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The Meaning of Life: Why 10 Popular Answers Are So Popular

Our investigation into the strengths of popular answers to The Big Question

Article by pretty much all of The LiveReal Agents

A brief recap:

We’ve been on a quest to find a genuine, no-nonsense answer to “the meaning of life.”

Starting from our home base here, we asked the question: “what is the meaning of life? Then we made the Quiz, which was a gathering of all the various answers we could find. Then we grouped and organized those responses into ten popular categories here.

Then we explored some flaws in those answers, or why they didn’t always work.

Now we want to do the opposite.

Let’s revisit those ten answers. And this time, instead of coming across as dour, negative, rock-hurling critics, let’s look on some bright sides.

What do these approaches get right? Even if the answers are flawed in some ways, what parts work? Why are they so popular? What is so attractive about them? If there are certain aspects of these answers that are effective, what are they?

Let’s explore.

Here's the summary:

1) Just live: Spontaneous
2) Dumb Question: Avoids fruitless, dead-end pursuits
3) It’s Subjective: Freedom and individualism
4) Immediacy: Simple and practical
5) Happiness: Rings intuitively true
6) Nihilism: No-nonsense
7) Traditional Religion: Proven framework
8) Existentialism: Encourages effort and embraces all aspects of life
9) Making the world a better place: it makes the world a better place
10) Transcendence: an escape

Now, let’s take a slightly closer look at each of these.

1) Just Live: “Don’t think about it!”

We’ve explored flaws in the “don’t think about it!” answer to the meaning of life. But what’s good about this approach?

Let’s describe it as “spontaneity.”

After all, this just rings intuitively true: at some point, we should “just live.”

Part of this means simply not overthinking it. If your own thoughts are driving you crazy, there’s something to be said for getting out of your own head, getting involved in the world, and interacting.

We can also compare it to dancing: we could spend time learning how to dance, but never actually dancing. The idea of spending our entire lives leaning how to dance but never actually dancing would seem to fit the very definition of “pointless,” like rehearsing for a play we’d never actually perform.

“We’re always getting ready to live,
but never living.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Fair enough. The answer to the meaning of life truly doesn’t seem to consist solely of thinking about the meaning of life without ever arriving at an answer.

Many folks look at one extreme, see its flaws, and decide that the right answer must lie in doing the opposite. Yet the most reasonable answer here seems to be somewhere in the middle. “Just thinking and never living” seems flawed, as we just mentioned: we’re always traveling, but we never arrive. Yet at the same time, “just living and never thinking” doesn’t work either, as we wind up just mindlessly plowing through one experience after another, without making any sense of it or getting any wiser.

The answer here seems to require both: we need to both think, and live, and live, and think.

2) Dumb Question: “Shut up and stop asking!”

Is there a legitimate point to saying “shut up and stop asking” as an answer to the meaning of life?

We think so. We’ll describe it as “avoiding fruitless, dead-end pursuits.”

Some folks seem to think that asking about the meaning of life is a goose chase, a snipe hunt, an endless search for an illusory mirage. It’s a waste of time, a math problem with no answer, flawed computer code stuck in an endless loop.

Fair enough. We can sign on to that. The basic idea is to avoid anything that’s a meaningless, fruitless waste of time. Yes.

In other words: it’s good to avoid things that are meaningless.

Or to rephrase slightly: it’s good to do things that are meaningful.

And embedded in that, of course – that “it’s good to do things that are meaningful” – is the idea that some things are meaningful, and some are meaningless.

Which brings us right back to where we started. What’s is meaningful?

We arrive here at a pickle of a strange paradox: someone who holds the above position (“Shut up and stop asking a dumb question”) believes that the meaningful thing to do is to not ask about what’s meaningful. (Which is similar to #1, above.)

Which means they’re saying, “I know what’s meaningful, and it’s not asking about meaning.” So they’re claiming to already know what’s meaningful. Which means, they’re claiming to have already solved the very problem they’re saying is dumb.

And if that’s true, it’s bad news for the rest of us. The message is this: “If you don’t know, don’t ask. And if you know, you don’t need to ask. So then nobody should ask, at all, ever.”

Which really isn’t solving much. It’s really just banishing the problem to the dungeon. It’s not an answer, it’s just repression.

