test of these theories is whether they capture all experiences, states, relationships, and actions that intuitively make life meaningful. The more counterexamples of apparently meaningful conditions that a principle entails lack meaning, the less justified the principle. There is as yet no convergence in the field on any one principle or even cluster as accounting for commonsensical judgments about meaning to an adequate, convincing degree. Indeed, some believe the search for such a principle to be pointless (Wolf 1997b, 12–13; Kekes 2000; Schmidtz 2001). Are these pluralists correct, or does the field have a good chance of discovering a single, basic property that grounds all the particular ways to acquire meaning in life?

Another important way to criticize these theories is more comprehensive: for all that has been said so far, the objective theories are aggregative or additive, objectionably reducing life to a “container” of meaningful conditions (Brännmark 2003, 330). As with the growth of “organic unity” views in the context of debates about intrinsic value, it is becoming common to think that life as a whole (or at least long stretches of it) can substantially affect its meaning apart from the amount of meaning in its parts.

For instance, a life that has lots of beneficent and otherwise intuitively meaning-conferring conditions but that is also extremely repetitive (à la the movie Groundhog Day ) is less than maximally meaningful (Taylor 1987). Furthermore, a life that not only avoids repetition but also ends with a substantial amount of meaningful parts seems to have more meaning overall than one that has the same amount of meaningful parts but ends with few or none of them (Kamm 2003, 210–14). And a life in which its meaningless parts cause its meaningful parts to come about through a process of personal growth seems meaningful in virtue of this causal pattern or being a “good life-story” (Velleman 1991; Fischer 2005).

Extreme versions of holism are also present in the literature. For example, some maintain that the only bearer of final value is life as a whole, which entails that there are strictly speaking no parts or segments of a life that can be meaningful in themselves (Tabensky 2003; Levinson 2004). For another example, some accept that both parts of a life and a life as a whole can be independent bearers of meaning, but maintain that the latter has something like a lexical priority over the former when it comes to what to pursue or otherwise to prize (Blumenfeld 2009).

What are the ultimate bearers of meaning? What are all the fundamentally different ways (if any) that holism can affect meaning? Are they all a function of narrativity, life-stories, and artistic self-expression (as per Kauppinen 2012), or are there holistic facets of life's meaning that are not a matter of such literary concepts? How much importance should they be accorded by an agent seeking meaning in her life?

So far, I have addressed theoretical accounts that have been naturally understood to be about what confers meaning on life, which obviously assumes that some lives are in fact meaningful. However, there are nihilistic perspectives that question this assumption. According to nihilism (or pessimism), what would make a life meaningful either cannot obtain or as a matter of fact simply never does.

One straightforward rationale for nihilism is the combination of supernaturalism about what makes life meaningful and atheism about whether God exists. If you believe that God or a soul is necessary for meaning in life, and if you believe that neither exists, then you are a nihilist, someone who denies that life has meaning. Albert Camus is famous for expressing this kind of perspective, suggesting that the lack of an afterlife and of a rational, divinely ordered universe undercuts the possibility of meaning (Camus 1955; cf. Ecclesiastes ).

Interestingly, the most common rationales for nihilism these days do not appeal to supernaturalism. The idea shared among many contemporary nihilists is that there is something inherent to the human condition that prevents meaning from arising, even granting that God exists. For instance, some nihilists make the Schopenhauerian claim that our lives lack meaning because we are invariably dissatisfied; either we have not yet obtained what we seek, or we have obtained it and are bored (Martin 1993). Critics tend to reply that at least a number of human lives do have the requisite amount of satisfaction required for meaning, supposing that some is (Blackburn 2001, 74–77).

Other nihilists claim that life would be meaningless if there were no invariant moral rules that could be fully justified—the world would be nonsensical if, in (allegedly) Dostoyevskian terms, “everything were permitted”—and that such rules cannot exist for persons who can always reasonably question a given claim (Murphy 1982, ch. 1). While a number of philosophers agree that a universally binding and warranted morality is necessary for meaning in life (Kant 1791; Tännsjö 1988; Jacquette 2001, ch. 1; Cottingham 2003, 2005, ch. 3), some do not (Margolis 1990; Ellin 1995, 325–27). Furthermore, contemporary rationalist and realist work in meta-ethics has led many to believe that such a moral system exists.

In the past 10 years, some interesting new defences of nihilism have arisen that merit careful consideration. According to one rationale, for our lives to matter, we must in a position to add value to the world, which we are not since the value of the world is already infinite (Smith 2003). The key premises for this view are that every bit of space-time (or at least the stars in the physical universe) have some positive value, that these values can be added up, and that space is infinite. If the physical world at present contains an infinite degree of value, nothing we do can make a difference in terms of meaning, for infinity plus any amount of value must be infinity.

One way to question this argument is to suggest that even if one cannot add to the value of the universe, meaning plausibly obtains merely by being the source of value. Consider that one does not merely want one's child to be reared with love, but wants to be the one who rears one's child with love. And this desire remains even knowing that others would have reared one's child with love in one's absence, so that one's actions are not increasing the goodness of the state of the universe relative to what it would have had without them. Similar remarks might apply to cases of meaning more generally (for additional, and technical, discussion of whether an infinite universe entails nihilism, see Almeida 2010; Vohánka and Vohánková n.d.).

Another fresh argument for nihilism is forthcoming from certain defenses of anti-natalism, the view that it is immoral to bring new people into existence because doing so would be a harm to them. There are now a variety of rationales for anti-natalism, but most relevant to debates about whether life is meaningful is probably the following argument from David Benatar (2006, 18–59). According to him, the bads of existing (e.g., pains) are real disadvantages relative to not existing, while the goods of existing (pleasures) are not real advantages relative to not existing, since there is in the latter state no one to be deprived of them. If indeed the state of not existing is no worse than that of experiencing the benefits of existence, then, since existing invariably brings harm in its wake, existing is always a net harm compared to not existing. Although this argument is about goods such as pleasures in the first instance, it seems generalizable to non-experiential goods, including that of meaning in life.

The criticisms of Benatar that promise to cut most deep are those that question his rationale for the above judgments of good and bad. He maintains that these appraisals best explain, e.g., why it would be wrong for one to create someone whom one knows would suffer a torturous existence, and why it would not be wrong for one not to create someone whom one knows would enjoy a wonderful existence. The former would be wrong and the latter would not be wrong, for Benatar, because no pain in non-existence is better than pain in existence, and because no pleasure in non-existence is no worse than pleasure in existence. Critics usually grant the judgments of wrongness, but provide explanations of them that do not invoke Benatar's judgments of good and bad that apparently lead to anti-natalism (e.g., Boonin 2012; Weinberg 2012).

This survey closes by discussing the most well-known rationale for nihilism, namely, Thomas Nagel's (1986) invocation of the external standpoint that purportedly reveals our lives to be unimportant (see also Hanfling 1987, 22–24; Benatar 2006, 60–92; cf. Dworkin 2000, ch. 6). According to Nagel, we are capable of comprehending the world from a variety of standpoints that are either internal or external. The most internal perspective would be a particular human being's desire at a given instant, with a somewhat less internal perspective being one's interests over a life-time, and an even less internal perspective being the interests of one's family or community. In contrast, the most external perspective, an encompassing standpoint utterly independent of one's particularity, would be, to use Henry Sidgwick's phrase, the “point of view of the universe,” that is, the standpoint that considers the interests of all sentient beings at all times and in all places. When one takes up this most external standpoint and views one's finite—and even downright puny—impact on the world, little of one's life appears to matter. What one does in a certain society on Earth over an approximately 75 years just does not amount to much, when considering the billions of years and likely trillions of beings that are a part of space-time.

Very few accept the authority of the (most) external standpoint (Ellin 1995, 316–17; Blackburn 2001, 79–80; Schmidtz 2001) or the implications that Nagel believes it has for the meaning of our lives (Quinn 2000, 65–66; Singer 1993, 333–34; Wolf 1997b, 19–21). However, the field could use much more discussion of this rationale, given its persistence in human thought. It is plausible to think, with Nagel, that part of what it is to be a person is to be able to take up an external standpoint. However, what precisely is a standpoint? Must we invariably adopt one standpoint or the other, or is it possible not to take one up at all? Is there a reliable way to ascertain which standpoint is normatively more authoritative than others? These and the other questions posed in this survey still lack conclusive answers, another respect in which the field of life's meaning is tantalizingly open for substantial contributions.

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  • Benatar, D. (ed.), 2004, Life, Death & Meaning , Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  • Cottingham, J. (ed.), 2007, Western Philosophy: An Anthology , Oxford: Blackwell: pt. 12.
  • Hanfling, O. (ed.), 1987, Life and Meaning: A Reader , Cambridge: Basic Blackwell Inc.
  • Klemke, E. D. and Cahn, S. M. (eds.), 2007, The Meaning of Life: A Reader, 3 rd Ed. , New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Metz, T. (ed.), 2005, Special Issue: Meaning in Life, Philosophical Papers , 34: 330–463.
  • Runzo, J. and Martin, N. (eds.), 2000, The Meaning of Life in the World Religions , Oxford: Oneworld Publications.
  • Sanders, S. and Cheney, D. (eds.), 1980, The Meaning of Life: Questions, Answers, and Analysis , Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
  • Seachris, J. (ed.), 2012, Exploring the Meaning of Life: An Anthology and Guide , Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Smith, Q. (ed.), 2010, Special Issue: The Meaning of Life, The Monist , 93: 3–165.
  • Westphal, J. and Levenson, C. A. (eds.), 1993, Life and Death , Indianapolis: Hackett.
  • Baggini, J., 2004, What's It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life , London: Granta Books.
  • Belliotti, R., 2001, What Is the Meaning of Life? , Amsterdam: Rodopi.
  • Eagleton, T., 2007, The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction , Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Ford, D., 2007, The Search for Meaning: A Short History , Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Martin, M., 2002, Atheism, Morality, and Meaning , Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
  • Messerly, J., 2012, The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Approaches , Seattle: Darwin and Hume Publishers.
  • Young, J., 2003, The Death of God and the Meaning of Life , New York: Routledge.
How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up this entry topic at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.
  • Seachris, J., 2011, “ Meaning of Life: The Analytic Perspective ”, in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy , J. Fieser and B. Dowden (eds.)
  • Vohánka, V. and Vohánková, P., n.d., “ On Nihilism Driven by the Magnitude of the Universe ”.

afterlife | death | ethics: ancient | existentialism | friendship | love | perfectionism, in moral and political philosophy | value: intrinsic vs. extrinsic | well-being

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In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Meaning of Life

Introduction, introductory works.

