The Meaning of Life: 10 Popular Answers (That Don't Fully Work)
A brief tour of answers that work...but not completely.
We've been on a bit of a quest.
The basic idea: to find the meaning of life, or die trying.
Our progress so far:
From our starting point here, first we clarified the question. Then we gathered as many answers from all corners of the globe into one place: that's "The Quiz." Then, since that can be a bit overwhelming, we simplified. Many of those answers really said the same things in slightly different ways. So, based on this, we eventually narrowed the entire field down into 10 popular answers.
Now, our job is to give each of those answers a thorough and rigorous inspection.
The idea is to sort the cotton candy from the steak.
Meaning is like food.
We need it to survive. If we don't have it, we won't be around for long. We don't live by idle amusements alone.
But some answers to meaning are like cotton candy: it tastes great, it's fun to eat, it makes you sick, and it leaves you empty. Others are like broccoli: it can be a little bland and boring, but it's good for you.
The trick is being able to tell the side dishes from the main course.
Modern life loves serving up existential side-dishes: stuff that’s fun to eat and tastes great, but isn’t actually nourishing enough to keep us vertical and breathing.
Many powerful forces today are designed to steer us toward existential side dishes, and away from steak and broccoli.
It’s all too easy to wind up with a life full of condiments, but no actual food. (Fight Club, anyone?)
It's part of why soft nihilism is so popular these days. We're often force-fed the existential equivalent of cotton candy (and we sometimes go along with it.) Then we wind up sick, empty and confused, and wondering what happened.
"What happened," at least in some cases, was that we were living on a paltry diet of meaning. Sometimes without even realizing it (because nobody ever talks about it.) And if we're living on a diet full of ideas that are the equivalent of empty calories, then we shouldn't be surprised if we wind up with existential malnutrition.
So, that's why we're working here to remedy all that.
Figuring out what makes sense, what doesn’t, and navigating that terrain while avoiding all the quicksand, booby traps and sheer cliffs along the way is no small task.
Some folks spend more time thinking about which phone to buy than their answer to the meaning of life. And the reason why isn’t a mystery: this stuff can be hard, and scary, and confusing.
But that's where we come in ("We" meaning your trusty and so-cuddly LiveReal Agents.)
We’ve been working to make sense of all this, so the process gets a little easier.
We’ve broken things down here into bite-sized pieces.
Now that we've gotten started, clarified the question, gathered answers, and categorized them into the most popular answers, now we’re going to talk about some of the various ways they don’t totally work.
To be clear: the answers below do “work” to some capacity. Which is to say, these answers can effectively get folks out of bed in the morning, and help them endure some of the challenges, tests and trials life throws at us.
So, they do “work.” Otherwise, they wouldn’t be so popular.
The problems are that they don’t always work.
Some of them have glaring, well-known, predictable, flaws. These flaws don’t mean the answers should be abandoned completely. There’s room here to throw out bathwater without throwing out babies. But uncovering these flaws, examining them, and understanding them can help us revise and refine our answers. All of which can hopefully serve as a rock-solid foundation to help us not only endure the wild curveballs life throws at us, but come out stronger.
Here are some ways that 10 popular answers to the meaning of life don't totally work.
1) Just Live: “Don’t think about it!”
This is a popular answer, especially for young folks: “The meaning of life is to live!”
On the surface, this sounds great. Axiomatic, even, or self-evident. “Live is about living.” Who could argue with that?
The problem appears when you adopt that as an actual answer to the meaning of life, and try to live by it.
A good illustration: two folks in a car. Driver: “Where are we going?” Passenger: “I don’t know! Just drive!” Driver: “But drive…where?” Passenger: “Don’t think! Just drive!” (Epilogue: Driver “just drove,” and they both spent many years wandering aimlessly at great expense. Driver and Passenger were last spotted years ago, navigating through remote regions of Siberia.)
