The Meaning of Life: 10 Popular Answers (That Don't Really Work)
Lots of “answers” to the meaning of life are zinging around these days.
And for good reason. After all, we need a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
We have to fight gravity just to stand up. And we need a “why” for that fight. Otherwise, gravity wins, and we just stay in bed.
But the question – THE Question, I think, that really gets down to the heart of the matter:
Want a bowl of ketchup for dinner?
No? OK. Mustard sandwich, then?
Not your style?
OK then, tough customer: here's a cup full of mayonnaise for you. Satisfied yet?
OK. Pretty gross.
Here’s what I’m getting at.
It’s probably my favorite line in Fight Club.
In what seems like a throwaway line in “Fight Club,” the nameless narrator looks down at the aftermath of his refrigerator (splattered in the street after an explosion) and confesses: "How embarrassing. A house full of condiments, and no food."
Modern life serves us a lot of condiments for the soul.
(Maybe that sounds a little weird. But hey, let’s get weird.)
We're flooded with existential condiments these days.
Lots of strong flavors, noise, and hype. But…something is missing.
Something like “the main course.” Whatever that might be.
We’re surrounded by food, but hungry. Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. (Coleridge.) Clatter and glitter, flashy and enticing.
Lots of buildup…to…
Hype turns hollow. Life as a series of clickbaits.
Modern life sells us status symbols. Great movies. Great food. It hypes up the latest gadget or whatever. Air conditioning. Ice cream. And so on.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining about condiments. They’re great.
But they’re condiments.
The trouble happens when we try to make condiments into the main course.
Bread is great.
Mustard sandwiches? Not really. Can’t live on that.
Small pleasures. Creature comforts. Niceties.
Again: great. But nothing to live or die for.
Not enough to build a meal around, or a life.
What’s missing is the big, fat, cosmic turkey or ham or lasagna at the center of the table. Or juicy slab of tofu, if that’s what you're into. (Does tofu get juicy?)
There’s important stuff in life, and there’s inconsequential nonsense. Often, the inconsequential nonsense gets the most noise and hype and attention.
If you want a full, rich, strong, well-lived life, you need real existential food, so to speak, that’s substantial and nourishing and nutritious. A steady diet of philosophical Gummy Bears won’t work.
Some answers to the meaning of life are like cotton candy. Fun, tasty, and empty. Or ice cream – sensational, but not enough to live on. Others are dry, bland, overcooked chicken.
We’ve gathered some samples here.
Let’s dig in.
Existential Crash-Test Dummy for Hire
Let’s take some popular answers to the meaning of life and test them out.
All of these answers “work” for some folks. Meaning, they successfully get folks out of bed in the morning, and give them enough heart to fight gravity, and other battles, day after day.
So these all can work.
But we’re looking for something idiot-proof.
So, we need a test subject. An existential crash-test dummy. (That would be yours truly.)
The basic idea: take a popular answer to the meaning of life, strap the dummy (me) into it, and crash it into a wall at a very high speed.
Eventually, we want to find an answer that will survive the harsh, brutal tests of real life. Ideally, we find something idiot-proof that even I can’t break. (I’m the “idiot” in this scenario/ Cosmic QA Test.) Your philosophical Space Monkey.
Let’s shoot me into space and hope I survive.
OK, I’m strapped in. Let’s go.
1) Dumb Question: “Shut up 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.
• “I’m having fun! Stop and think? Ugh!”
• “It can’t be answered! So why bother?”
• “It’s the wrong question. The right question is (insert clever rephrasing here).”
Does it work?
[ Crash ]
All of the above are actually positions of folks who have already solved the problem (to their satisfaction, at least.)
Saying “there’s no answer” is an answer. (Like choosing not to decide is a choice.)
If you’re enjoying whatever existential morsel is in front of you, great. Keep it up, then.
Or if you haven’t found an answer and want to call off the search, swell. Good luck, seriously.
But speak for yourself. That doesn’t mean there are no answers, or that it’s a dumb question.
Let’s be clear on this.
Viktor Frankl, Camus, Tolstoy and plenty of others have said it well: this is no abstract intellectual exercise. It’s literally a matter of life or death.
I’ll really go out on a limb here: matters of life and death aren’t dumb.
They’re even worth thinking about.
2) Just Live: “Don’t think about it!”
The meaning of life is to live!
Sounds great! Who could argue with that?
Crash Test Dummy: “Where are we going?”
“I don’t know! Just drive!”
CTD: “But drive…where?”
“Don’t think! Just drive!”
[ Crash ]
“Just live” as an answer to meaning in life is like a participation trophy. It’s inoffensive…but meaningless. It won’t hurt anybody’s feelings, but it doesn’t move the ball down the field. It doesn’t help us understand (or live) any better.
“Just live!” is great, so long as everything is peachy.
But if you’re trying to decide how to fill a long, empty afternoon, that answer can start wearing a little thin. “OK, I’m ‘living.’ So…now what?”
Part of the problem is treating “the meaning problem” like a school math problem.
The general idea is to solve it – ideally as quickly as possible. Then, get back to “the fun stuff” (say, teaching puppy yoga, or whatever.)
Groping your way through abstract philosophical problems feels homework. Like a tedious, pointless, annoying detour.
Which it almost is, in this case. But that’s because we’re barking up the wrong tree. The “abstract philosophical detour” in this example, and whatever witty slogan you land on, isn’t your real answer.
