THE MEANING OF LIFE: 10 POPULAR ANSWERS (THAT DON'T FULLY WORK)
A brief tour of answers that work...but not completely
So, what is "the meaning of life"?
We've been on a bit of a quest to find the meaning of life, or die trying.
To recap: from our starting point here, first we clarified the question. Then we gathered answers from all corners of the globe into one place. That's "The Quiz." The Quiz can be a bit overwhelming. So, we simplified. Many answers said essentially the same things in slightly different ways. So, we narrowed the field down into 10 popular answers.
Now, our job is to give each of those answers a rigorous inspection.
When it comes to the meaning of life, the problem these days isn't that nobody has an answer.
The problem is that everyone seems to have an answer.
There are floods of "answers."
The problem for these individuals, these days, is sorting through all of those answers.
Certain people aren't necessarily satisfied with the answers that drop in their laps. Some answers clearly seem better than others. Many are incompatible. So, these hearty individuals decide to take a hard look at what they've been offered, and explore the truth of the matter.
The trick is to sort the cotton candy from the steak.
Meaning can be like food.
We need it to survive. If we don't have it, we won't last. We can't live on idle amusements for too long.
Some answers to the "meaning" question are like cotton candy: it's fun to eat and tastes great, but it leaves you empty, and maybe even a little sick. Others are like broccoli: a little boring, maybe, but good for you.
Modern life serves up a lot of existential snacks and side-dishes. They're good on the lips, maybe, but they aren’t actually nourishing enough to keep us vertical and breathing.
Many powerful forces today are designed to steer us toward these empty calories of the soul. If we let ourselves drift along with those currents, it’s all too easy to wind up with a life full of condiments, but no actual food.
This is all part of why soft nihilism is so popular these days. We're often force-fed the existential equivalent of cotton candy, then we wind up sick, empty and confused, and wondering what happened.
"What happened," at least in some cases, was that we've been living on a paltry diet of meaning. And if we're living on an "idea-diet" chock-full of empty calories, then we shouldn't be surprised if we wind up with existential malnutrition.
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 difficult.
We’ve been working to make sense of all this and make the process a little easier.
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.
Here are some ways that 10 popular answers to the meaning of life don't fully work.
1) Just Live: “Don’t think about it!”
This is a popular answer, especially for children: “The meaning of life is to live!”
On the surface, this sounds great. It seems self-evident. “Live is about living.” Who can argue with that?
The problem arises when you take the answer seriously as an actual answer to the meaning of life, and try to live by it.
To illustrate: imagine two folks in a car.
Driver: “Where are we going?”
Passenger: “I don’t know! Just drive!”
Driver: “But which way should I turn?”
Passenger: “Don’t think! Just drive!”
(Epilogue: Driver “just drove.” They both spent many years wandering aimlessly at great expense. They were last seen, many years ago, in some remote regions of Siberia, heading toward regions that were more remote.)
“Just live” is like a participation trophy. It’s nice, maybe. Pleasant enough. It probably won't offend anyone too much. Everyone succeeds, by this definition, so it's impossible to mess up.
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 life or actually live any better. If the point of life is just to “just live,” well, there’s almost no way to not live. It declares everything “meaningful” with a wave of the hand. Redefining “meaningful” to mean “everything” also flattens it out. If everything is meaningful, nothing is. Therefore, “Do whatever you want. It’s all good.” In this sense, it's not a far cry from nihilism. (See #6 below.)
It’s no mystery why children often like this answer. Or, to be fair, they like it for a while, at least, until life hits them with a few solid uppercuts. The smart ones soon decide they’ll probably need some stronger medicine. “OK, so I’m ‘living,’ already. Now what?”
2) Dumb Question: “Be quiet and stop asking!”
Some declare that “what is the meaning of life?” is a dumb question, and we should basically shut up and stop asking.
They seem to arrive at this answer for a few 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 question itself doesn’t make sense. It’s like asking what circles smell like.
Each reason above can be problematic.
1) “I’m having fun! Stop and think? Ugh!” This is the response of someone who has actually already arrived at an answer they’re happy with (for the moment, at least.) They’ve already “solved” the problem (for now.) It isn’t stated openly; it’s implicit: “the meaning of life is to have fun.” This means “goofing around with friends” or “trying to look cool” or “teaching dog yoga,” etc. The problem, then, really isn’t that it’s a dumb question. It’s a good question. It’s just one that’s already been answered. Thinking about it any further, then, feels like a waste of time. (Which is to say, it 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 “life is absurd, nobody knows anything, so just do what you want.” Or, rephrased: “The answer to the meaning of life is that we can’t know the answer to the meaning of life.” The answer is that there is no answer. It negates itself. It also arbitrarily rules out the possibility that the problem is like asking someone to figure out the square root of 972,823 without a calculator. Maybe there is an answer, it’s just not easy, and they haven’t cracked it yet.
