The Meaning of Life

the-meaning-of-lifeI understand “feeling connected to others”, “having a goal”, “enjoying”, “feeling contributory”. I understand “the meaning of a story” or “the meaning of a word”, but what the heck does “meaning of life” mean?

I must say, I’ve not had a feeling of “meaninglessness” that I hear many other people describe — maybe I’ve been lucky. But also, I don’t feel “meaningful”.  The whole concept is a little bizarre to me. “Meaning”, when applied to an abstract thing called “life”, seems odd. And I have never had a felt need to discover a meaning in life even when I was religious.

I think some people mean “satisfactory” when they use the word. When they are seeking the meaning of life, they are seeking satisfaction. And when they think they have found the meaning of life, then they have satisfaction of some sort.

So when Christian say “Life without God is meaningless”, I generously translate this to say, “I love my Christian culture/identity/worldview” or “I feel so connected to others now” or  “I am more satisfied now that I don’t fear that I will die and just disappear — or worse yet, go to hell.” And they call all those feelings “meaningful”.

Question for readers: Do you think about the meaning of life — I don’t.  How would you translate the phrase when used by a religious person?

Credits & More:

  • See Hertzfeldt’s bizarre film “The meaning of life” from which my pic is lifted (12 min)
  • Or see this inappropriately cynical YouTube bit: “The Meaning of Life” (4 min)
  • Cris Campbell shares Bruce Charlton’s essay here and agrees with him that hunter-gatherer animists “altogether lack” the meaninglessness found amongs us modernists. He equates meaninglessness to alienation which is characterized by “dislocation, anomie, senselessness, emptiness, lack of purpose etc.  Campbell and Charlton fell that our economic system is the cause of this dilemma.
  • This post was inspired by reading Cris’ post and Bible Warrioress post that says “Life is Pointless without God.”


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

25 responses to “The Meaning of Life

  1. I think some people mean “satisfactory” when they use the word. When they are seeking the meaning of life, they are seeking satisfaction.”

    A useful insight, thank you. And it seems satisfaction often correlates with a sense of purpose, which then becomes generalized as eternalism…which then generates the need to keep up the appearance of meaningfulness…and so on.

    I’d be interested to know when the phrase “the meaning of life” became common parlance in popular culture, and where it originated.

  2. perc3ption

    I find that many people question the meaning of their lives. Maybe you didn’t use those words. But essentially it’s questioning the point to the ups and downs of living. The constant motion of pushing a huge rock up a hill, only for it to roll back down again, and for you to repeat this process once more. Why do we bother?

    Maybe you didn’t question it because you’re religious. Christianity, for instance, believes that God was man and he created all. Man is superior. A powerful entity created us, it’s a bit flattering isn’t it. In religion lies a meaning.

  3. Great point Rin-Tin-Tin. This Ngram diagram (one of my favorite tools), shows us that “the meaning of life” took off around 1881 and again in 1990 — leveled off during the big wars (when satisfaction is down) and slowly rises afterward. Fun to compare it to “God” which has been crashing.
    Thanx for commenting.

  4. TWF

    “The Meaning of Life” was revealed to me by Monty Python. 😉 But that lumps right in there with the other bizarre videos you’ve already linked to. 🙂

    I completely agree that the phrase “meaning of life” is essentially nonsensical. My personal opinion is that when people ask about that meaning, or make puns about it like the Warrioress there, the majority of time they are referring to “purpose” as opposed to satisfaction (though knowing that “purpose yields a sense of satisfaction”). While meaning and purpose are generally somewhat interchangeable, I think that’s less the case here, and that meaning is being misused. Why? Because I think it comes down to identifying with a role to play. All the world’s a stage, and we are merely players… like Shakespeare rendered it.

    Religion can define that purposeful role. For some, religion is an active role, while for others it is a passive one, but knowing the role, the purpose, is still comforting. Just as you mentioned to the Warrioress, marriage or children can also define that role, or supplement it considerably.

    So in my point of view, it is the role/purpose which provides “meaning,” not the other way around.