Your real answer is “the fun stuff” that you’re getting back to. Your actual answer is dog yoga.
We tend to overvalue the intellect these days.
But “the meaning thing” isn’t merely an intellectual problem. That’s trying to tackle the problem in a wrong way. It’s bringing a pencil to a cannon fight.
The real answer, whatever it may be, will likely require more from you than your intellect.
3) Get a Hobby: “Do Whatever You Want!”
Hey, what’s not to like about this?
What if you enjoy heroin?
Or playing video games for months, years, decades? Or setting dogs on fire?
In classic fairy tales, the hero is granted three wishes. The first two create disasters. The third is used to undo those and return things to normal again.
Moral: we often want the wrong things.
4) Immediacy: “What’s right in front of you.”
This is simple, down-to-earth, practical. Solve the problem in front of you.
Zen: when you’re hungry, eat; when you’re thirsty, drink; when you’re tired, sleep.
What’s the problem?
The problem is that we sometimes have some control over which problems appear in front of us.
What if my problem is this: “what’s the point of life?”
We’re right back where we started.
5) Happiness: “Be happy!”
Happiness “works” in that it offers something to aim for.
It’s like an inner North Star. Heavyweights from Aristotle to the Dalai Lama agree.
But something’s missing.
The idea of the universe being a cosmic Disneyland, created entirely for our enjoyment…doesn’t sit right.
There’s too much suffering in the world, for one.
Q: When does happiness-as-meaning not work?
A: When you’re miserable. When happiness seems impossible.
In those dark moments, there’s misery…and since your whole life is supposed to be about “being happy,” more misery. Misery and failure, plus meaninglessness.
A key piece of the puzzle, no doubt. But it’s not the whole puzzle.
6) Nihilism: “There is no meaning.”
Hardly anybody can actually live as a nihilist.
Nietzsche rightly criticized Schopenhauer on this. For all his prattling about meaninglessness, he still played the violin.
The only real nihilists who consistently live their beliefs are institutionalized catatonics. (James Sire.)
Nihilism cures the disease by killing the patient. If the universe is a food buffet, nihilism is a permanent hunger fast.
7) Traditional Religion: “The elephant in the room.”
It’s the answer for billions.
So to be fair, this answer can "work," for some.
Briefly: Judeo Christianity: “To know, love, and serve God.” Islam: submission to Allah. Buddhism: happiness.
But the problem?
They’ve either been burned or bored, or they see the whole enterprise as primitive, imaginary, or weighed down with too much baggage. (Whether they’re mistaken or not is another conversation.)
If the world is a buffet, all the various options here would fill rooms, banquet halls, entire buildings.
Some of what’s offered, arguably, is the best food that exists. Existential filet mignon. Nutritious and filling.
Other parts are infested with maggots.
And instead of sorting through it, many folks these days are walking away from the table.
8) Existentialism: “Create it yourself!”
“Create your own meaning.”
It’s challenging. It’s inspiring. It treats you as an individual.
This approach has a lot going for it.
But there’s always the chance, of course, that we’re the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
That we’re in way over our heads.
Maybe we’re messing with forces we don’t fully understand. Maybe we’re taking on the problem of solving the ultimate mystery of the universe, and meanwhile we can’t actually figure out how to lose five pounds.
Here’s a blank sheet of paper.
The weight of your entire life rests on your shoulders. And yours alone.
Now: “Create your life.”
9) Transcendence: “Become part of something bigger.”
This, of course, is a surefire, time-tested solution to the “meaning” thing.
But it hinges on one key factor:
What is the “something bigger” that you’re becoming part of?
There’s joining a cult, for example. Signing up to be a human shield. Volunteering to be cannon fodder or a pawn for some bizarre, imaginary political narrative.
All of these are “something bigger.”
And it still doesn’t really solve the problem. If your purpose is becoming part of that “something bigger,” well, what’s the purpose of that “something bigger”?
It actually kicks the can down the road.
10) Rebellion: “Burn it all down”
Life is hard.
It’s painful. Not “fair.” Full of suffering.
Some folks “rebel” against that. By “burning it all down.”
Meaning, by creating more pain, injustice, suffering.
That’s like rebelling against The Man by giving him all your money, and your house, and clothes.
There are better ways to rebel.
For example, instead of “burning it all down”…well, there’s “forgiveness” and “love” and “working to overcome it.”
Those aren’t “easy” answers. They take strength. (And they sound cheesy.) Way harder than just burning it down.
OK, that’s our incredibly brief flyby tour.
Obviously, this isn’t comprehensive.
All of these answers “work” in some ways, and all have flaws. None are idiot-proof. Our crash-test dummy is pretty bruised up, but will live to crash another day.
We’ve made progress.
Like, maybe we’re a little less likely to try to make a meal out of condiments.
And we’ve cleared out some weeds. Now there’s room to plant and grow something.
But imagine building on this. Examining, methodically, what works and doesn’t in each approach. And then piecing together a menu that includes the best of each, and leaves the worst.
Maybe we wind up with something real, substantial, that doesn’t leave us hungry. Something that satisfies. Is fulfilling, even. And nutritious. No heartburn. No egg burps. No existential indigestion.
It’s just a start here. There’s a lot more work to be done.
But that seems like something worth doing.
Even worth getting out of bed for.