3) “It’s already been answered! So why are we still talking about it!” This contradicts the answer above -with an answer in the diametrically opposite direction on one level, while actually being an identical answer on a deeper level. 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 answers contradict each other. All of this 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, often as some kind of 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 circles smell like.” – This is often a favorite of modern hyperintellectual mainstream academics, who often see the matter as a kind of grammar problem. They imply that philosophy is meaningless. What, then, isn’t meaningless? Things then tend to get evasive. At that point, a gentle reminder of the stakes might be helpful. For a person sitting at their kitchen table near a piece of rope, thinking about ending it all, the meaning of life isn’t an abstract, academic, clever, intellectual puzzle. Whatever else it might be, the issue at hand here isn’t a matter of mere grammar. That person needs a clear answer: “why not?” Or, rather: “why?” Camus, Frankl, Tolstoy, and plenty of others have said it well. This is no mere academic gamesmanship. It’s literally a matter of life or death.
All of these approaches seem geared to cut the conversation short. But on closer inspection, they indicate that we should really dig into the matter more, not less.
3) It's Subjective: “Do Whatever You Want!”
This is a favorite of the naïve. “Do whatever you want!” “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do!” “It’s your life, so you live it!”
Questions about power dynamics cloud the conversation here. “Do what you want!” and “it’s your life!” both bring to mind an image of someone following us around every day, slapping our wrists with a ruler, saying, “don’t do that! Do this instead!”
This conversation isn’t about that. For our purposes here: yes, it’s our life to either knock out of the park, or face-plant. The idea isn’t about who is in charge. There’s broad agreement there: every person is responsible for his or her own life. This has almost nothing to do with changing that dynamic. It has everything to do with helping individuals figure out for themselves how, exactly, to knock life out of the park instead of face-planting, or learning the easy way instead of the hard.
With that in mind, what are the problems with the “do whatever you want!” approach?
The basic assumption with this approach is that there’s no objective, rational, “scientific” answer to the meaning of life. It’s not “an art and a science.” It’s “100% art.” The answer, then, is up to you. It’s subjective. It’s whatever you want. There are no yardsticks. 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 someone “enjoys” heroin?
Or, what if someone enjoys nothing but watching soap operas? Or setting dogs on fire?
In classic fairy tales, the hero is granted three wishes. The first two are usually disasters. They create mayhem. The third wish is then used to undo the first two. The end result is to return things back to the way they were at the beginning of the story.
The “moral” of the story is that we often want the wrong things.
4) Immediacy: “Solve what’s right in front of you.”
This approach is simple, down-to-earth, and practical. Just solve whatever problem is right 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. How could there possibly be a problem with that?
First of all, the question of what to do when you’re hungry, thirsty, or tired has never really that hard to solve. What to study in college, which career path to choose, whether to marry or not, who to marry or not, and so on – those are the tough ones. We don’t need help with the easy problems. We need help with the tough ones.
Secondarily, there’s a problem with solving the problem that appears right in front of us. It assumes that problems just appear, and “we should solve them.” But don’t we do that already? Is there even an option to avoid doing that? Isn’t it basically just telling us to do what we’re already doing? Or, if it’s saying we should face our problems instead of hiding from them, fine. What if the problem we’re facing squarely is the meaning of life? We then find ourselves right back where we started.
But further, it seems to convey that “problems just appear” magically, and then we should try to solve them. There’s an element of passivity in this. But we often have a say in which problems “appear” in front of us. If someone decides that their mission in life is to build a rocket and travel to Jupiter, they’d suddenly find themselves facing a whole lot of other problems. Many of those problems are based on the solution to the first problem. And it’s that “first problem” we’re asking about here. It’s the one all the others are based on.
What if “the problem right in front of me” is the question, “what’s the point of life?” Then, once again, we’re right back where we started.
5) Happiness: “Be happy!”
This answer is hugely popular, and is a heavyweight contender in the “meaning” question.
There’s something unavoidable about the idea of “happiness.” We can’t not long for it. It acts like a kind of inner gravity – something we always orient ourselves to. For thousands of years, from Aristotle to the Dalai Lama, thinkers have portrayed “happiness” as “the answer” to the meaning of life.
What could possibly be the problem with this?
We can name three.
The first difficulty lies in defining it.