But to get back to the original positive here: the positive quality of this answer is that if avoids fruitless, dead-end pursuits. And that’s a good thing.

3) Subjective: “Do whatever you want!”

We can describe a strength and appeal of this approach as “freedom and individualism.”

We’ve already covered how this approach can go south, and quickly. But the other side of deserves some real time in the spotlight.

Sometimes, one person or group of people can adopt a certain idea of what the meaning of life is, and then they proceed to go around shoving that idea down everyone else’s throats.

Of course, the experience of this can be rough when the answer they’re shoving is a bad one. But it’s bad even when it’s a good answer.

It’s something plenty of folks are familiar with these days: a repressive, stifling, impersonal, uncomfortable, dehumanizing answer to the meaning of life that’s imposed on you, from the outside, whether you want it or not, whether it makes sense or rings true on any level, or not. Even if we love chocolate cake, we probably don’t want someone else jamming it into our mouths whenever they want.

Humans can do wonderful things, and we can also screw things up pretty well. We can take a good thing and ruin it by misapplying or overusing it. And forcing individuals to conform to certain answers, whether they want to or not, degrades a persons’ sense of freedom and autonomy and undermines self-respect. Many folks would prefer a sandwich they could freely choose to a steak someone else was trying to force on them.

There’s also room for individual differences here.

As the saying goes, one man’s medicine can become another man’s poison. The debate between universalism and individualism is perennial, but a rigid, one-size-fits-all framework with no tolerance for individual differences usually sets the stage for conflict. Some folks might want or need a highly intellectual approach, others a more emotional or devotional approach.

It might work like love.

One person loving another can be a beautiful thing. But if one person is given no choice, and is forced, at gunpoint, we’ll say, to “love” another person – especially a person they didn’t choose themselves – well, that might be a lot of things, but it isn’t real love.

There seems to be a critical element of love that’s not optional: for it to be real, it has to be freely chosen. It can’t be forced.

Meaning and love might work in similar ways. And that might not be a coincidence.

4) Immediacy: “Solve what’s right in front of you.”

We can describe the benefit here as “simple” and “practical.”

Some philosopher-types begin by asking some strange question, and then proceed to build vast, elaborate, highly complex thought-castles in the sky in an effort to “solve” it. It sometimes becomes an abstract, far-reaching, unintelligible enterprise.

Sometimes this evolves (devolves?) into such complexity that it becomes a vast intellectual labyrinth. Many who try to navigate it wind up many miles away from anything having to do with what most of us would consider real-life. Some simply get lost along the way, and just put the book down or abandon the entire project altogether.

This style seems to be a job requirement for academic philosophers. It’s similar to the art world these days. The thinking goes something like this: if no one can understand you, you must be profound. But if you communicate clearly, you must be a simpleton. The folks who get the most acclaim and adoration, then, are those who make no sense at all, to themselves or anyone else.

(That’s the game these days, apparently.)

The “immediacy” solution solves that.

Which is a real virtue for those of us who would rather genuinely understand things.

A good answer to the meaning of life should be both far-reaching but also practical. It should be simple, but help with navigating complexity.

If it’s only far-reaching, it might get you a teaching gig at a university, but it’s often useless for the rest of us. If it’s only practical, it’s merely solving mundane problems. If it’s only complex, then it’s potentially useful only for those few who are able and willing to devote months or years to understanding it. But if it’s only simple, well, it will help with simple problems, but it won’t help with the tough ones.

A good answer to the meaning of life should be far-reaching yet practical, and simple yet helpful in navigating complexity.

5) Happiness: “Be happy!”

The reasons for happiness being a popular answer to the meaning of life aren’t mysterious.

Happiness: we all want it, yearn for it, work for it, and we can’t not do that. Even for folks who enjoy being miserable (we know you’re out there), misery is a form of happiness. Happiness as a core component of the meaning of life seems to be a non-negotiable requirement.

Answers to the meaning question that try to avoid involving happiness usually wind up just disguising it and sneaking it in somewhere else. For example, if someone lands on nihilism as their answer, they typically take pride in their own ability brave the cold, hard, brutal conditions of our bleak existence, and their pride in this (thinking of themselves as really tough, rugged thinkers) makes them “happy,” at least to a degree.

It’s so compelling that many folks are tempted to say “happiness! That’s the meaning of life! Case closed!” and be done with the matter.