    At least that’s my $0.02. 😉

  5. Having come from the belly of the beast, I’d say my meaning was to do the will of an imagined creator..ultimately to continue into an afterlife.

    Giving up on christianity, I became a bit of a deist for a bit, and even wrote up my thoughts on the whole thingso I could keep the ” meaning” going.

    Through a slow process, I settled on being an atheist, choosing to give my life its own meaning..which ultimately does boil down to satisfaction like you say.

    Now, I have come to realize that I have little choice in my life..that free will itself is an illusion..albeit a very beneficial one.

    I think to many, their satisfaction comes from believing judgment will be meted out for all those who have wronged them..Fraud knows, I have felt that way myself..

  6. rautakyy

    Theists often throw the “atheists do not have meaning in their life” idea at an atheists, like it was a conversation stopper. Like they expected the atheist to, at least at that point, realize how empty and meaningless their lives are. Frankly, even if they mean “social connection”, “satisfaction”, or “culture/identity/worldview”, I can not percieve what they mean by it. Do they seriously think the atheist has no social connections, satisfaction, or culture/identity/worldview? I have tried to understand this very hard and in my humble opinion, most of those kind of Theists who claim atheists have no meaning use the word in the sense of “purpose”. I usually reply them, that I have meaning and purpose to my life as I give it to myself and as other people give it to me, like the people I love and who love me, the things I do, and the legacy I am going to leave behind when I die. But even if the conversation stopper has not worked on me, it often works on themselves, so that is how far I have gotten with this line of thought.

    Sometimes, however, dispite “my good heart” I can not help the feeling, that what they actually mean is, that since I have no gods to guide me, I am a selfish basterd, who deserves to suffer in hell for ever for disrupting their perfect self image of godlike existance in unison with a supernatural creator entity and for raising their fear of death being actually final. Wich, I must persist is not my intention, it just seems to happen when I try to understand these people. Perhaps, I should stop trying to understand them and leave them be with their illusions?

  7. Yes, one more fan of The Meaning of Life by The Monty Python (trailer:

    The post also reminded me of something by Kurt Vonnegut (Breakfast of Champions): “Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.”

    So I agree with TWF on the role/purpose giving meaning. Sometimes I think that this idea fits into Buddhism as well*, other times I doubt it**

    * because in Buddhism you have no one direction within or without for lack of an Atman/God
    ** because this individualistic approach is only typical of certain types of Buddhists (the examples are not necessarily Western or modern though)

  8. Good idea to use an Ngram, Sabio, I didn’t think of that. I would have guessed its usage kicked off earlier than mid 19th century, too.

  9. @ Roni :
    Thanx for the link.
    In the “Yeast analogy”, the purpose is that a higher organism is using us. Lots of Buddhists and New Agers feel that “the Great Karma machine” or “the Universe” is living through us and it is just a mystery that we should relax into. It is also a yeasty sort of analogy which I feel is equal nonsense.

    So, if “role or purpose” gives a life meaning, if a person is assigned the role to carry bricks to build a pharaoh’s pyramid, is their life then meaningful. Sure, by some definition but that is not what you mean, is it? See my comment to TWF below.

    @ TWF:
    Interestingly, the Warrior qualified her statement listing two important conditions for her to make a person’s life meaningful:
    (1) Ya gotta live forever
    (2) Ya gotta interact with Yahweh

    Maybe I should make a bulleted list above of the things people are really thinking about when they say “meaningful life”. But the problem is, people often have no clue about what they mean or are saying and thus their explanations are just post-hoc ramblings.

    For part of what she is really saying is, “Yeah for my choices! Yeah for my team!”

    But as to your plug for “Purpose” being a reason. Well, unfortunately, that is a bit too abstract for my taste — it then would need exploring.
    So what sort of purpose?
    Daily life requirements like praying, reading the Bible, going to church?
    Missionary stuff like converting others or raising children Christian?
    Heavenly stuff: like singing for eternity in Jesus’ choir?

    Those are the normal senses of “purpose” — they have a concrete goal, don’t they?