“Just live” as an answer to meaning in life is something like a participation trophy. It’s nice, maybe. Pleasant enough. It isn’t offensive to anyone (which is, to some folks, what's most important.) But it’s also, in a way, meaningless. The answer doesn’t really move the ball down the field. It doesn’t help us understand or actually live any better. If the point of life is just to “just live,” well, there’s no way to not live. (Well, almost.) It declares everything meaningful, by holy decree, with a wave of the hand. Which also means nothing in itself is meaningful. Therefore, “do what you want. It’s all good.”
It’s no mystery why young folks often like this answer. At least for a while, until life hits them with a few good uppercuts, and they realize they'll probably need some stronger medicine. “OK, I’m ‘living,’ already. So…now what?”
2) Dumb Question: “Be quiet and stop asking!”
The basic idea here is clear: zip your pie-hole, get back in line, and stop asking questions.
Some folks say “what is the meaning of life?” is a dumb question. Which doesn't necessarily mean that folks behind The Matrix don't want you asking questions about The Matrix. Not necessarily.
Folks can arrive at this answer for several different reasons.
1) “I’m having fun! Stop and think? Ugh!”
2) “It can’t be answered! So why bother?”
3) “It’s already been answered. So, why are we still even talking about it?”
4) “It’s the wrong question. The right question is (insert clever rephrasing here).”
5) The answer is nonsense to start with. It’s like asking what a circle smells like.
Folks cite any or all of the above as reasons to write off the “meaning of life” as anything worth bothering to even think about. Yet each response can also be problematic
1) “I’m having fun! Stop and think? Ugh! Uncoolness alert!” – This is the response of someone who has already arrived at an answer to the meaning of life that they’re happy with (for the moment, at least.) They’ve already solved the problem (for now), which is “goofing around with friends” or “trying to become cool” or “teaching dog yoga” or whatever. So the problem isn’t actually that it’s a dumb question. It’s a good question, just one that’s already been answered. So thinking about it any further feels like a waste of time (aka feels meaningless.)
2) “It can’t be answered! So why bother?” – This, like the above, is an answer to the question of the meaning of life. It’s another way of saying that it’s all absurd, nobody knows anything, so just do what you want. The catch here can be understood if it’s rephrased slightly: “the answer to the meaning of life is that we can’t know the answer to the meaning of life.” Which negates itself. This also rules out the possibility that this is something like asking you to figure out the square root of 972,823 without using a calculator. Maybe there is an answer, it’s just a bit difficult, and they haven’t found it yet.
3) “It’s already been answered! So why are we still talking about it! – This is the opposite of the above, in some ways. Someone who adopts this answer believes they’ve already found the answer. They just can’t understand why everyone else hasn’t arrived at the same conclusion they have. But of course, many of the answers different folks arrive at contradict each other. All of which indicates that we should examine the matter more, not less.
4) “It’s the wrong question. The right question is (insert clever rephrasing here.)” – This is often a clever game of moving coconut shells around in a maneuver of one-upsmanship. Maybe there’s a better way to rephrase the question, or state it more poetically. But more often than not, merely rephrasing the same basic question doesn’t necessarily move us closer to the answer.
5) “The answer is nonsense to start with. It’s like asking what a circle smells like.” – This is often a favorite of modern overly-intellectual mainstream academics, who often see the matter as kind of grammar problem. It might be helpful here is a gentle reminder of the stakes here: for a person sitting at their kitchen table with their lips around a revolver, the meaning of life isn’t an abstract intellectual puzzle. The issue at hand here clearly isn’t a matter of mere grammar. That person needs a clear answer: “why not?” Or, rather: “why?” Camus, Viktor Frankl, Tolstoy and plenty of others have said it well: this is no merely philosophical exercise. It’s literally a matter of life or death.
All of these approaches seem geared to put an end to the discussion. But really, when we inspect them a little more closely, they seem to indicate that we should really look into the matter more, not less.
3) It's Subjective: “Do Whatever You Want!”