But of course, it’s not so simple.

To name just one way saying “case closed” is premature: several thinkers (such as Frankl) describe a paradox: that happiness comes indirectly, not through seeking it directly. (An idea, by the way, that can be discouraging to someone who isn’t happy. How the heck do you search for it indirectly, if you know that’s what you want?)

Happiness might also work in the same way with meaning that taste does with food.

We all like food that tastes good. But if we only eat food that tastes good, then most of us would wind up eating nothing but ice cream and potato chips. Which, paradoxically, would make us more miserable in the long run.

It’s easy for happiness as the meaning of life to work the same way. If we make our choices solely based on “what makes us happy” – which often translates, in the real world, to “what feels good” – then we might easily wind up more miserable than we would otherwise.

“What tastes good” and “what makes us happy” is clearly woven into our makeup. But it shouldn’t be the sole gauge we use to navigate through life.

At any rate, the positives of the answer are clear: it’s an essential ingredient in our search for meaning.

6) Nihilism: “There is no meaning.”

OK, here’s a juicy one. There couldn’t possibly be something good about nihilism, right? Can we find any kind of silver lining here?

Yes. It wasn’t easy, but we pulled it off.

Nihilism, as it actually appears in the real world, typically appears as typically a reaction against something else. Usually it’s some form of nonsense, at least as described by those who those who think along these lines.

The disadvantages of nihilism are typically clear. It’s so impractical that it almost never even appears in its pure forms, for example. (The pure form would look like catatonic immobility – nothing is worth doing, and so nothing gets done. The closer one approaches this would mean increasing levels of paralysis.)

But the real hazard with nihilism isn’t actually the state itself, but what it lays the groundwork for. Nihilism in itself is more like a vacuum, a kind of existential black hole. And when there’s a vacuum, other belief systems – often less than delightful – rush in to fill it. And those systems can be much worse than nihilism. Radical and tyrannical political ideologies are some examples.

Since nihilism literally means having no belief system, some see it as simply avoiding error.

We’re working to be extremely generous here, and possibly stretching the definition of “nihilism” to the point that it isn’t really nihilism anymore. After all, it’s arguable that saying “all belief systems are flawed” is a belief system itself. (Which means, it isn’t really nihilism.) And if abandoning belief system makes you happy, free of illusion, and makes your life work better, then it implicitly assumes that happiness, freedom from illusion, and life working well is a value system.

And so on. Which usually brings us back to our original point: nihilism is essentially impossible in the real world. Even a state of catatonic paralysis assumes that doing nothing is better than doing something. So in a practical sense, nihilism seems to exist in a practical sense primarily as a kind of reverse ideal: freedom from error.

And freedom from error – we could describe as “no-nonsense” if we were being incredibly generous – can be a good thing, so long as it’s used in small amounts, as all powerful medicine should be.

If someone is surrounded by nothing but nonsense, sometimes a step in this direction can be an improvement.

7) Traditional Religion: “The elephant in the room.”

Are there any good sides to traditional religion?

This section can also be short and relatively uncontroversial, at least considering the topic, because the answer here is obvious.

Very few individuals hold the extreme view (like the late Christopher Hitchens) that “religion poisons everything.” Everything, literally. No exceptions.

This perspective requires a proctologist’s view of religion – a perspective that’s biased, highly skewed, unfairly selective in its data, unrepresentative, and unscientific. It requires assuming that bad apples represent the entire lot, rather than being the exceptions. It focuses exclusively on all the ways that flawed humans have screwed the entire enterprise up so often instead of acknowledging the ideals they’re aiming for (which is, by the way, something religious folks typically agree with, and have incorporated into their thinking.)

Poor communication, emotion, misunderstanding and straw men seem to rule the roost in many of these conversations.

On the other side: Orphanages. Hospitals. Contributions to science (such as the originators of theory of The Big Bang, modern genetics, and science itself, to name a few). Organizations created to combat everything from the homeless to battered women to addiction treatments. Civil rights movements (as led by the Reverend Martin Luther King). Ideals of charity, compassion, love, selflessness, kindness, wisdom, and so on, whether they’re realized or not. Simple ideas such as “love one another” and “don’t tell lies about other people” and “don’t murder.” This could go on for a while, but let’s just say this: religions have been at the core of essentially all successful societies and cultures throughout history, up until fairly recently.