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The Meaning of Life by Thaddeus Metz LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2010 LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0070

For millennia, thinkers have addressed the question of what, if anything, makes a life meaningful in some form or other. This article concentrates nearly exclusively on approaches to the question taken by analytic philosophers in the postwar era, by and large omitting reference to prewar Anglo-American works, texts from other traditions such as Continental or African philosophy, and writings from nonphilosophical but related fields such as religion and psychology. Much of the contemporary analytic discussion has sought to articulate and evaluate theories of meaning in life, i.e., general and fundamental principles of what all meaningful conditions have in common as distinct from meaningless ones. This entry accordingly focuses largely on these theories, which are distinguished according to the kind of property that is held to constitute meaning in life (see Supernaturalism , Naturalism , and Non-Naturalism ).

These texts are more introductory or have been written in a way that would likely be accessible to those not thoroughly trained in analytic philosophy. Baggini 2004 and Eagleton 2007 are pitched at a very wide, popular audience; Thomson 2003 and Belshaw 2005 would be best for undergraduate philosophy majors; and Belliotti 2001 , Martin 2002 , and Cottingham 2003 are probably most apt for those with some kind of university education or other intellectual development, not necessarily in Anglo-American philosophy.

Baggini, Julian. What’s It All About? Philosophy and the Meaning of Life . London: Granta, 2004.

Defends the view that meaning in life is largely a function of love; addresses approaches or maxims (e.g., Carpe diem ) more than it does principles.

Belliotti, Raymond Angelo. What Is the Meaning of Human Life? Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.

A thoughtful treatment of a variety of issues; defends an objective naturalist approach to meaning in the context of critical discussion of classic thinkers such as Aristotle, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer.

Belshaw, Christopher. Ten Good Questions about Life and Death . Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

Engagingly written, analytic treatments of several key “life and death” issues, many of which bear on meaningfulness, which the author cashes out objectively in terms of relationships and projects.

Cottingham, John. On the Meaning of Life . Thinking in Action. London: Routledge, 2003.

An elegantly written book that defends an Aristotelian, God-based (but not soul-based) approach to meaning in life.

Eagleton, Terry. The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

A light and lively essay on a variety of facets of the question of life’s meaning, often addressing linguistic and literary themes. Rejects subjective or “postmodern” approaches to meaning in favor of a need for harmonious or loving relationships.

Martin, Michael. Atheism, Morality, and Meaning . Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2002.

A vigorous defense of a naturalist approach to morality, in the first half of the book, and to meaning, in the second. Very critical of Christian approaches to both.

Thomson, Garrett. On the Meaning of Life . London: Thompson/Wadsworth, 2003.

Argues that nine common views on meaning in life (e.g., that an infinite being is necessary for meaning or that meaning is exhausted by happiness) are flawed. Emphasizes that meaning must reside largely in activities we engage in, lest our lives be reduced to “tools” for the sake of ends beyond us.

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What is life, the following answers to this fundamental question each win a random book..

Life is the aspect of existence that processes, acts, reacts, evaluates, and evolves through growth (reproduction and metabolism). The crucial difference between life and non-life (or non-living things) is that life uses energy for physical and conscious development. Life is anything that grows and eventually dies, i.e., ceases to proliferate and be cognizant. Can we say that viruses, for example, are cognizant? Yes, insofar as they react to stimuli; but they are alive essentially because they reproduce and grow. Computers are non-living because even though they can cognize, they do not develop biologically (grow), and cannot produce offspring. It is not cognition that determines life, then: it is rather proliferation and maturation towards a state of death; and death occurs only to living substances.

Or is the question, ‘What is the meaning (purpose) of life?’ That’s a real tough one. But I think that the meaning of life is the ideals we impose upon it, what we demand of it. I’ve come to reaffirm my Boy Scout motto, give or take a few words, that the meaning of life is to: Do good, Be Good, but also to Receive Good. The foggy term in this advice, of course, is ‘good’; but I leave that to the intuitive powers that we all share.

There are, of course, many intuitively clear examples of Doing Good: by retrieving a crying baby from a dumpster; by trying to rescue someone who’s drowning. Most of us would avoid murdering; and most of us would refrain from other acts we find intuitively wrong. So our natural intuitions determine the meaning of life for us; and it seems for other species as well, for those intuitions resonate through much of life and give it its purpose.

Tom Baranski, Somerset, New Jersey

The ceramic artist Edmund de Waal places an object in front of him and begins to tell a story. Even if the patina, chips and signs of repair of the inanimate object hint at its history, the story is told by a living observer. A living thing is an object that contains its story within itself. Life’s story is held in the genome, based in DNA. Maybe other ways for memorising the story may be discovered, but in environments subject to common chemical processes, common methods are likely to emerge.

Although we have only the example of the Earth, it shows that life will evolve to fill every usable niche, and to secure and further diversify those niches. This should not be thought of as purposeful. Life embodies a ‘plan’, but one that does not specify ends, only methods acquired iteratively. Inanimate processes can be cyclic but not iterative: they do not learn from past mistakes.

Life exists at many levels. Life is also a process through which energy and materials are transformed; but so is non-life. The difference is that the process of life is intimately linked to story it contains, whereas non-life is indifferent to the story we impose upon it. Yet life is only a story, so it can act only through matter. Therefore life is by nature a toolmaker. Its tools are potentially everything that exists, and its workshop is potentially the whole universe. So why do humans risk undermining the life of which they are part? Because they try to impose upon it a story of their own making. Yet humans, the ‘tool-making animals’, are themselves tools of life, in an unplanned experiment.

Nicholas Taylor, Little Sandhurst, Berkshire

First the technical definition. Life is self-organising chemistry which reproduces itself and passes on its evolved characteristics, encoded in DNA. In thermodynamics terms, it has the ability to reduce local entropy or disorganisation, thus locally contravening the third law of thermodynamics.

But what is life really about , if anything? The two possibilities are, life is either a meaningless accident arising from the laws of physics operating in a meaningless universe, or it is a step in a planned ‘experiment’. I say ‘step’, because this cannot be the end. The current state of life is as yet too unstable and undeveloped for it to be the end. And I say ‘experiment’ because the evolutionary nature of life suggests that its future is not known. If therefore the universe itself has a purpose, it seems most likely to be to explore what the outcome of the evolutionary experiment would be.

But what will be the outcome? If, as many physicists now believe, the universe is only information, then harnessing all the resources of the universe in one giant evolutionary process could plausibly provide a useful outcome for a species clever enough to create the universe in the first place. On this interpretation, life will ultimately organise all the physical resources of the universe into a single self-conscious intelligence, which in turn will then be able to interact with its creator(s).

Dr Harry Fuchs, Flecknoe, Warwickshire

Life is the embodiment of selfishness! Life is selfish because it is for itself in two ways: it is for its own survival, and it is for its own reproduction. This desire is embodied in an adaptive autocatalytic chemical system, forming life’s embodied mind.

Anything that is not itself is the other; and the collection of others constitute its environment. The organism must destructively use the other to satisfy its reproductive desire, but on achieving this, it produces an additional other – but now one that also embodies its own selfish aim and the means to satisfy this aim. Therefore, even by an organism satisfying its desire, it makes the continuing satisfaction of its desires ever more difficult to achieve. A partial solution to this dilemma is for genetically-related entities to form a cooperating society.

The underlying mechanism of evolution is therefore the iteration of the embodied desire within an ever more complex competitive and social environment. Over vast numbers of iterations, this process forces some life-forms along a pathway that solves the desire for survival and reproduction by developing ever more complex and adaptable minds. This is achieved by supplementing their underlying cellular embodied chemistry with a specialist organ (although still based on chemistry) that we call its brain, able to rapidly process electrical signals. Advanced minds can collect and process vast inputs of data by ‘projecting’ the derived output back onto its environmental source, that is by acting. However advanced it might be, an organism is still driven by the same basic needs for survival and reproduction. The creative process, however, leads the organism towards an increasingly aesthetic experience of the world. This is why for us the world we experience is both rich and beautiful.

Dr Steve Brewer, St Ives, Cornwall

In our scientific age, we look to the biologists to define ‘life’ for us. After all, it is their subject matter. I believe they have yet to reach consensus, but a biological definition would be something like, ‘Life is an arrangement of molecules with qualities of self-sustenance and self-replication’. This kind of definition might serve the purposes of biologists, but for me, it has five deficiencies. First, any definition of life by biologists would have little utility outside biology because of its necessary inclusiveness. We humans would find ourselves in a class of beings that included the amoeba. ‘Life’ would be the limited common properties of all organisms, including the lowest. Second, the scientific definition of life is necessarily an external one. I think that knowing what life is, as opposed to defining it, requires knowing it from within. Non-sentient organisms live, but they do not know life. Third, in the scientific definition, there is no place for life having value. However, many would say that life has value in its own right – that it is not simply that we humans value life and so give it value, but that it has value intrinsically. Fourth, there is the question of life as a whole having a purpose or goal. This notion is not scientific, but one wonders if the tools of science are fit to detect any evolutionary purpose, if there is one. Fifth, for the scientists, life is a set of biological conditions and processes. However, everywhere and always, people have conceived of a life after biological death, a life of spirit not necessarily dependent on the physical for existence.

The scientific definition of life is valid in its context, but otherwise I find it impoverished. I believe there is a hierarchy of living beings from the non-sentient, to the sentient, to humans, and perhaps up to God. When I ask, ‘What is life? I want to know what life is at its highest form. I believe life at its best is spirit: it is active, sentient, feeling, thinking, purposive, valuing, social, other-respecting, relating, and caring.

John Talley, Rutherfordton, NC

I listen enthralled to scientific debate on what, how, when and where life was created. However, questions remain which may never be resolved. In this vacuum, philosophers and religious thinkers have attempted to give meaning to life by suggesting goals: Plato suggested the acquisition of knowledge, Aristotle to practice virtue, and the Stoics, mental fortitude and self-control. Today’s philosophers echo the existentialist view that life is full of absurdity, although they also tell us that we must put meaning into life by making our own values in an indifferent world. But if life is just a journey from womb to tomb, will such ‘meaning’ be sufficient to allow the traveller at journey’s end to feel that it was worthwhile?