    @ myrthryn :
    So you buy into the “afterlife” issue. But if a person lives forever in hell, that is not enough, right?

    Maybe “meaning” is used in the sense of “I can explain the origin of life and what happens after, and it all looks good for me. Wheeew.”

    Imagine you get a job, and you can be guaranteed that you will never get fired, you will keep getting pay raises and even though you may have hard days, you are guaranteed that you will be glad for how you can care for your family and that you children will praise your name and you’ll have enough money to do everything you like. Well, it would be enticing to call that a “meaningful” job, I guess. Naive though such a conclusion may be.

    Anyway, I think with atheists say, “I gave my life its own meaning” it is buying into that whole “meaning” mistake. [just thinking outloud — since it all depends on the meaning/use of that word]. There is not LIFE to give meaning to. Hmmm , this is getting difficult to explain.

    But I think you are right, “Meaningful” to some, means that in the end, they will feel that bad folks will be punished and they will be rewarded — it is a security thing. A hope that though things seem terrible, it is just an illusion.

    @rautakyy :
    As I said to myrthryn. I think buying into “meaning of life” is a mistake from the get-go. So claiming you give it to yourself seems odd too. But it all depends on definition. And I agree, many theists use it in a “me, me, me” way — very self-righteous smugness, but they’d say otherwise.

  10. @ Sabio: I did not mean a purpose exposed on us from outside, but us finding it or constructing it. And then the anology with the yeast does not apply, because I think we are multi-purpose and there is not one role to be found and fulfilled (which later would be very much like the Hindu concept of Dharna for me).

  11. @ roni :
    I think the whole “meaning of life” issue is mistaken at the root. Of course we have purposes in our normal daily activities and even long term goals, and maybe to accomplish things before we die, but that is very different from anything implied by the huge, abstract phrase “meaning of life”.

    I have seen/heard the word “dharma” so misused in my life that I can’t buy into any Hindu version of it that is useful. Of course the normal word “responsibility” or “duty” or “assignment” make sense when applied to a specific situation, but generalizing the terms in abstract notion of a life seems pure nonsense to me. But maybe we are using different language notions here.

  12. @Sabio

    I guess I’m not really understanding why you feel the term “meaning of life” is, well, meaningless? Could you elaborate?

  13. chaz

    In your comments on the blog you linked to you seemed to have understood the concept of “meaning of life” since you disagreed so sharply with the author. Here, you pretend not to really understand it except that you are quite sure you’ve never felt the opposite of it- meaninglessness.

    I understand “meaning of life” to refer to the big picture…why we are here, our purpose, etc. In that regard I do think religious people have a leg up on atheists…

  14. @ Drkshadow & chaz,
    Fair questions. I will do another post on it to see if I can sound a little more coherent and clear. In the meanwhile, could you both tell me what you feel about the phrase, “the meaning of life”?

  15. I don’t find the phrase, “the meaning of life” meaningless. If one of the various grand narratives are correct (such as Christianity, for example), then there is theoretically an “objective” meaning to life (i. e. this is your purpose for living). However, even then, there can be multiple meanings to life rather than just one:

    1) one should maintain faith and confess sins to Jesus to get into heaven.

    2) Be fruitful and multiply (get married to nice Christian woman/man and reproduce and raise a family).

    If grand narratives are wrong, then I think people can and do create their own meanings. I suspect even people who don’t spend their time thinking about the meaning of their lives, still believe their lives are meaningful, useful, enjoyable in some way.

    Meanings could be:

    To be happy, to enjoy physical pleasures, to acquire as much money as possible, to have a successful career, to get married, to be erudite, etc.

    I think it will naturally be implicit in a person’s actions what they think the meaning of their life is, even if they have never pondered it.

  16. @ Darkshadow,
    Yes, I understand your use and I think it is a common sense one that many use. Well stated. And it will help me to perhaps state better what I was trying to get at. Please be patient, I will try to take some time to write it. Stay tuned. I remember you input on poetry and “The Bible is not a Masterpiece” and look forward to it here.