This is another favorite of young folks. “Do whatever you want!” “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do!” “It’s your life, so you live it!”
There’s an issue involving power clouding the conversation here that should be cleared up. On the matter of “do what you want!” and “it’s your life!” brings to mind an image of someone following you around every day, slapping your wrist with a ruler, saying “don’t do that! Do this instead!” hundreds of times.
Nobody here is talking about that. As far as everyone is concerned: Yes, it’s your life to knock out of the park or face-plant however you want. The idea we’re getting at here has nothing to do with following anyone around all day. It has everything to do with helping folks figure out for themselves how to knock life out of the part instead of face-planting, or learning the easy way instead of the hard way. Hopefully that’s clear.
With that in mind, what are problems with the “do whatever you want!” approach?
The basic assumption with this approach is that there’s no objective, scientific answer to the meaning of life. The answer, then, is up to you. It’s subjective. It’s whatever you want. The matter becomes entirely an issue of finding something you enjoy to fill up time for the rest of your life. Or in other words, the answer boils down to this: “get a hobby.”
So, what’s the problem with “find something to enjoy, and enjoy it”?
Here’s one: What if you enjoy heroin?
Or playing video games for so many weeks/months/years on end that you wind up just installing a toilet and IV drip in front of your console?
Or setting dogs on fire?
In classic fairy tales, the hero is granted three wishes. The first two are disasters, and create all kinds of terrible problems. The third wish is used to undo the first two, and the end result is simply to return things back to the way they were at the beginning of the story.
Moral: we often want the wrong things.
4) Immediacy: “Solve what’s right in front of you.”
This is simple, down-to-earth, practical. Solve the problem in front of you. There’s a Zen saying: when you’re hungry, eat; when you’re thirsty, drink; when you’re tired, sleep. If you’re hungry, the meaning of life is a ham sandwich.
Sounds like good advice. What’s the problem with that?
The problem is that, first of all, what to do when you’re hungry, thirsty, or tired has never really that hard to figure out. What to study in college, which career path to choose, whether to marry or not, who to marry or not, and so on. We don’t need help with the easy problems. We need help with the difficult ones. What to do when you’re hungry, thirsty, and sleepy aren’t difficult problems. Zen has plenty of good things to say, but this phrase, taken by itself, isn’t its best.
Secondarily, there’s a problem with solving the problem that appears right in front of us. Namely, there’s an element of passivity to it. Problems just appear. And “we should solve them.” Is there even an option to avoid trying to solve them? Isn’t this basically just telling us to do what we’re already doing?
But further, it seems to convey that “problems just appear” magically, and then we should try to solve them. But often we have some say in which problems appear in front of us. If someone decides that their life’s mission was to build a rocket and travel to Jupiter, they’d suddenly find themselves facing a whole lot of other problems. And many of those problems might be unnecessary.
Finally, what if the problem “right in front of me” is this: “what’s the point of life?” Then we’re right back where we started.
5) Happiness: “Be happy!”
This answer is hugely popular, and is a heavyweight contender in the “meaning” topic.
There’s something unavoidable within us that longs for it. We can’t not long for it. It acts in us like an inner north star, something we always oriented ourselves to. For thousands of years, folks ranging from Aristotle to the Dalai Lama have seen “happiness” as “the answer” to the meaning of life.
What could possibly be the problem with this?
We can name three.
The first difficulty, of course, lies in defining “happiness.”
The definitions vary widely. For some folks, happiness means eating all the ice cream you want without worry about the consequences, hanging out with friends, music, partying, and so on. For others (Aristotle), it looks a lot more like reading books, thinking about things, and doing philosophy. (Which is not how many others would define happiness.) For others – like Buddha, for example – the search for a certain kind of happiness led to becoming an ascetic, fasting for weeks on end, becoming celibate, and so on.
That’s a pretty wide range for one word.
This range of answers to the “happiness” question is nearly as wide as it is for the “meaning” question itself. Which can make us wonder if we’re actually made progress there.