Nobody claims that the history of religions is an unblemished record of perfection. Including religious folks. All sides agree that humans fail to actually live up to religion’s lofty ideals.

But the answer, it seems, isn’t giving up on lofty ideals. It’s to do better at the challenge of actually living up to them.

We can describe the benefits here as a “proven framework.”

8) Existentialism: “Create it yourself!”

Are there positive aspects to existentialism?

Yes. A few key ones are similar to #3 above: freedom and individualism.

To focus on just one of the key idea of existentialism: it puts the ball clearly in our court.

Human: “Life, would you reveal your meaning to me?”
Life: “Oh, I see. So you want to sit back and just ask me to serve it up to you on a silver platter, with a silver spoon, while I fan you with ostrich feathers? Nope. It’s actually the other way around. You’re alive. I’ve done my part. Now it’s your turn. It’s up to you to do something meaningful with it.”

This might seem jolting. This approach isn’t for anyone that want to be coddled. Anyone who wants a free and easy mass transit system to heaven, who wants “the whole God thing and all” but doesn’t want it to be too much of an inconvenience or anything – well, existentialism isn’t really what they’re looking for. Existentialism makes demands.

Which brings up another virtue of the existential approach: an open-eyed, unflinching, clear acknowledgement of life’s horrors. From concentration camps to hypocrisy and corruption in society to the rat race of everyday life, this approach starts at a point many of us are familiar with: the unforgiving, ugly, often brutal reality of normal life. Naïve, sentimental, and militantly positive approaches to life often crumble when confronted with some of what actual life has to offer (the two World Wars, for example, come to mind.) But existentialism embraces these, and even get strengthened by them.

We can describe these positive qualities of existentialism as an emphasis on “active effort” and “embracing all of gritty realities human experience.”

9) Altruism: “Make the world a better place”

We’ll assume that the benefits of altruism are obvious. It makes the world a better place. Nothing more really needs to be said.

10) Transcendence: “Become part of something bigger.”

We can be brief here, as few folks disagree (intellectually, at least) with the idea of participating in something bigger than yourself.

We can describe this as “an escape.”

Escape from what? Well, in a way, it’s what we’re always trying to escape from, really: ourselves.

The trick here, as we discussed, is figuring out what exactly that “bigger thing” is that we’re wanting to become part of, and then making sure that bigger thing is actually a good thing and not a bad one.

And then, of course, an important part is actually following through on it, or putting it into practice.

Again: few disagree with this idea in principle. But actually living it is another matter.

For some folks, the prime directive is “what’s in it for me.” The guiding principle is happiness via various forms of self-indulgence. Instead of “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” the idea is “ask what your country can do for you.” This isn’t judgy; it’s just a plain description. And it’s understandable. We naturally think of ourselves first. Babies and toddlers don’t scream out of selfless motives. Overcoming that state doesn’t happen easily. Most of us wish the world was a bit more enjoyable, comfortable, and flattering, and we complain when it isn’t. We want the world to conform to our ideas of what it should be rather than us conforming ourselves and our ideas to “something bigger.”

The idea that an atomized, separated, isolated human being can experience meaning in life while walled off from the rest of the world isn’t popular for good reason. While a few rare artists, saints and mystics might thrive in isolation, the rest of us require some kind of connection with the rest of humanity, that makes us a part of something bigger.

This approach to meaning is popular for good reasons.

That’s it.

So again, to recap: we asked the question of the meaning of life, we gathered answers, we pointed out flaws in these answers, and now we’ve talked about various virtues of those answers.

The strengths of the various answers:

1) Just live: Spontaneous
2) Dumb Question: Avoids fruitless, dead-end pursuits
3) It’s Subjective: Freedom and individualism
4) Immediacy: Simple and practical
5) Happiness: Rings intuitively true
6) Nihilism: No-nonsense
7) Traditional Religion: Proven framework
8) Existentialism: Encourages effort and embraces all aspects of life
9) Making the world a better place: it makes the world a better place
10) Transcendence: an escape

So now, the ten billion dollar question:

Are there any answers that answer the question, and avoid the flaws we’ve spoken about, while keeping the strengths we’ve spoken of?

We think so.

Here's our take on it. >

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