Perhaps the hypothesis upon which Ivan Tyrrell and Joe Griffin have based their therapy could help (see Human Givens , 2003). They describe that we are born with evolved needs that seek satisfaction from our environment. These are physical and emotional needs, which, when enough of them are met, ensure the health of the individual, maximising his or her ability to achieve meaning in life. Griffin and Tyrrell have proven empirically that when sufficient needs are met an individual will enjoy mental and physical health, unless there is damage or toxicity in the environment. Some of these needs were identified by Maslow in his ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ in his 1943 paper ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, Psychological Review , 50 (4), but Griffin and Tyrrell focus more clearly on emotional needs such as:

• To achieve, and to feel competent

• To fulfil our sense of autonomy and control

• To be emotionally connected to other people and part of a larger community

• To have a sense of status within social groupings

• For privacy and rest, to reflect and consolidate learning

• And yes – to have meaning in one’s life

Meaning becomes difficult, if not impossible, to achieve if these needs are insufficiently satisfied. Unfortunately, modern society seeks meaning to life through materialism, to the detriment of our biological needs, leading to dissatisfaction and a consequent inability to find meaning. The result is an exponential increase in mental ill-health. Sadly, then, many of us will not experience the satisfaction of a meaningful life journey.

Caryl A. Fuchs, Flecknoe, Warwickshire

Life is the eternal and unbroken flow of infinite rippling simultaneous events that by a fortuitous chain has led to this universe of elements we are all suspended in, that has somehow led to this present experience of sentient existence. Animal life (excluding that of humans) shows that life is a simple matter of being, by means of a modest routine of eating, sleeping and reproducing. Animals balance their days between these necessities, doing only what their bodies ask of them. The life of vegetation is not far from that of animals. They eat and sleep and reproduce in their own way, for the same result. So life is a beautiful and naturally harmonious borrowing of energy.

Yet we have taken it for granted. We have lost the power to simply be happy eating, sleeping, reproducing, believing we need a reason to be alive, a purpose and a goal to reach, so that on our deathbeds (something we have been made to fear) we can look back and tell ourselves we have done something with our lives. Life has lost its purpose because we have tried to give it one. The truth is that we are no more significant than the sand by the sea or the clouds in the sky. No more significant. But as significant.

No matter what your race, religion or gender, when you first step outside your door in the morning and feel the fresh air in your lungs and the morning sun on your face, you close your eyes and smile. In that moment you are feeling life as it should be. No defining, no understanding, no thinking. Just that feeling of pure bliss. For that is what life is.

Courtney Walsh, Farnborough, Hampshire

Of all Webster’s definitions of ‘life’, the one for me that best covers it is, “the sequence of physical and mental experiences that make up the existence of an individual.” Indeed, life is a continuum of accomplishment, failure, discovery, dilemma, challenge, boredom, sadness, disappointment, appreciation, the giving and receipt of grace, empathy, peace, and our reactions to all sorts of stimuli – touch, love, friendship, loss… One can either merely exist or try to achieve, working through the difficult times, perhaps learning a thing or two. Everyone has a story. I’ve been surprised when learning something new about an acquaintance or friend that must have been very difficult to manage or survive; but there they are in front of me. It’s how you come out on the other side of those challenging times that is important. How you land, get on with it, and keep on truckin’.

Life cannot be planned: there’s fate, and there’s simple bad luck. Failure can bring crushing disappointment, or you can try and make a new plan. A person can waste an inordinate amount of time mourning what they don’t have, or plans that don’t work out. But who wants to waste that much time regretting?

Life has happy surprises, small moments to cherish. It’s a matter of weighing the good and bad times – the challenge is to balance both, ending up with a life looked back on that was worth the mighty effort. I’m not meaning to sound like a Pollyanna – I assure you I’m not – it’s just more pleasant to strive for a modicum of equilibrium. If I can manage that, I’m good.

Cheryl Anderson, Kenilworth, Illinois

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.” ( Macbeth , Act V, Scene V)

These words of Shakespeare’s Macbeth summarize interesting ideas about the nature of life. The first line expresses two of the three marks of existence as per Buddhist thinking, Anicca , impermanence, and Anatta , non-self: a “walking shadow” is as insubstantial and impermanent as anything imaginable; a “poor player” neither creates nor directs his role, and the character being played only exists because of an author. Macbeth’s entire statement, particularly the last sentence, expresses the third Buddhist mark of existence: Dukkha , dissatisfaction.

The stage metaphor in the second line represents boundaries or limits. Scientific research into the nature of life often focuses on the material, energetic, and temporal limitations within which life can exist. The temporal limit of life is known as death. In the spirit of this interpretation, the idea of being “heard no more” could imply that life constantly evolves new forms while discarding older ones.

Macbeth hints at the wisdom of mystery traditions while anticipating the revelations of genetic science by stating that life “is a tale”. Now, this refers to the language-based, or code-based, nature of life. Readers may consider this in relation to DNA and RNA, and also in relation to John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (The implications of the phrase “told by an idiot” exceed the scope of this inquiry.)

In five concise and poetic lines, Shakespeare defined life as an impermanent, non-self-directed, unsatisfactory, limited, ever-changing, and ultimately insignificant code.

Devon Hall, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Life is the realisation of its own contingency. But that’s not the end of it; it’s merely the means towards the creation of meaning. Life is thus a constant process of becoming, through creating values and meaning. Life is therefore perpetual transcendence, always moving into the future, creating the present. Life is also acceptance: the acceptance of finitude; acceptance of one’s responsibilities; acceptance of other human beings’ existence and choices. Life is neither fixed nor absolute, it is ambiguous; life is the possibilities entailed by existence. Life is the consciousness of humanity; it is perception of the world and the universe. So life is sadness; life is death. Life is suffering and destruction. But life is also happiness; life is living. Life is joy and creativity. Life is finding a cause to survive, a reason not to die – not yet. It is youth and old age, with everything in between. Overall, life is beautiful – ugliness is fleeting. Corpses and skeletons are lugubrious; living flesh is resplendent, all bodies are statuesque. Human life is love and hate, but it can only be life when we are with others. Life as fear and hatred is not real life at all. For some, life is God. We would all then be His children. We are nevertheless the spawn of the Earth.

Human existence is freedom – an edifice of plurality.

Greg Chatterton, Cupar, Fife

If the ancients could do philosophy in the marketplace, maybe I can too. So I employed some modern technology by texting the question ‘What is Life?’ to all my contacts. I didn’t explain the context of the question, to avoid lyrical waxing. Here are a sample of replies. Life is: being conscious of yourself and others; a being with a soul; experience; what you make it; your chance to be a success; family; living as long as you can; not being dead; greater than the sum of its parts; complex chemical organisation; different things to different people; a mystery; a journey; don’t know; a quote from a song, “baby don’t hurt me”; life begins after death. I asked a regular in my favourite café. They said, “man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” A person suffering from a degenerative disease answered: “life is sh** then you die.” Another with the same illness interviewed in our local newspaper said, “My life is a mission to help other sufferers.” A colleague said “some would want to shoot themselves if they had my life, but I’m happy.” I posed the question at my art club and we did no painting that day…

I was surprised to find that I had no immediate definition of life myself (hence the idea to ask) and that there is no consensus (only one reply was repeated), but then, that also is life.

I sometimes catch myself considering life when I arrive at the turning point on my evening walk. It’s a dark spot which makes stargazing easier, and the heavens are a good place to start, since life as we know it began there (the heavier atoms like carbon which make up our bodies initially formed in dying Red Giant stars). This makes me feel two things about my life: it’s a dot because the cosmos is immense; but it’s an important dot in the cosmos because I can consider it.

Kristine Kerr, Gourock, Renfrewshire

Next Question of the Month

Now we know what life is, the next question is, How Should I Live? Please give and justify your ethical advice in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines or envelopes should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 9th June. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address. Submission implies permission to reproduce your answer physically and electronically. Thank you.

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The Oxford Handbook of Meaning in Life

The Oxford Handbook of Meaning in Life

The Oxford Handbook of Meaning in Life

Iddo Landau is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Haifa, Israel. His publications include ‘The Meaning of Life sub specie aeternitatis ’ ( Australasian Journal of Philosophy , 2011) and Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World (Oxford University Press, 2017).

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This volume presents thirty-two essays on a wide array of topics in modern philosophical meaning in life research. The essays are organized into six parts. Part I, Understanding Meaning in Life, focuses on various ways of conceptualizing meaning in life. Among other issues, it discusses whether meaning in life should be understood objectively or subjectively, the relation between importance and meaningfulness, and whether meaningful lives should be understood narratively. Part II, Meaning in Life, Science, and Metaphysics, presents opposing views on whether neuroscience sheds light on life’s meaning, inquires whether hard determinists must see life as meaningless, and explores the relation between time, personal identity, and meaning. Part III, Meaning in Life and Religion, examines the relation between meaningfulness, mysticism, and transcendence, and considers life’s meaning from both atheist and theist perspectives. Part IV, Ethics and Meaning in Life, examines (among other issues) whether meaningful lives must be moral, how important forgiveness is for meaning, the relation between life’s meaningfulness (or meaninglessness) and procreation ethics, and whether animals have meaningful lives. Part V, Philosophical Psychology and Meaning in Life, compares philosophical and psychological research on life’s meaning, explores the experience of meaningfulness, and discusses the relation between meaningfulness and desire, love, and gratitude. Part VI, Living Meaningfully: Challenges and Prospects, elaborates on topics such as suicide, suffering, education, optimism and pessimism, and their relation to life’s meaning.

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1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology

1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology

Philosophy, One Thousand Words at a Time

Meaning in Life: What Makes Our Lives Meaningful?

Author: Matthew Pianalto Category: Ethics ,   Phenomenology and Existentialism ,   Philosophy of Religion Word Count: 997

Editors’ note: this essay and its companion essay, The Meaning of Life: What’s the Point? both explore the concept of meaning in relation to human life. This essay focuses on meaning in individual human lives, whereas the other addresses the meaning of life as a whole.

Imagine becoming so fed up with your job and home life that you decide to give it all up. Now you spend your days lounging on a beach.

One day, your friend Alex finds you on the beach and questions your new lifestyle: “You’re wasting your life!” says Alex. You tell Alex that you were unhappy and explain that you are much happier now.

However, Alex responds: “There’s more to life than happiness. You aren’t doing anything meaningful with your life!” [1]

But what is a meaningful life?