Secondarily, there’s one issue that many thinkers and researchers, old and new, have discovered (and continue re-discovering.)
This issue is this: that happiness typically comes as a side-effect or as a by-product of something else, and not directly.
This puts many of us in a strange situation: if we want X, we need to aim for Y. If we want happiness, we need to aim for something else. And what is that “something else”?
There are many answers to this, but one is “meaning.” Which puts us right back where we started.
Finally, there’s the issue of how the world seems to actually work.
Which is to say: if the goal of the universe is human happiness, then then the universe seems to have been built very poorly. The amount of horrific suffering in the world, for example, seems to testify that there’s something incredibly wrong with this picture. The idea of the universe being a cosmic Disneyland, created entirely for our enjoyment, seems wrong on all kinds of levels.
But this applies even on a personal level. For example, each of us might face moments of unhappiness. If your answer to the meaning of life is “happiness,” then in those dark moments, you might suddenly find yourself facing the misery itself, but in addition to that, now you’re also facing failure at your mission in life. Which adds an additional burden of meaninglessness to the suffering you were already up against originally (as if that wasn’t enough.)
Happiness is key piece of the puzzle, no doubt. But it’s not the whole puzzle.
6) Nihilism: “There is no meaning.”
There aren’t many folks who argue for nihilism as an answer to the meaning of life. The ones that do usually redefine it as a state of freedom from oppressive nonsense. Which, of course, isn’t real nihilism. Because the implication is that “it’s fun living without oppressive nonsense” (which most folks would actually agree with.) That would also imply that living that kind of fun life is better than not living that kind of fun life. And to boot, that kind of fun life is really a version of the search for happiness (see #5 above.)
And so on. All of this points to a key weakness: that almost nobody can actually live as a nihilist.
Nietzsche rightly criticized Schopenhauer on this. For all his prattling about meaninglessness, he still played the violin. There seems to be a contradiction there, to say it politely.
In other words, the only real nihilists who consistently live their beliefs are institutionalized catatonics. (James Sire.)
True nihilism, then, is rare. What’s much more popular is soft nihilism, which looks much more like someone pulling out the nihilism card when it’s convenient. This often happens when, for example, someone’s pursuits start making demands. When someone faces a condition that asks something of them that isn’t pleasurable or flattering, that’s when they often reach into their basket of nihilism as a way out. Which is to say, it isn’t really an answer to the meaning of life, but more of a convenient philosophical escape pod.
7) Traditional Religion: “The elephant in the room.”
Traditional religions are “the elephant in the room” because they have been the source of answers to the meaning of life for billions of people throughout history.
Briefly: Judeo Christianity: “To know, love, and serve God or achieve salvation.” Islam: submission to Allah. Buddhism/Hinduism: overcoming illusion or “achieving” enlightenment. Plus many others, of course.
Folks aren’t buying it like they used to.
The landscape has been changing, sometimes dramatically. Increasing numbers of individuals feel either burned or bored by the entire, or see the enterprise as a whole as premodern, imaginary, or weighed down with baggage. The reasons differ, but it all translates into many folks just checking out altogether. As we describe it here, we’re living through "The Death of God."
If we could compare the world’s major religions to a buffet – something that “feeds” meaning to humanity – the buffet tables here would be large enough to fill not just banquet halls, but entire cities, or even countries. And some of what’s offered from these tables is, arguably, among the best food that exists. Existential filet mignon, nutritious and filling. But other parts are infested with slimy old rot.
Sorting out the filet from the rot is no small task. And instead of doing that, many folks these days are walking away from the table entirely.
8) Existentialism: “Create it yourself!”
The “existentialism” answer to the meaning of life goes something like this: there is no objective, external, scientific, universally agreed-upon meaning to the universe – not that we’re able to know with any provable certainty, anyway. But there can be subjective meaning (see #3 above) – which is to say, something that inspires us to get us out of bed in the morning and sustains us through life’s strains and storms.