The definitions are all over the map. For some, “happiness” could refer to ice cream, or walks on the beach, or heroin. For others (Aristotle, for example), it was “the contemplative life,” which involved a lot of thinking. For others (Buddha, for example) the search for a certain kind of happiness led to becoming an ascetic, fasting for weeks on end, and becoming celibate. Lovers are happy loving, thieves are happy stealing, warriors are happy fighting.
That’s a pretty wide range for one word.
The range of answers to the “happiness” question is nearly as wide as it is for the “meaning” question. Given that, have we actually made progress? Or have we really just swapped one huge, expansive, undefined word for another?
Second, there’s an issue many explorers have discovered (and continue re-discovering.)
It’s not uncommon to hear: happiness often comes as a side-effect of something else.
So, it’s a by-product. There’s no frontal assault on happiness. We can’t just storm the gates. Aiming at it directly, apparently, doesn’t work.
This can put 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. So, what is that “something else”? What is “Y”?
There are plenty of answers to this, but one is “meaning.” Which, once again, puts us right back where we started.
Finally, there’s the issue of how the world actually seems to work.
If the goal of the universe is human happiness as we usually understand it, then the universe seems to be a wildly colossal failure.
Is the universe a kind of cosmic Disneyland, built for our amusement?
It doesn’t seem likely. The amount of seemingly pointless suffering in the world signifies that there’s something quite wrong with that picture.
But this model becomes even more problematic when it’s applied on a personal level. After all, most of us experience at least a few moments of misery. And if your answer to the meaning of life is “happiness,” then in those dark moments, you can suddenly find yourself facing more than just the misery itself. Now you're also facing the additional problem of meaninglessness. Unhappiness, according to this model, isn’t just being unhappy. It also means that someone is failing at their primary mission in life. This adds an additional burden of meaninglessness to the original suffering. If left to run unchecked, it can set up an existential death-spiral. Unhappiness leads to meaninglessness, which leads to more unhappiness, and so on.
Happiness is a key piece of the puzzle, no doubt. But it’s not the whole puzzle.
6) Nihilism: “There is no meaning.”
Few people argue for nihilism as an answer to the meaning of life. “Everything is meaningless, nothing matters, truth doesn’t exist, and life is some kind of mistake” doesn’t exactly launch pep rallies.
Those few who actually do argue for it usually redefine nihilism as a state of freedom from oppressive nonsense. This definition, though, contradicts itself. It posits “freedom” as a good thing and “oppressive nonsense” as a bad thing. This implicitly endorses a definition of a meaningful life, which contradicts the whole idea of nihilism.
This is just one way nihilism demonstrates its fatal flaw: nobody can actually live as a nihilist, even if they wanted to.
Nietzsche rightly criticized Schopenhauer on this. Schopenhauer prattled on about meaninglessness, but still played the violin. As Nietzsche saw it, he didn’t really walk the talk.
The only people who even come close to living nihilism on a consistent basis are institutionalized catatonics (as James Sire pointed out.)
True nihilism, then, is rare. What’s much more popular is soft nihilism.
“Soft nihilism” is incredibly popular these days. It’s a by-product of not having good answers to the meaning question, which is a hazard of setting out to explore the Existential No-Man’s Land, which is one of the hazards of deciding to go spiritual-but-not-religious. It's much easier than hard nihilism - case study: DeadPool (although even DeadPool can't live it consistently.)
Nihilism, then, is a black hole of all-consuming acid in the search for meaning. It undermines other answers, but doesn’t provide one itself. Nietzsche described man as “a rope over an abyss.” Nihilism is “the abyss.” It’s not an answer to the meaning of life. It’s what we fall into when all other answers fail.
7) Traditional Religion: “The elephant in the room.”
“Traditional religion” is “the elephant in the room” because it has been the single source of answers to the meaning of life for billions of people throughout history.
We could turn to these for brief samples of “answers.” Judeo Christianity: life is about knowing, loving, and serving God, or achieving salvation. Buddhism/Hinduism: life is about overcoming illusion or ignorance to “achieve” enlightenment. Islam: life is about submitting to Allah. Taoism: life is about “The Way.” And so on.
Religion often isn’t what it used to be.
The landscape has been changing, sometimes dramatically. (Many have been going “spiritual but not religious” – a sometimes hazardous move, but one that seems here to stay.) Many feel either burned or bored by the entire scene of traditional religion, or see the enterprise as a whole as premodern, imaginary, or weighed down with baggage (sometimes mistakenly.) 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.”
We could compare the world’s major religions to a buffet. These buffets have worked to “feed” meaning to humanity across centuries. The buffet tables are huge, expansive, and diverse. They offer, according to the vast majority of humanity, the best food that exists. It’s full of existential filet mignon that nutritious and filling.