Here we will review some influential answers to this question.

A group of people doing yoga on a beach, at sunset.

1. Cosmic Pessimism vs. Everyday Meaning

Pessimists might say that life has no ultimate or cosmic meaning and thus that a beach bum’s life is no more or less meaningful—in the grand scheme of things—than the lives of Beethoven, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Marie Curie. [2]

However, many philosophers argue that even if there is no ultimate meaning of life, there can be meaning in life. Our lives can be meaningful in ordinary ways, ways that don’t require that we play a special role in some kind of grand cosmic narrative. Call this everyday meaning . [3] What might give our lives this kind of meaning?

2. Subjectivism

Subjectivists say that someone’s life is meaningful if it is deeply fulfilling, engaging, or satisfying. [4] And different people find different things meaningful; a challenging career might be engaging and fulfilling for others, but boring and unsatisfying to you: you may find life on a beach much more fulfilling.

Some subjectivists distinguish between the judgment that one is fulfilled and actually being fulfilled. Fulfillment feels good, but it seems possible to be mistaken about whether we are fulfilled. Perhaps, as you lounge on the beach, you confuse being merely content with fulfillment. [5] If you tried other things like writing poetry, volunteering, or starting a business, they might end up being more fulfilling, and hence more meaningful for you. [6]

Subjectivism, however, has counterintuitive implications. Suppose someone found it fulfilling to spend all their time gazing at the sand. This may seem too bizarre, aimless, or trivial to credit as meaningful. And what if someone found meaning in ethically monstrous activities, like torturing babies or puppies? Vicious projects like these don’t seem to add positive meaning to someone’s life. [7]

Someone would have to be a rather atypical sort of human being to be truly fulfilled by sand-gazing or puppy-torturing. Could such strange lives count as meaningful? Subjectivists may say yes, but many would reject that answer and conclude that subjectivism is false.

3. Objective Meaning

Objective accounts hold that meaningful lives involve projects of positive value, such as improving our character, exercising our creativity, and making the world a better place by pursuing and promoting truth, justice, and beauty. [8]

Being a beach bum doesn’t really make the world worse , but it doesn’t make much of a positive contribution either. Your friend Alex is concerned that you are squandering your potential and thereby failing to make something meaningful of your life.

However, your decision to become a beach bum could be a way of rebelling against the “rat race” of a workaholic and overly competitive society. Perhaps you are choosing to cultivate a life of mindfulness and aesthetic contemplation of natural beauty, in protest against superficial or soul-crushing social norms. Framed that way, your life seems to align with important, enduring, objective values.

Objective accounts of meaning, however, must explain why some activities are objectively more meaningful than others.

The difficulty is that what seems frivolous or pointless from one point of view may seem valuable and worthwhile from another. For some, climbing Mount Everest might count as an admirable exercise of physical and mental endurance, an inspiring achievement. Others may think it is stupid to climb big rocks, risking death and wasting resources that could be directed toward other more valuable causes.

But perhaps such people are just being narrow-minded. The meaningfulness of being a beach bum, a mountain-climber, or anything else might depend on our motives or options and not just on what the activity involves. [9]

4. Hybrid Theory

The hybrid theory of meaning in life combines insights from subjectivism and objective accounts: a meaningful life provides fulfillment and does so through devotion to objectively valuable projects. [10]

Hybrid theory differs from objective accounts because it insists that a meaningful life must also be fulfilling for the person living it. There are many such projects available to us, since there are many fulfilling ways, given our distinctive personalities and abilities, that we can engage with values like truth, justice, and beauty.

However, just as a subjectively fulfilling life might seem trivial or despicable, perhaps a meaningful life doesn’t always feel fulfilling. [11]

Consider George Bailey in the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life . [12] George thinks his life has been wasted and wishes that he’d never been born. Luckily, his guardian angel Clarence rescues George from a suicide attempt and helps George understand how meaningful his life choices have been. Hybrid theory implies that George’s life now becomes meaningful because he is finally fulfilled by all his good works, but objective accounts suggest that George’s life was meaningful all along even though he didn’t realize it! [13]

Recall the opening scenario: did you ditch a meaningful (but sometimes frustrating) life for the beach?

5. Conclusion

The psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl held that the search for meaning is the fundamental human drive. [14] He claimed that a sense of meaning in life gives people the strength to persevere and even thrive despite the adversity and injustice we must sometimes confront. [15]

Questions about meaning in life often arise when we suspect that something is missing from our lives. Despite their differences, the theories surveyed above seem to agree that there are many things we might do—or try—that would be meaningful. Talking about it with your friend Alex may be a good place to start. [16] Why? Because good relationships frequently rank as important sources of meaning: perhaps meaning is often made—or discovered—together.

[1] Emily Esfahani Smith (2017) uses this distinction between happiness and meaning in life in her survey of psychological research on meaning in life. See also her TED Talk, “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.”

[2] See, e.g., Benatar (2017) and Weinberg (2021) for defenses of the pessimistic outlook. At least one theist agrees with the pessimists that if life has no divine meaning or purpose, then nothing we do or become has any lasting significance and that our lives are all equally absurd: see Craig (2013).

[3] Many philosophers who propose theories of meaning in life are either agnostic or skeptical of the idea that life as a whole has any divine meaning or purpose. See, e.g., Wolf (2010). Of course, if one does think life as a whole has divine meaning or purpose, then having meaning in one’s life might well involve living in accord with the supernatural point of existence. Some of the accounts of meaning in life are consistent with religious ideas about the meaning of life; I leave it as an exercise to the reader to work out which views will or will not cohere with their own religious convictions.

[4] This idea is developed in the final chapter of Taylor (2000).

[5] John Stuart Mill issues a similar warning against conflating happiness and contentment in Utilitarianism , Chapter 2.

[6] This point is developed in more sophisticated subjectivist accounts of meaning in life. See, e.g. Calhoun (2015) and Parmer (2021).

[7] See Campbell and Nyholm (2015) or their contribution in Landau (2022) for discussion of “anti-meaning”: activities, projects, and lives that have negative and destructive significance.

[8] See Metz (2013) for discussion of several different accounts of this sort; Metz defends his own version in the final chapter. On creativity, see Taylor (1987) and Matheson (2018).

[9] Examples like the beach bum are often under-described–including in this essay! It is worth taking such examples and considering variations of intentions, motives, circumstances, and so forth in order to consider how changes in these various elements may alter our assessment of the meaningfulness of the life or activity. Whole lives are usually, if not always, more complex than these brief examples. Philosophers who endorse narrative theories of meaning in life would suggest that the focus on particular activities and roles fails to consider that a meaningful life might also need to make holistic sense as a meaningful story. See Kauppinen (2012).

[10] The term “project” here includes not just completable activities like painting a picture but also open-ended activities such as maintaining strong relationships with friends and family. This approach is developed by Susan Wolf in Meaning in Life and Why It Matters , and in three essays collected in Wolf (2014): see the essays in Part II: “The Meanings of Lives,” “Happiness and Meaning: Two Aspects of the Good Life,” and “Happiness and Morality.” The text of Meaning in Life and Why It Matters is available at the Tanner Lectures website. See the print edition for excellent commentaries on Wolf’s position and a response by Wolf. A similar view is developed by Peter Singer in How Are We to Live? (1993), Chapter 10.

[11] Another potential problem is that while hybrid theory aims to take the attractive features of subjective fulfillment and objective accounts of meaning in life, it inherits the possible problems with both views, too. Furthermore, if subjective and objective accounts contradict each other, hybrid theory might be inconsistent.

[12] This point is developed, using the example of George Bailey, in Smuts (2013).

[13] For a similar study in a life that seems very meaningful from the outside (a successful career, prosperity, and a happy family), but is wracked by unhappiness, existential dread, and moral guilt within, see Leo Tolstoy’s My Confession (2005). Tolstoy’s crisis of meaning is often discussed in the literature on meaning in life, both for the gripping way in which he describes his fear of death and his feeling that life is meaningless, and for his discussion of the solution to the problem to be found in religious faith.

[14] Frankl (2006).

[15] Of course, this does not justify the actions of those who have put others in despicable situations. For Frankl, the point is about motivation rather than justification. Revolting against oppressors, for example, may be a highly meaningful project for those who are oppressed. See also Camus (2018).

[16] On relationships and other sources of meaning in life, see Smith (2017). Further recommended reading: Landau (2017), Landau (2022), and Singer (2009). For discussion of how ordinary “folk” intuitions about meaning relate to various philosophical theories of meaning in life, see Fuhrer and Cova (2022).

Benatar, David (2017). The Human Predicament . Oxford University Press.

Calhoun, Cheshire (2015). “Geographies of Meaningful Living,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 32(1): 15-34.

Campbell, Stephen M. and Sven Nyholm (2015). “Anti-Meaning and Why It Matters,” Journal of the American Philosophical Association 1(4): 694-711.

Camus, Albert (2018). The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays . Trans. Justin O’Brien. Vintage.

Craig, William Lane (2013). “The Absurdity of Life Without God.” In: Jason Seachris, ed. Exploring the Meaning of Life . Wiley-Blackwell: 153-172.

Frankl, Viktor E. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning . Beacon Press. Originally published in 1946.

Fuhrer, Joffrey and Florian Cova (2022). “What makes a life meaningful? Folk intuitions about the content and shape of meaningful lives,” Philosophical Psychology.

Kauppinen, Antti (2012). “Meaningfulness and Time,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 84(2): 345-377.

Landau, Iddo (2017). Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World . Oxford University Press.

Landau, Iddo (2022). The Oxford Handbook of Meaning in Life . Oxford University Press.

Metz, Thaddeus (2013). Meaning in Life . Oxford University Press

Mill, John Stuart (1863). Utilitarianism .

Parmer, W. Jared (2021). “Meaning in Life and Becoming More Fulfilled,” Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 20(1): 1-29.

Singer, Irving (2009). Meaning in Life, Vol. 1: The Creation of Value . MIT Press.

Singer, Peter (1993). How Are We to Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest . Prometheus.

Smith, Emily E. (2017). The Power of Meaning . Crown.

Smith, Emily E. (2017). “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.”

Smuts, Aaron (2013). “The Good Cause Account of the Meaning of Life,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 41(4): 536-562.

Taylor, Richard (2000). Good and Evil . Prometheus. Originally published in 1970.