According to this perspective, we don’t discover meaning. We create it. Meaning isn’t objective, it’s subjective. In other words, a dialogue between you and life might go something like this:
You: What’s the meaning of life?
Life: What’s the meaning of you?
Life won’t do it for you. By itself, according to existentialism, life is meaningless. But we have the power to rage against the machine, to rebel against the Void by creating our own heroic mission. And that project – creating meaning – is left entirely up to you.
This kind of answer is, of course, hugely popular these days. And for good reasons. It puts control in your hands. It treats you as an individual. It’s challenging. It implores you to be creative, to dig, to actively grab the hammer and chisel and sculpt life yourself instead of merely plugging in to some kind of pre-packaged, shrink-wrapped, hand-me-down, one-size-fits all system.
What could possibly be the problem with this approach?
Well, if we take this seriously, we sometimes discover that all this turns out to be a heavy burden to bear. This mission might be easier to accept than to deliver on.
There seems to be a risk of severely underestimating the difficulty of the task. Meaning, it seems easy to find ourselves suddenly in way over our heads, like a Sorcerer’s Apprentice of the Soul. We might discover that we’re messing with forces we don’t fully understand.
When we dismiss the entire body of accumulated wisdom of humanity in an effort to do things ourselves, we should expect a few surprises along the way. We might easily find ourselves reinventing the wheel, perhaps without realizing it. Maybe we take too big a step when we task ourselves with the problem of solving the ultimate mysteries of the universe when it’s hard enough just to figure out how to lose five pounds.
A key problem with the existential approach isn’t that it’s entirely wrong, but that it so often strips us of our weapons, shields and armor, and sends us off to do battle with existential monsters.
The existential approach says something like this: Here’s a blank sheet of paper. Your task is to understand and solve the deepest mysteries of life, and to do it entirely on your own. The weight of your entire life rests on your shoulders, and yours alone. Now, go. “Create a life.”
9) Altruism: “Make the world a better place.”
Let’s be honest: the world often seems like a messed-up place. It seems to be a confusing, unfair, exhausting, painful disaster zone, often on the edge of chaos, full of serious problems that need solutions.
Many of us naturally and understandably respond to this by working to solve some of these problems. And a sense of meaning can come from that.
Obviously, there’s plenty to admire with this approach. Many folks work selflessly and heroically to bring genuine relief to suffering in the world. Nothing here is meant to discourage that.
But the issue at hand is whether the answer “making the world a better place” in itself works as an effective answer to the meaning of life question. We have to measure it by that yardstick.
And there are some ways this answer doesn’t fully work.
The key question lies in asking this question:
What is “better”? And how will that come about?
Some folks are trying to “make the world a better place.” But they’re doing it in ways that many other folks wouldn’t necessarily agree with.
Politicians are working to make the world a better place – some of whom you probably agree with, and some you probably don’t. Political activists of all kinds are doing the same. Scientologists are working to make the world a better place according to the beliefs of Scientology. Communists are working to make the world a better place according to the standards of Communism. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Taoists are often working to make the world a better place as they define it. Terrorists are working to make the world a better place as they see it.
And so on. This list could keep going, indefinitely.
What does “better” really mean? And, how will that come about?
Obviously, many of the folks listed above are working against each other. Because they define what “better” means in different ways.
The basic idea here is pretty simple:
“Making the world a better place” isn’t as straightforward as it might seem.
This idea makes several assumptions when it’s engaged as an answer to the meaning of life. For example, it assumes something about the nature of the world: that it is something flawed and in need of repair. It assumes that this repair will be effective enough to be worth the effort. It assumes that the individual tasked with doing the improving understands the world properly, understands the problem correctly, understands how to fix it, and that has the ability to do so. It also assumes that any unintended consequences will be either positive or negligible.
Those can be some pretty big leaps.
