"The Meaning of Life": 10 Popular Answers That Don't Totally Work
How most answers to The Ultimate Question really boil down to just a few.
So, what is the meaning of life?
Well, we went searching for all the answers we could find, and gathered them in one place: that's The Quiz.
Now, of course, that's a bit of a mess. And overwhelming.
Now let's remedy that.
After we do some analysis, it becomes clear that most of those answers are pretty much saying some of the same things, just using different words. Meaning, they start to naturally fall into groups.
So, we can simplify this pile of answers by sorting them into basic groups. Hopefully, this transforms them into something manageable.
Here we go.
1) It’s a Dumb Question | “Be quiet and stop asking!”
Some folks say “what is the meaning of life?” is a dumb question, and we should basically shut up and stop asking.
A certain amount of modern academic philosophy seems to be currently part of this camp, which is likely part of what accounts for their overwhelming popularity. (Yes, that’s a joke.)
Their basic idea is that asking about the meaning of life is something like asking “what do triangles smell like?” or “how tall is math?” In other words, there are silly questions. Folks think the question of the meaning of life is something like those.
(For what it’s worth, we think they’re silly. But we wanted to include it here.)
There are other folks who offer a similar answer, but for different reasons.
2) Just Live! | “Don’t think about it!”
We’ve all heard it: the meaning of life is to live!
(This answer is pretty popular with young folks, whether it's articulated or not. And it's often less popular with older ones. But we digress.)
Life, according to these folks, is meant to be lived. So, dance! Sing! Hang out with friends! Eat! Drink! Work! Party! Just do stuff, in other words.
Which translate into this: don’t sit around and think about stuff. Because if you do that, well, you’ll miss the whole point of living.
Folks in this camp aren’t necessarily anti-intellectual, strictly speaking. They aren’t against thinking about anything. (That would be a position that requires a certain amount of thinking.) They’re just usually against thinking about this kind of stuff. There is meaning to life, according to this perspective. It’s just found by doing stuff, not by thinking about it.
3) It’s subjective | “Do Whatever You Want!”
The meaning of life is whatever you want it to be. Do what you want.
This is pretty similar to #2, above, in saying that you should just live. It’s also similar to #8 below, in that it’s a radically personal, individualistic answer.
Nobody can answer this for you. Nobody else should answer this for you. You figure it out for yourself. Want to hang out with friends? Great – do it. Skydiving? Go for it. Naked snowskiing? Hey, whatever cracks your walnuts. Setting the world record for the longest session of underwater butt-yodeling? Have a blast.
Do what you want, whatever that is, and don’t let anybody else stop you.
That is a popular answer these days.
4) Immediacy: “What’s right in front of you.”
This is a practical, down-to-earth, simple answer to the meaning of life: just solve the problem in front of you.
Zen has a saying along these lines: when you’re hungry, eat; when you’re thirsty, drink; when you’re tired, sleep.
So, don’t overcomplicate it. If your stomach is growling, make a ham sandwich. The answer to the meaning in life is to just solve whatever problem is right in front of you.
That is a popular answer these days.
5) Happiness: “Be happy!”
This is one of the most popular answers: the meaning of life is to be happy.
Folks from Aristotle to the Dalai Lama endorse this perspective.
There’s plenty more we could say about this – for example, asking about what happiness is, exactly, or how to go about actually experiencing it, or why our efforts to find it are so often doomed, or what a higher grade of happiness might look like.
But for now, we can keep it simple: don’t worry. Be happy.
This is another popular answer these days.
6) Nihilism: “There is no meaning.”
Nihilism is the perspective that the answer to the meaning of life question is this: there is no meaning.
This is life as an aquarium of “birth, copulation, and death,” leading nowhere, for no reason, all to no end. Life is absurd, pointless, and random, and things happen all the time for no apparent reason. Everything in the world is eating everything else. Everything we can see around us is either just starting or further along in a process of decay. There are no genuine answers to this. It just is.
Now, go enjoy yourself.
The position stated above is what we could describe as hard nihilism. There aren’t really too many hard nihilists out there. But soft nihilism – a slightly more domesticated version of the above – is much more popular than a lot of folks probably suspect these days. Their numbers seem to be growing. And if we really are living through what we’re calling “The Death of God” – they’ll continue to grow.
So, it’s not a stretch to say that nihilism – the soft kind – really is a popular answer to the meaning of life these days.
7) Traditional Religion: “The elephant in the room.”
Major religions of the world – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Taoism and others – offer answers to the meaning of life for billions.
Grouping these into one category, and even labeling it “traditional religion,” is controversial. Plenty of folks could state very good reasons for not doing this.
But we’re painting with broad brush strokes here. We aren’t trying to oversimplify. On the other hand, we are trying to prevent overwhelm. In the information tsunami of modern life, sometimes we have to try to get a Big-Picture, 10,000-foot view.
So for now, we’ll just say this: the major religions of the world offer answers to the meaning of life for billions of folks in the world today.
8) Existentialism: “Create it yourself!”
This is the idea that meaning isn't something you discover, but something you create.
There is no meaning "out there," in other words. But you can still make your life meaningful by what you do with your life.
This answer is challenging. To some, it’s inspiring. It treats you as an individual. It's highly marketable, and it's not usually offensive to anyone, which, these days, to many folks, is what is most important.
9) Contribution:"Make the world a better place.”
Lots of folks are working to make the world a better place.
The idea of leaving the world a better place than you found it gives many folks a sense of meaning.
10) Transcendence: “Become part of something bigger.”
This, of course, is a surefire, time-tested, very popular solution to the “meaning” thing.
Becoming part of something bigger than yourself, for many individuals, solves the answer to the meaning of life in many ways.
OK, so what's next?