Taylor, Richard (1987). “Time and Life’s Meaning,” The Review of Metaphysics 40(4): 675-686.

Tolstoy, Leo (2005). My Confession . Translated by Aylmer Maude. Originally published in Russian in 1882.

Weinberg, Rivka (2021).  “Ultimate Meaning: We Don’t Have It, We Can’t Get It, and We Should Be Very, Very Sad,” Journal of Controversial Ideas 1(1), 4.

Wolf, Susan (2010). Meaning in Life and Why It Matters . Princeton University Press. ( Wolf’s lecture is also available at the Tanner Lecture Series website ).

— (2014). The Variety of Values . Oxford University Press.

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Matthew Pianalto is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University. He is the author of On Patience (2016) and numerous articles and book chapters on ethics.

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Essays About Life: Top 5 Examples Plus 7 Prompts

Life envelops various meanings; if you are writing essays about life, discover our comprehensive guide with examples and prompts to help you with your essay.

What is life? You can ask anyone; I assure you, no two people will have the same answer. How we define life relies on our beliefs and priorities. One can say that life is the capacity for growth or the time between birth and death. Others can share that life is the constant pursuit of purpose and fulfillment. Life is a broad topic that inspires scholars, poets, and many others. It stimulates discussions that encourage diverse perspectives and interpretations. 

5 Essay Examples

1. essay on life by anonymous on, 2. the theme of life, existence and consciousness by anonymous on, 3. compassion can save life by anonymous on, 4. a life of consumption vs. a life of self-realization by anonymous on, 5. you only live once: a motto for life by anonymous on, 1. what is the true meaning of life, 2. my life purpose, 3. what makes life special, 4. how to appreciate life, 5. books about life, 6. how to live a healthy life, 7. my idea of a perfect life.

“…quality of Life carries huge importance. Above all, the ultimate purpose should be to live a meaningful life. A meaningful life is one which allows us to connect with our deeper self.”

The author defines life as something that differentiates man from inorganic matter. It’s an aspect that processes and examines a person’s actions that develop through growth. For some, life is a pain because of failures and struggles, but it’s temporary. For the writer, life’s challenges help us move forward, be strong, and live to the fullest. You can also check out these essays about utopia .

“… Kafka defines the dangers of depending on art for life. The hunger artist expresses his dissatisfaction with the world by using himself and not an external canvas to create his artwork, forcing a lack of separation between the artist and his art. Therefore, instead of the art depending on the audience, the artist depends on the audience, meaning when the audience’s appreciation for work dwindles, their appreciation for the artist diminishes as well, leading to the hunger artist’s death.”

The essay talks about “ A Hunger Artist ” by Franz Kafka, who describes his views on life through art. The author analyzes Kafka’s fictional main character and his anxieties and frustrations about life and the world. This perception shows how much he suffered as an artist and how unhappy he was. Through the essay, the writer effectively explains Kafka’s conclusion that artists’ survival should not depend on their art.

“Compassion is that feeling that we’ve all experienced at some point in our lives. When we know that there is someone that really cares for us. Compassion comes from that moment when we can see the world through another person’s eyes.”

The author is a nurse who believes that to be professional, they need to be compassionate and treat their patients with respect, empathy, and dignity. One can show compassion through small actions such as talking and listening to patients’ grievances. In conclusion, compassion can save a person’s life by accepting everyone regardless of race, gender, etc.

“… A life of self-realization is more preferable and beneficial in comparison with a life on consumption. At the same time, this statement may be objected as person’s consumption leads to his or her happiness.”

The author examines Jon Elster’s theory to find out what makes a person happy and what people should think and feel about their material belongings. The essay mentions a list of common activities that make us feel happy and satisfied, such as buying new things. The writer explains that Elster’s statement about the prevalence of self-realization in consumption will always trigger intense debate.

“Appreciate the moment you’ve been given and appreciate the people you’ve been given to spend it with, because no matter how beautiful or tragic a moment is, it always ends. So hold on a little tighter, smile a little bigger, cry a little harder, laugh a little louder, forgive a little quicker, and love a whole lot deeper because these are the moments you will remember when you’re old and wishing you could rewind time.”

This essay explains that some things and events only happen once in a person’s life. The author encourages teenagers to enjoy the little things in their life and do what they love as much as they can. When they turn into adults, they will no longer have the luxury to do whatever they want.

The author suggests doing something meaningful as a stress reliever, trusting people, refusing to give up on the things that make you happy, and dying with beautiful memories. For help with your essays, check out our round-up of the best essay checkers .

7 Prompts for Essays About Life

Essays About Life: What is the true meaning of life?

Life encompasses many values and depends on one’s perception. For most, life is about reaching achievements to make themselves feel alive. Use this prompt to compile different meanings of life and provide a background on why a person defines life as they do.

Take Joseph Campbell’s, “Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning, and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer,” for example. This quote pertains to his belief that an individual is responsible for giving life meaning. 

For this prompt, share with your readers your current purpose in life. It can be as simple as helping your siblings graduate or something grand, such as changing a national law to make a better world. You can ask others about their life purpose to include in your essay and give your opinion on why your answers are different or similar.

Life is a fascinating subject, as each person has a unique concept. How someone lives depends on many factors, such as opportunities, upbringing, and philosophies. All of these elements affect what we consider “special.”

Share what you think makes life special. For instance, talk about your relationships, such as your close-knit family or best friends. Write about the times when you thought life was worth living. You might also be interested in these essays about yourself .

Life in itself is a gift. However, most of us follow a routine of “wake up, work (or study), sleep, repeat.” Our constant need to survive makes us take things for granted. When we endlessly repeat a routine, life becomes mundane. For this prompt, offer tips on how to avoid a monotonous life, such as keeping a gratitude journal or traveling.

Many literary pieces use life as their subject. If you have a favorite book about life, recommend it to your readers by summarizing the content and sharing how the book influenced your outlook on life. You can suggest more than one book and explain why everyone should read them.

For example, Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist” reminds its readers to live in the moment and never fear failure.

Essays About Life: How to live a healthy life?

To be healthy doesn’t only pertain to our physical condition. It also refers to our mental, spiritual, and emotional well-being. To live a happy and full life, individuals must strive to be healthy in all areas. For this prompt, list ways to achieve a healthy life. Section your essay and present activities to improve health, such as eating healthy foods, talking with friends, etc.

No one has a perfect life, but describe what it’ll be like if you do. Start with the material things, such as your house, clothes, etc. Then, move to how you connect with others. In your conclusion, answer whether you’re willing to exchange your current life for the “perfect life” you described and why.  See our essay writing tips to learn more!

essay on what is meaning of life

Maria Caballero is a freelance writer who has been writing since high school. She believes that to be a writer doesn't only refer to excellent syntax and semantics but also knowing how to weave words together to communicate to any reader effectively.

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The meaning of life is one of the fundamental questions of philosophy. But what are the presuppositions that frame this question? On the one hand, the very question “what is the meaning of life?” means that life poses us with a problem about its meaning. This is to say that even if we accept a nihilistic position and state that life has no meaning, there is still the appearance of this question of meaning within a meaningless existence. This ties into a second presupposition at stake in this question: what do we intend by the concept of meaning and what do we intend by the concept of life? It would seem that on an intuitive level, when we talk about life, we are talking about any living thing. But is a living thing only something material, or can we consider immaterial phenomena, such as souls, as also living? From another perspective, when we talk about the meaning of life, are we therefore talking about the meaning of all life, such as plants and animals, or are we just talking about human beings? Are we discussing a multitude of meanings, for example, a specific meaning for a plant and a specific meaning for a human being, or are we discussing a singular meaning to which we belong?

In order to provide an entrance-way into these questions, I would like to use this opening discussion to set the framework for my approach: I would like to use the scientific tool of Ockham’s razor to minimize the number of propositions. When we are talking about meaning, therefore, we are talking about a singular meaning for everything. To say that everyone has their own meaning, in other words, is a rejection of the concept of meaning, because it takes on so many possible definitions that the particularity of the concept loses its force. At the same time, when we use the term life, I would like to mention all forms of life, human, plant, animal, and even possible immaterial forms of life, such as the soul. In other words, the meaning of life is one of the big questions of philosophy and therefore should have a universal answer, precisely because the extent of this question itself is one that is universal: in other words, the very power of this question lies in its apparent universality. My meaning of life cannot be different from your meaning of life, in other words, for the question to not merely be trivial: we need to think about a common meaning for all life to avoid this problem of triviality.

The question of meaning is often related to purpose. Why are we here? There is a reason for this presupposed in the question. From one perspective, I would like to believe that there is a purpose and a meaning, precisely for the reason stated above: even if we accept a nihilistic world in which there is no meaning and there is no purpose, we still have to accept that the question of meaning and purpose exists. In other words, if life is meaningless, where does the question of the meaning of life even come from? Is it merely an error of our consciousness? Is it merely a linguistic mistake, an illusion? If we cannot explain how the question emerges against a meaningless backdrop of nihilism, I think then we have to assume that the meaningless backdrop is flawed, and we have to pursue the question of meaning itself.

If our concept of the question of meaning and purpose therefore infers a meaning or purpose because of the very possibility of asking the question, and, furthermore, if this question must be universal, considering the totality of life, for the question itself to have any meaning, we must look for equally universal answers to this question. Here, I believe that the concept of happiness can play an important role. Happiness, of course, is also a notoriously difficult term to define. But we can approach it from its negative element: there are people who are unhappy, who are suffering. Certainly, there may be also some people who think they are happy but are not – in this case, they may be happy because they live in an illusion. But if we accept that the meaning of life is the same for all, that it is universal, then we can also make the proposition that happiness is also universal – namely, if unhappiness exists in the world and the meaning of life is universal then life as a whole must be driven towards happiness as opposed to the happiness of individuals.

This helps elucidate a possible definition of the meaning and purpose of life. We accept that we all have the same purpose and meaning for this question itself to have any meaning. Therefore, the concept of meaning holds for us all. Happiness is something desired, but not possessed by all. Accordingly, the meaning of life would be the movement to this universal happiness, the happiness of the creation as a whole. This is not an absurd idea and finds analogues in religious and secular thought. For example, in Christian philosophy as well as Islamic philosophy, we find the idea of the resurrection of the world and the justice for all. In Marxist philosophy, we find the common task of eliminating inequality in the world to create a happiness for all. In other words, our meaning of life is a process, a type of goal that we move towards that must be universal in its scope, since it addresses the fate of the universe as such and an attempt to improve life in all its forms.