History is rarely flattering. It often shows that folks who thought they were making the world a better place (name your tyrant of choice here) actually made things worse. Look at the greatest villains in films and stories: every villain thinks he or she is making things better, as they define it.
This all leads us to the unsettling conclusion that, before we set about fixing the world, we should really do some hard thinking to make sure our understanding of both the world and ourselves is correct. Otherwise we might do more harm than good.
Good philosophy can help us here: there’s a hazard when ethics becomes unanchored from metaphysics.
Meaning, a blind imperative to “Do good!” without a clear understanding of what “good” really is, and how it’s brought about properly, can sometimes make things quite messy. If I embark on a crusade to rid the world of underwear because I’ve decided that it’s the cause of all misery in the world, I might see myself as improving the world. But most of the rest of the world will see me as a problem.
None of these are meant to discourage anyone from doing good deeds.
Obviously, we aren’t saying that anyone who wants to improve the world is a potential supervillain. We’re just saying there’s reason for caution here, and clarity, and self-knowledge.
Folks can do good deeds, of course, and should. Many good deeds are straightforward and don’t need endless scrutiny. If someone is hungry, we can them food, and if they’re thirsty, we can give them something to drink. The idea here isn’t to overcomplicate things unnecessarily. The idea here isn’t to steer us into imponderable, unanswerable questions where we stall out and let the world burn while we’re busy navel-gazing. Instead, this suggestion is a corrective to the naïve, wild-eyed crusader who embarks on a fanatical mission to make the world over in their own image and likeness, without having thought a great deal about what exactly they’re doing and why.
We can answer these questions. And the point here is that we should. There can be risk in doing too much navel-gazing, but there’s also risk in blundering into a situation, enthused and naïve, and making a mess of things.
Some solutions are worse than the problems. As an answer to the meaning of life, this one raises a lot of questions.
And finally: if our purpose is to make the world a better place, then what's the purpose of "the world"?
10) Transcendence: “Become part of something bigger.”
“Becoming part of something bigger than yourself” is a time-tested, surefire solution to the “meaning” thing.
But it hinges on one key factor:
What is the “something bigger” that you’re becoming part of?
By itself, this approach leaves a lot of room for error. Joining a cult, for example. Signing up to be a human shield. Volunteering to be cannon fodder, or a pawn for some bizarre political cause.
All of these can help someone become a part of “something bigger.” They can successfully provide folks with a subjective sense of meaning, something to do that seems worth doing, a reason to get out of bed. But a lot depends on what exactly that “something” is. Everything, really.
And even further: it still doesn’t really solve the problem. If someone’s purpose lies in becoming part of “something bigger,” what’s the purpose of that “something bigger”? It actually kicks the can down the road.
Those are a few problems with some popular answers to the meaning of life.
This might seem discouraging. It might feel like we've taken a step backwards.
But hopefully, this has gotten us a little closer to an answer that's actually nourishing.
We've made some progress.
It might not feel like it. It might seem like we've just beat up a little on a few popular answers to the problem. And even a bit unfairly at times.
These answers seem to put us in a strange situation: they all “work,” or at least can work, for some individuals, in some cases. And yet, strangely enough, each of them can also fail us, if they’re approached or understood in the wrong way.
Humans seems to be a hardy race. We can survive on any number of diets. We don’t seem to require one single type of food in order to stay alive. The same principle seems to apply when it comes to the question of meaning.
That said: a merely corrosive analysis of flaws isn’t altogether helpful. Throwing rocks is relatively easy; creating is hard. Throwing rocks at things others have worked hard to create makes us mere critics. And more importantly, it doesn’t give us answers yet.
So, what now?
Now it’s time to reverse course.
Instead of beating up on other answers, let’s take a more positive turn, and explore aspects that each of the above answers do right – to try to understand, in other words, what makes them popular.
Because maybe this is going somewhere.
Which is to say, maybe once we understand what does work in each approach, then maybe we’ll be in a good position to piece together something that preserves the good and throws away the rot.
Let’s keep exploring.