  17. Great questions, Sabio.

    This is where I get all pedantic, and say let’s define “meaning”. For some people I guess it’s what’s important to them. Others maybe it’s what they’re supposed to do with their lives, or how they can make themselves useful.

    I don’t think I can interpret what it means to anyone else, but for me I’m so wrapped up in bland logic I have trouble with vague questions where each word isn’t clarified (yeah, my head’s a lovely place to be) and I get quite tired of Oprah like answers such as “The meaning of life to me is family and friends”. YAWN.

  18. Thanks amelie — my intuitions sound pretty close to yours.

  19. chaz


    My understanding of “meaning” is not that different from darkshadow…I added you on my reader so look forward to reading and interacting here…I will probably disagree alot but I just like to see where you are coming from…looking forward to your post….

  20. “And I have never had a felt need to discover a meaning in life even when I was religious.” -Sabio

    Wow. I’m obsessed by this question.. although this post makes me realize I really don’t know what I’m searching for… maybe my own purpose in this life? Like, what am I good at? What career would make me feel fulfilled? Am I doing enough for others?

    For me, those things feed into the over all question. Existential angst. Maybe I’m too emo…

  21. @ chaz: what makes you suspect you will disagree a lot?

    @ Luke : Great confession. If you read the link in my “Credits” section of this post of Bruce Charlton’s essay, you may find part of it resonates with you.

    This page, by David Chapman, is even more to the points that I agree with. It is tough reading, but worth it — well, in my world.

    Thanx again for the comment.

  22. Sabio,

    Explore this concept of meaningful life with Chaz. Chaz gets it.

  23. @the warrioress: You need to be more clear. I have no idea what you are saying.

  24. TWF

    Sorry it took so long to get back… 🙂

    Interesting that Warrioress appended her take. Seems like she still misses the mark though, doesn’t it? I think my life is meaningful largely because of the roles I play (son, husband, brother, blogger, etc.) and the impact I see from my roles, despite its sure brevity and lack of Godly interaction. Maybe people wouldn’t agree about my life, but it would be difficult to call Gandhi’s life meaningless, among other great examples.

    So what sort of purpose?
    I’m not sure I have your exact meaning in your objection/reply, but I’ll take a stab at it. Forgive me if I talk past you.

    In answer to your questions, yes, and no. I know you’d like a more concrete definition. I would too, but I don’t know if that’s possible. I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all thing. Heck, as you know and have often remarked upon, “you” is an abstraction in and of itself. How much more so we should expect our acceptable purposes to be, given that they are, in part, derived from our own internal abstraction?

    You, I, and most of the world, prefer not to mess with abstractions, including ourselves. (Well, maybe you and I do more than others, but still we often rebel against them, like now.) So, to me, finding the “purpose” becomes a bit of the easy way out; pruning off millions of other possibilities before us; allowing us to focus more concrete goals and ideals (even if the targets are imaginary).

    To me, all of the questions you asked in your reply fall under the umbrella purpose of serving/loving God (taking the implied Christian reference). I would think that that is the “purpose” most Christians find. However, just like there is a cornucopia of ways to show your wife that you love her, so there would be in the religious sense too towards God, and each believe adapts his or her tasks of loving/serving to fit themselves. The “meaning” comes in as the “purpose” is enacted according to the abstraction of each believer’s slant.

  25. steve agnew

    It is ironic that this blog on the meaning of life has put so much thought into the absence of meaning in life. I simply do not understand this misunderstanding, but our language is, after all, full of such contraryisms.

    Why to you get up in the morning? Why do you imagine a better future? Why do you choose actions to make your life better? Isn’t that meaning?

    Satisfaction is an emotion and part of feeling. We are ultimately driven by our feelings and therefore by our primitive mind. However, we imagine with our rational mind and our imagination is also a part of our meaning. In a sense, it is because we are never really satisfied that we imagine a better future. Therefore, dissatisfaction is actually more important for meaning than satisfaction since it drives action for a better life.

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