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Neel Burton M.D.

What Is the Meaning of Life?

The meaning of life is that which we choose to give it..

Posted March 3, 2018 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina

  • Reliance on an eternal afterlife only postpones the question of life’s purpose.
  • Human life may not have been created with any pre-determined purpose, but this need not mean that it cannot have a purpose.
  • Even in the most absurd, painful, and dispiriting of circumstances, life can still be given a meaning, and so too can suffering.

[Article revised on 21 October 2022.]


The question of the meaning of life is perhaps one that we would rather not ask, for fear of the answer or lack thereof.

Still today, many people believe that we, humankind, are the creation of a supernatural entity called God, that God had an intelligent purpose in creating us, and that this intelligent purpose is "the meaning of life".

I do not propose to rehearse the well-worn arguments for and against the existence of God, and still less to take a side. But even if God exists, and even if He had an intelligent purpose in creating us, no one really knows what this purpose might be, or that it is especially meaningful.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the entropy of a closed system—including the universe itself—increases up to the point at which equilibrium is reached, and God’s purpose in creating us, and, indeed, all of nature, might have been no more lofty than to catalyse this process much as soil organisms catalyse the decomposition of organic matter.

If our God-given purpose is to act as super-efficient heat dissipators, then having no purpose at all is better than having this sort of purpose—because it frees us to be the authors of our purpose or purposes and so to lead truly dignified and meaningful lives.

In fact, following this logic, having no purpose at all is better than having any kind of pre-determined purpose, even more traditional, uplifting ones such as serving God or improving our karma.

In short, even if God exists, and even if He had an intelligent purpose in creating us (and why should He have had?), we do not know what this purpose might be, and, whatever it might be, we would rather be able to do without it, or at least to ignore or discount it. For 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.

You or others might object that not to have a pre-determined purpose is, really, not to have any purpose at all. But this is to believe that for something to have a purpose, it must have been created with that particular purpose in mind, and, moreover, must still be serving that same original purpose.

Many Junes ago, I visited the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the South of France. One evening, I picked up a rounded stone called a galet which I took back to Oxford and put to good use as a book-end.

In the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, these stones serve to capture the heat of the sun and release it back into the cool of the night, helping the grapes to ripen. Of course, these stones were not created with this or any other purpose in mind. Even if they had been created for a purpose, it would almost certainly not have been to make great wine or serve as bookends.

That same evening over supper, I got my friends to blind taste a bottle of Bordeaux—an evil trick, given that we were in the Rhône. To disguise the bottle, I slipped it into one of a pair of socks. Unlike the galet, the sock had been created with a clear purpose in mind, albeit one very different from (although not strictly incompatible with) the one that it came to assume on that joyful evening.

You might yet object that talk about the meaning of life is neither here nor there because life is merely a prelude to some form of eternal afterlife, and this, if you will, is its purpose.

But I can marshal up at least four arguments against this position:

  • It is not at all clear that there is, or even can be, some form of eternal afterlife that entails the survival of the personal ego.
  • Even if there were such an afterlife, living forever is not in itself a purpose. The concept of the afterlife merely displaces the problem to one remove, begging the question: What then is the purpose of the afterlife? If the afterlife has a pre-determined purpose, again, we do not know what that is, and, whatever it is, we would rather be able to do without it.

Reliance on an eternal afterlife not only postpones the question of life’s purpose but also dissuades or at least discourages us from determining a purpose or purposes for what may be the only life that we do have.

If it is the brevity or finiteness of human life that gives it shape and purpose (an argument associated with the philosopher Bernard Williams), then an eternal afterlife cannot, in and of itself, have any purpose.

So, whether or not God exists, whether or not He gave us a purpose, and whether or not there is an eternal afterlife, we are better off creating our own purpose or purposes.

To put this in Sartrean (or existentialist) terms, whereas for the galet it is true only that existence precedes essence, for the sock it is true both that essence precedes existence (when the sock is used on a human foot) and that existence precedes essence (when the sock is used for an unintended purpose, for example, as a bottle sleeve). We human beings are either like the rock or the sock, but whichever we are like, we are better off creating our own purpose or purposes.

essay on what is meaning of life

Plato once defined man as an animal, biped, featherless, and with broad nails (thereby excluding plucked chickens); but another, much better definition that he gave was simply this: "A being in search of meaning."

Human life may not have been created with any pre-determined purpose, but this need not mean that it cannot have a purpose, or that this purpose cannot be just as good as, if not much better than, any pre-determined one.

And so the meaning of life, of our life, is that which we choose to give it.

But how to choose?

In Man’s Search for Meaning , the psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor Frankl (d. 1997) wrote about his ordeal as a concentration camp inmate during the Second World War.

Tellingly, Frankl found that those who survived longest in the concentration camp were not those who were physically strong, but those who retained a sense of control over their environment.

He observed:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.

Frankl’s message is ultimately one of hope: Even in the most absurd, painful, and dispiriting of circumstances, life can still be given a meaning, and so too can suffering.

Life in the concentration camp taught Frankl that our main drive or motivation in life is neither pleasure, as Freud had believed, nor power, as Adler had believed, but meaning .

After his release, Frankl founded the school of logotherapy (from the Greek logos , meaning "reason" or "principle"), which is sometimes referred to as the "Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy " for coming after those of Freud and Adler. The aim of logotherapy is to carry out an existential analysis of the person, and, in so doing, to help her uncover or discover meaning for her life.

According to Frankl, meaning can be found through:

  • Experiencing reality by interacting authentically with the environment and with others.
  • Giving something back to the world through creativity and self-expression, and,
  • Changing our attitude when faced with a situation or circumstance that we cannot change.

"The point," said Frankl, '"is not what we expect from life, but rather what life expects from us."

Neel Burton is author of The Art of Failure .

Neel Burton M.D.

Neel Burton, M.D. , is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England.

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The Four Keys to a Meaningful Life

Could pursuing meaning be the path to true happiness?

We at Greater Good have written often about the differences between a happy life and a meaningful life and found that the two are closely related. When we aim for a life of meaningful pursuits, we are likely to feel more sustained happiness and life satisfaction—even if there is some discomfort, sadness, or stress along the way—than if we aim for a life of pleasure alone. In fact, seeking happiness directly may actually backfire , while pursuing meaning may increase our health and well-being .

Now a new book takes a stab at figuring out just what pursuing a meaningful life entails. In The Power of Meaning , journalist Emily Esfahani Smith draws from the texts of great writers and philosophers—Emerson, Aristotle, Buddha, and Victor Frankl, for example—as well as interviews with everyday people seeking to increase meaning in their lives, to try to distill what’s central in this pursuit. The book, though only loosely tied to research, is mostly an engaging read about how people find meaning in life through “four pillars” of meaning.

essay on what is meaning of life

1. Belonging. When we are understood, recognized, and affirmed by friends, family members, partners, colleagues, and even strangers, we feel we belong to a community. Results from some studies —as well as end-of-life conversations —indicate that many people count their relationships as the most meaningful part of their lives, even when those relationships are difficult or strained.

2. Purpose. When we have long-term goals in life that reflect our values and serve the greater good, we tend to imbue our activities with more meaning. Researcher Adam Grant has found that professions focused on helping others—teachers, surgeons, clergy, and therapists—all tend to rate their jobs as more meaningful, and that people who imbue their work with purpose are more dedicated to their jobs . Having purpose has also been tied to many positive outcomes, including increased learning for students in school and better health .

3. Storytelling. When it comes to finding meaning, it helps to try to pull particularly relevant experiences in our lives into a coherent narrative that defines our identity. People who describe their lives as meaningful tend to have redemptive stories where they overcame something negative, and to emphasize growth, communion with others, and personal agency. Laura Kray and colleagues found that asking people to consider paths not taken in life and the consequences of those choices imbued experiences with more meaning .

4. Transcendence. Experiences that fill us with awe or wonder—ones in which “we feel we have risen above the everyday world to experience a higher reality,” according to Smith— can decrease our self-focus and lead us to engage in more generous, helpful behavior . It may seem counterintuitive in some ways; but the diminishment of our own self-importance can induce a sense of meaning, she says.

Smith’s book aims to be somewhat prescriptive, offering practices that could encourage meaning in your own life. For example, at work you may want to practice acknowledging coworkers, engaging in personal interactions, and offering support to others when they need it, using these “high-quality connections” to increase your sense of belonging. You may also want to redefine the tasks of your job to fit your motives, strengths, and passions— a strategy recommended by organizational scholar Jane Dutton and colleagues .

Or, if you feel stuck, you may want to spend time creating a life narrative —an understanding of what experiences shaped you into the person you are now—with a redemptive storyline, perhaps through expressive writing practice or through working with a therapist. Or, you may want to find ways to experience more awe in your life, spending time in nature, staring at the stars, experiencing profound works of art, or pondering heroic figures.

Though her book is more focused on stories and philosophy than research, Smith does at least offer new ideas in an area that was once primarily the purview of spiritual traditions. She argues that pursuing meaning can be healing, not only for those of us with mild existential malaise, but for those who’ve suffered trauma or are facing their own mortality.

Her book is a call to recognize our place in the world—perhaps most importantly by nurturing our relationships and serving others—so that we bring more meaning to our lives.

“Each of us has a circle of people—in our families, in our communities, and at work—whose lives we can improve,” she writes. “That’s a legacy everyone can leave behind.”

About the Author

Headshot of Jill Suttie

Jill Suttie

Jill Suttie, Psy.D. , is Greater Good ’s former book review editor and now serves as a staff writer and contributing editor for the magazine. She received her doctorate of psychology from the University of San Francisco in 1998 and was a psychologist in private practice before coming to Greater Good .

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Home — Essay Samples — Philosophy — Philosophical Concepts — Meaning of Life

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Essays on Meaning of Life

The first step in crafting an exceptional essay is to understand the essay prompt. Often, students underestimate the importance of this initial phase. Think of the prompt as your guiding star, leading you towards clarity and focus in your writing. Let's break it down:

Sample Prompts for a "Meaning of Life" Essay:

"Explore the philosophical, psychological, and cultural dimensions of the question: What is the meaning of life?"

"Discuss how different historical figures and philosophers have approached the concept of the meaning of life. Analyze their views and present your perspective."

"Examine the impact of personal beliefs, experiences, and cultural backgrounds on one's perception of the meaning of life."

"Reflect on the role of purpose and fulfillment in human existence. How can individuals find meaning in their lives?"

Once you've dissected the prompt, you'll have a clear idea of what is expected of you. This understanding will guide you in the next crucial steps of essay writing.

2. Brainstorming and Selecting the Perfect Topic

Now that you're well-acquainted with the essay prompt, it's time to brainstorm and choose an engaging and unique topic. Remember, the "meaning of life" is a profound and broad subject, and your topic should reflect your perspective and interests. Here's how to do it:

Brainstorming Techniques:

Free writing: Set a timer and jot down your thoughts and associations related to the topic without judgment. You might uncover unique angles during this process.

Mind mapping: Create a visual representation of your ideas, connecting related concepts and themes.

Research: Read articles, books, and essays by philosophers, scientists, and thinkers to gain inspiration and identify areas of interest.

Choosing a Unique Essay Topic:

Avoid clichéd or overused topics like "The Pursuit of Happiness" or "The Search for Meaning." Instead, consider exploring specific aspects or questions that intrigue you, such as:

"The Role of Suffering in Discovering Life's Purpose"

"Eastern vs. Western Philosophies on the Meaning of Life"

"Existentialism in the Modern World: Navigating Nihilism and Absurdity"

"The Influence of Technology on our Perception of Life's Meaning"

Choosing a unique topic will set your essay apart and make it more interesting for both you and your readers.

3. A Curated List of Inspiring Essay Topics

If you're still searching for the perfect essay topic, here's a list of compelling ideas that go beyond the ordinary:

"The Meaning of Life in the Age of Artificial Intelligence: Exploring Humanity's Role in a Technological World."

"The Connection between Nature and the Meaning of Life: Ecological Philosophy in Modern Society."

"Finding Purpose in the Mundane: A Deep Dive into Everyday Existence."

"The Impact of Near-Death Experiences on One's Perception of Life's Purpose."

"The Pursuit of Meaning in the Arts: A Study of Creativity, Expression, and Identity."

Feel free to modify these topics or use them as a springboard for your own unique ideas.

4. Crafting Compelling Paragraphs and Phrases: Inspire Your Readers

Finally, let's focus on writing your "meaning of life" essay. The key to captivating your readers lies in the power of your words and the structure of your essay. Here are some sample paragraphs and SEO-optimized phrases that will keep your readers engaged:

Sample Opening Paragraph:

"In the quest for the meaning of life, humanity has embarked on a timeless journey through philosophy, spirituality, and self-reflection. This essay delves into the depths of existential thought, exploring the very essence of our existence and the intricate tapestry of meaning that we weave in our lives."

Sample Paragraph on Existentialism:

"Existentialism, a philosophical movement that gained prominence in the 20th century, offers profound insights into the meaning of life. Existentialist thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus contend that life lacks inherent meaning, and individuals must create their own purpose through choice and action."

Sample Closing Paragraph:

"As we conclude this exploration of life's meaning, we find that the answers are as diverse as the individuals who seek them. The search for purpose is a deeply personal and evolving journey. Ultimately, it is through introspection, empathy, and our connection to the world around us that we continue to unravel the enigma of existence."

Socrates Meaning of Life Analysis

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The Role of Ups and Downs in Life

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How The Meaning of Life Affects One's Will in "A Man's Search for Meaning"

Role and meaning of the phrase "just do it" in my life, discussion on the theme of where did everything come from, my ambitions to build a career in medicine, the unexamined life is not worth living: analysis, a theme of finding the meaning in life in the myth of sisyphus, a philosophical investigation of religion's impact on the human nature, chris mccandless and the meaning of living deliberately, albert camus’ idea of life having no meaning in "the myth of sisyphus", absurdity of life in camus’ myth of sisyphus, the ontological, cosmological, and teleological theories of the existence of god, searching for the meaning of life: beckett's dystopia in "endgame", the significance of a name, man’s authenticity in the search for meaning through viktor frankl’s logotherapy, albert camus’ interpretations of absurdity in the myth of sisyphus, the meaning of life as an elusive mystery: pursuits of pleasure, what makes a life worth living: a philosophy of life, a necessity to know your meaning of life: personal philosophy, finding meaning of life in buddhism philosophy through meditation, what makes life meaningful: happiness is not only pleasure, relevant topics.

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essay on what is meaning of life

Deciphering the Essence of Joy: Understanding the Meaning of Happiness

This essay about the essence of joy explores how it transcends fleeting pleasures and external circumstances, rooted instead in inner peace and connection. It highlights the importance of empathy, resilience, and self-discovery in experiencing true happiness. Through simple moments and acts of kindness, joy manifests as a beacon of hope even in times of adversity. Ultimately, it emphasizes that happiness is found not in external achievements but in living a life guided by wisdom, compassion, and integrity, connecting us to ourselves and to the world around us.

How it works

In the tapestry of human experience, joy weaves its vibrant threads, illuminating the journey of life with its radiant hues. Yet, the essence of joy often eludes precise definition, residing in the intangible realm of emotions and perceptions. It is a subject of perennial fascination and inquiry, as ancient as humanity itself, yet endlessly enigmatic. To decipher the essence of joy is to embark on a profound exploration into the depths of the human spirit, to unravel the mysteries of happiness and uncover its true meaning.

At its core, joy transcends mere pleasure or fleeting happiness; it is a state of being that emanates from within, rooted in profound contentment and fulfillment. Unlike the ephemeral highs of pleasure, which are often dependent on external circumstances, joy springs forth from a wellspring of inner peace and harmony. It is not contingent upon wealth, status, or material possessions but flourishes in the fertile soil of gratitude, compassion, and connection.

To understand the meaning of happiness is to recognize that it is a multifaceted gem, refracting light in myriad ways. It encompasses moments of profound bliss and simple pleasures, the warmth of human relationships, the pursuit of meaningful goals, and the cultivation of inner virtues. Happiness is both a journey and a destination, a dynamic interplay between fleeting experiences of delight and enduring states of contentment.

In our modern world, the pursuit of happiness often takes on the guise of external achievement and consumption, leading many astray in a relentless quest for more. Yet, true joy cannot be found in the accumulation of wealth or the attainment of superficial markers of success. It is a subtle alchemy of the heart, requiring us to attune ourselves to the whispers of our soul and the rhythms of the natural world.

The essence of joy reveals itself in the simplest of moments: a shared smile, a tender embrace, the gentle caress of a breeze against our skin. It is woven into the fabric of everyday life, waiting to be discovered amidst the hustle and bustle of the mundane. In a world consumed by busyness and distraction, the pursuit of joy invites us to slow down, to savor the richness of each moment, and to cultivate a deeper sense of presence and awareness.

Moreover, joy is intimately intertwined with our capacity for empathy and compassion, as it flourishes in the soil of meaningful connections and acts of kindness. When we extend a helping hand to those in need or offer a listening ear to a friend in distress, we not only alleviate their suffering but also nurture our own sense of well-being. For in the act of giving, we receive, and in the embrace of others, we find solace and belonging.

Yet, the path to joy is not always smooth, for it is often obstructed by the shadows of fear, doubt, and pain. In moments of adversity and despair, the light of joy may seem dim, obscured by the heavy clouds of sorrow. And yet, it is precisely in these dark moments that the true essence of joy reveals itself, as a beacon of hope amidst the storm.

For joy is not the absence of suffering but rather the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity. It is the courage to find meaning and purpose in the midst of pain, to embrace life in all its complexity and uncertainty. It is the triumph of love over fear, of hope over despair, and of light over darkness.

In essence, deciphering the essence of joy is an invitation to delve deep into the depths of our own being, to uncover the wellsprings of happiness that lie dormant within us. It is a journey of self-discovery and self-transcendence, leading us to the realization that true joy resides not in the external world but in the sanctuary of our own hearts.

Ultimately, the meaning of happiness lies not in the pursuit of pleasure or the avoidance of pain but in the cultivation of a life well-lived, guided by principles of wisdom, compassion, and integrity. It is a journey of growth and transformation, of becoming more fully ourselves and awakening to the infinite possibilities that lie within us.

In the tapestry of human experience, joy weaves its vibrant threads, connecting us to ourselves, to each other, and to the vast cosmos that surrounds us. It is a reminder that we are not separate beings but interconnected strands in the web of life, bound together by the ineffable bonds of love and understanding.

As we journey through life, may we be guided by the light of joy, illuminating our path with its radiant glow and infusing each moment with meaning and purpose. For in the end, it is not the destination that matters but the beauty of the journey itself, and the joy we discover along the way.


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Writing Beauty and Meaning—On Your Own Terms

June 4, 2024 § Leave a comment

By Michael Copperman

essay on what is meaning of life

I was going through a tough time trying to find an agent a few years ago, and a literary mentor sat me down. He’d seen me flailing on social media, despairing after six months of being rejected for a project I had high hopes for because I felt it was commercially viable. Agents didn’t necessarily think so.

“Enough of this,” he said. “There are only two questions that you need to answer. The first is, what kind of artist do you want to be? When you know that answer, the second question comes easier: how can the industry help you reach your goal—what can they do for you? The rest of it is irrelevant.”

I thought I knew the answer to the first question: I wanted to be a successful writer published by a Big 5 publisher. But that was not born out by my choices of subject, style, and pursuit. The projects I’ve pursued over twenty years writing prose are not the work of an artist who’s attempting to be commercially successful in writing for the Big 5. I’ve written dozens and dozens of intense personal essays, densely narrative and lyric, of the sort that literary magazines publish regularly and the reading public served by the Big 5 never encounters. My previous book was a literary memoir about teaching in the rural Black public schools of the Mississippi Delta, and how that experience made me an educator filled with stories of failure and systemic inequity—not the feel-good “Freedom Writers” story that the public demands, nor a political screed that lays out solutions. The Big 5 editors who wanted that book couldn’t clear their editorial boards, and it makes sense that Teacher ended up with a regional University Press.

The book I was shopping now, to agents to sell to the Big 5, was a hybrid memoir about the extreme subculture of wrestling and a friend who died young—not the celebrity memoirs that dominate the bestseller lists, but a book about a relatively unknown young man in a fringe sport. If my goal was commercial publishing, maybe my whole life ought to have been tied up in building a self-help or issue-based platform, or in courting celebrity favor so as to be selected as a ghostwriter. But I am an artist who writes from and about my own experience and what matters most urgently to me, who seeks beauty and meaning on my own terms.

The second question, then, of how the publishing world can best support my artistic integrity, becomes simpler. I found an agent who values my work because of the kind of artist I am, who is willing to work to find publishers who see its merit despite it not necessarily screaming bestseller. Instead of raging against the basely commercial mandates of publishing, I can search for my home in the range of excellent independent presses—and keep writing.

All of this has convinced me that as writers, we need to better refine our intention, to clarify our vision before we enter into any project. What is the purpose of a piece of nonfiction—are we merely telling what happened to us or to others, recounting experiences as we remember them? Are we trying to examine our experiences, using retrospection to form and interpret those experiences into meaning that is both personal and universal? Are we striving for beauty, for mystery, for absolute accuracy of expression? What is the ideal we are striving for, against which we measure our efforts?

In answering these questions about vision, I’m grateful to be able to fall back the work of Ehud Havazalet, my teacher in the University of Oregon MFA some twenty years ago. He’d developed a conceptual model of how the literary short story works—a form I was never particularly successful at.

essay on what is meaning of life

What’s stuck with me is the way his model of successful narrative insisted on two levels of meaning: one at the surface, as the piece developed and action rose and then fell, and the writer deployed all the craft techniques available to them, and another level deepening as the successful use of each of those formal techniques pushed the narrative toward ever greater significance. In pieces I deeply love, like Joe Wilkin’s great piece “All the Forces at Work Here” ( Brevity ), I can identity how retrospection works even in the present tense, because the events still exist as living memory– and I can identify how metaphor and then poetic, biblical language enable the piece to realize a sort of blessing and mystery which I can better understand (but which exceeds mere explanation or diagramming). 

I’ve adapted that model for myself over the years in the attempt to understand how the best nonfiction works, and to help identify why my own writing sometimes fails (and to figure out what I might do to successfully revise it). I hope that someday, my work will be capable of realizing my vision, which is to say that I hope to become the sort of artist I want to be. 

Michael Copperman ’s work has appeared in The Oxford-American, Guernica, The Sun, Creative Nonfiction (3x), Boston Review, Salon, Gulf Coast, Triquarterly, Kenyon Review and Copper Nickel, and his memoir TEACHER: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta (University Press of Mississippi 2017) was a finalist for the 2018 Oregon Book Award in CNF.

What is the difference between telling what happened, and making an experience felt? What is the difference between a piece that is good, and one that changes our understanding of ourselves, of others, or of the world? Join Michael Copperman to explore a conceptual model for creative nonfiction craft, in the CRAFT TALKS webinar The Wedge: A Working Model for Nonfiction Storytelling , June 12 at 2PM Eastern time ($25). Find out more/register now .

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Interview with Rachel Nadon, CIRM's BMO 2024 postdoctoral fellow

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Big Spring for Rachel Nadon! On April 2nd, she began her tenure as the  BMO Posdoctoral Fellow at CIRM for the year 2024 , and on July 1st, she will take up her new position as a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Québec Literature in the Département de littérature, théâtre et cinéma at Université Laval!  Despite her short stay with us, we are eager to find out more about her fascinating research project, which she hopes to pursue as a professor.

But first and foremost, a brief biography is in order. With a PhD in French-language literatures from Université de Montréal, Rachel Nadon works on the relationship between emotions and the sensational press. Member of the Groupe de recherches et d’études sur le livre au Québec (GRÉLQ) , she works at the crossroads of cultural studies and literary history. She co-edited the collective Relire les revues québécoises : histoire, formes et pratiques (PUM, 2021). She is also director of Mens : revue d’histoire intellectuelle et culturelle .

Her research project as a BMO Postdoctoral Fellow, which she plans to pursue,  is “Emotions and archives of feelings: reading Montreal through Allô Police, 1970-2004”.

The question on everyone's mind: why Allô Police?

I've already been working on yellow newspapers for a few years ("yellow newspapers", just to get everyone on the same wavelength, is an expression that includes all sorts of different newspapers, crime papers, gossip papers, saucy cartoon papers, etc.). These are newspapers that are often ephemeral, that don't last long and whose circulation is difficult to evaluate. Allô Police had a very long life, from 1953 to 2004. It also had a huge circulation, between 100,000 and 200,000 copies a week in the 1950s. So, on the one hand, there's the duration and popularity of this newspaper.

And on the other, I have noticed that everyone has one or more anecdotes about Allô Police. When I was a kid, my parents used to cover my eyes a little when we passed the Allô Police in the convenience store! But just about everyone has something to say about Allô Police: reading it only on vacations (like a little party), cutting it up for scrapbooking, reading it on the sly, despite parental prohibitions, etc. It is this conjecture of two elements that intrigues me: its popularity, the widespread yet almost intimate nature of its reading. Although few people mention Allô Police as a legitimate reading habit...

What motivates you to study the relationship between emotions and the sensational press?

When I started reading Allô Police, I realized that emotion was quite important in my reading. I was confronted with articles about mutilated and decapitated people; there were lots of photos of corpses. Itis something that really grabbed me, and which seems to me to go beyond the notion of sensationalism. Starting from my emotions of fascination and disgust, and perplexity too, I came to pay attention to the texts, to the way emotions like fear, disgust, even love, were named. I realized that all this, the mobilization of emotion in different ways, was part of the reading pact of these newspapers. I should point out that my reading emotions are probably not the same as those of another readership, that of the 1950s for example; I cannot assume that, at least!

What are your goals and expectations for your residency as a postdoctoral fellow at CRIEM?

The project is structured in two parts. First, I will be reading copies of Allô Police from the 1976 Olympics to the end of the newspaper's activities in 2004. I'm particularly interested in the 1980s and 1990s, because I want to see how the paper stages the city. For example, what neighborhoods are named, what events are covered? Does it resemble the years I've already studied (the 1950s-1960s)? I will be able to pursue these questions, analyzing the ways in which the city of Montréal is constructed over the course of the articles. I am also going to see how a newspaper like Allô Police situates itself in relation to the pro-sex and anti-sex feminist movements, and everything to do with pornography and sex work. As it's a newspaper that makes a living out of sexuality and its particular circles, I'm interested.

There's a second aspect to the project, that of archives. I want to explore people's memories of this diary, with the idea of reconstructing an archive of readings, or rather an "archive of feelings", to use Ann Czetkovich 's words. The aim is to seek out stories, objects of all kinds, business cards, photocopied editions, photos, scrapbook pages made from Allô Police clippings, etc. This will be a good way to reflect on the different uses of the newspaper and the ways in which people interacted with Allô Police, but also on the memories they retain of it and what it tells us about a way of living in or representing Montréal. It goes beyond a simple "broadcast-reception" type of reading, I want to touch on the uses of the newspaper and its ways of circulating, and of "orienting" us in the city.

Can you explain the concept of the archive of feelings?

Ann Czetkovich is interested in the experience of trauma among lesbian and queer people. According to her, this experience isn't "officially" documented, but is associated with objects or narratives. These objects - it could be a diary or pulp collections - are not necessarily linked to the experience of trauma, but evoke it in different ways for someone or for a community. These objects, figures or photos (for example), are invested with sentimental value and meaning, but they are not considered archives in the institutional sense of the term. Ann Czetkovich, in her book An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures , analyzes these archives and "produces" them, too. There is a double movement of analysis and creation (she "constitutes" cultural productions as archives, so to speak), and that is what I want to do too. Does the experience of emotionally reading a newspaper like Allô Police produce an archive of feelings? I would like to collect objects and stories that would enable us to reflect on the relationship between emotions, memory and the city.

This implies creative work.

For the project, I'd like to set up a website, collect alternative archives of Allô Police, meet people who still remember it, and explore different modes of distribution, such as fanzines. I have co-written a "detective serial" in the cultural magazine Liberté, in which I've used the device of fiction to integrate interviews I have already done with Allô Police actors. I'm also thinking of organizing a round-table discussion on the 20th anniversary of Allô Police's demise.

For me, in this project, there is a dimension of research and creation in the strict sense, i.e. reading and research on the one hand, and "reconstituting" the archives on the other. More broadly, it allows me to reflect on the question of archives, which is a complicated one when it comes to large-scale cultural productions. The documents that bear witness to the production of these periodicals are often not intended for conservation or archiving. In fact, the product itself - the newspaper - was never intended for preservation!

Why is it important to study a crime news journal like Allô Police?

On the one hand, it is a place of memory, in the sense of a space of memory that bears witness to many events affecting Montreal and many other places. This place of memory allows us to read the watermark of changes affecting society, but also relationships between people, the way we conceive of crime and criminals. In short, it allows us to reflect on what affects people, and what constitutes an era. And at the same time, it is a place of memory in the most fundamental sense: people remember it. Many readers meet there. It's important to highlight how a newspaper that has had bad press has brought together a community of readers, a community that could be reconstituted by, among other things, the very diverse uses to which this newspaper has been put.

What are your plans for your first months (or rather first years!) as an assistant professor of Québec literature?

One thing is for sure: I want to pursue this project! It is very close to my heart. I am interested in pursuing all these reflections on how a tabloid newspaper like Allô Police has left an emotional, concrete and material mark on people's lives and on the city of Montréal. More broadly, I have a project on the cultural history of bad taste in Québec; to be continued, as they say!

A perfect day in Montréal? It's summer, I get on my bike, I go swimming in Parc Jarry, I have a coffee in the Mile End and we eat hot dogs at Orange Julep..   3 essential symbols of Montréal? Olympic Stadium, Caffè Italia and Milano (together), and the Lachine Canal   Favorite neighborhood? My neighborhood, Little Italy, because of my neighbors!   Bibliography on emotions and cultural & literary studies: Sara Ahmed (2014), Cultural Politics of Emotion , Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press,2 nd ed., 256 p. Ann Czetkovich (2003), An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures , Duke University Press, 368 p. Michel de Certeau (1990), L’invention du quotidien, tome 1 : Arts de faire , Folio, 416 p. Richard Hoggart (1970), La Culture du pauvre , trad. de l’anglais par Jean Claude Passeron, Paris, Minuit, 420 p. Will Straw (2021), «The Pastness of Allo Police» , dans Martha Langford et Johanne Sloan (ed.), Photogenic Montreal: Activisms and Archives in a Post-Industrial City, Montréal, McGill/Queen’s University Press, p. 199-216.

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