But some see at least parts of the buffets as serving old, greenish potted meat.
Sorting out the filet from the potted meat is no small task. And instead of doing that, many folks these days are just walking away from the table entirely.
8) Existentialism: “Create it yourself!”
The “existentialism” solution to the meaning of life goes something like this: there is no objective, scientific, universally agreed-upon, one-size-fits-all “meaning” to the universe. There can be, however, subjective meaning. This means we can find something that at least gets us out of bed in the morning and inspires us enough to push through the slings and arrows life hurls at us.
According to this perspective, we don’t discover meaning. We create it. It isn’t objective, it’s subjective. It’s not in a book or song, it’s in how you interpret a book or song. It’s not “out there,” it’s “constructed.”
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?
According to this perspective, life is neither meaningful nor meaningless in itself. It’s neutral. It’s like a blank canvas for you to paint on. Life won’t do the job for you. But we have the power to rage against the machine, to rebel against The Void by way of our own heroic mission.
So, what “mission,” exactly?
That part – the "creating meaning" part – is left entirely up to you.
This answer is popular these days. There are reasons for its popularity. It puts you in the driver’s seat. It treats you as an individual. It’s generally inoffensive, which makes it easy to slip into national marketing campaigns aimed at a general audience. It lends itself to slogans pretty easily. It challenges you to be creative, to dig, to seize the hammer and chisel and sculpt life yourself, all which can seem pretty romantic.
What could possibly be the problem with this approach? It all sounds great in theory, right?
Well, buying it in the store is one thing, but taking it home is another. If we really take this seriously, we sometimes discover that this approach – in the long run – can be a heavy burden to bear. This mission might be easier to accept than to deliver on.
In other words, there seems to be a risk of severely underestimating the difficulty of the task. It can be easy to find ourselves suddenly in way over our heads, wandering the Existential No-Man’s Land without a map or compass. “Creating meaning” isn’t like baking cookies. Rah-rah inspirational slogans wear thin and lose their mojo pretty quickly. As it turns out, designing your own religion (which is what’s really going on) isn’t easy. Reading self-help books – even good ones – only go so far. We might find ourselves a kind of Sorcerer’s Apprentice of the Soul. We might well discover that we’re messing with forces we don’t entirely understand.
Pushed far enough, this can mean rejecting and dismissing the entirety of humanity’s accumulated wisdom in an effort to redo it all better. This also might seem like fun at first, but this also makes it easy to reinvent the wheel, or waste years struggling to solve problems that were already solved long ago.
We might take too big a step when we task ourselves with solving the ultimate mysteries of the universe when it’s hard enough just to lose five pounds.
To be clear: none of this is meant to convey that this approach is entirely wrong. But it isn’t complete. It runs the risk of stripping away our weapons and shields, taking away our compass and maps, and then sending us off to do battle with existential monsters.
This approach says something like this: “Here’s a blank sheet of paper. Your task is to solve the deepest mysteries of life, from scratch, and entirely on your own. The weight of this task – and your entire life – rests on your shoulders, and yours alone. Now, go. Create an extraordinary life – one worth living for.
9) Help: “Make the world a better place.”
The world often seems seriously messed-up.
That’s putting it lightly. It can often seem like a disaster zone, full of misery and suffering, teetering on the edge of chaos and mayhem, riddled with dire problems with no solutions in sight.
What to do? Many of us respond to this, naturally enough, by working to solve some of these problems. This can sometimes generate a personal sense of meaning.
There’s plenty to admire with this approach. Many individuals work selflessly and heroically to bring genuine relief to suffering in the world. Nothing here is meant to discourage that.
But the question at hand is whether “making the world a better place” genuinely works as an effective answer to the meaning of life question. This means measuring by that yardstick.
And there are some ways this answer doesn’t fully work.
For example, we could ask: “If our purpose is to make the world a better place, then what’s the purpose of ‘the world’?”
In this sense, “make the world a better place” doesn’t really answer the question of meaning. It just kicks the can down the road. If life is about “the world,” then what’s the world about? We don’t know. Back to square one.
But we can also dive deeper. For example, if “making the world a better place” is what it’s all about, we could also ask: “What does ‘better’ really mean?”
This might seem like a small and annoying detail. But the entire answer hinges on that word. “Better,” according to what standard? What yardstick are we using to measure with?
This is no small matter. After all, 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, for example, often claim to be “working to make the world a better place.” Yet they often see each other as mortal enemies, and work against each other as much as possible. Political activists do the same. And the venues vary. Animal rights activists work to make the world a better place for animals. Communists are working to make the world a better place as defined by communism. Totalitarians work to make the world “better” for themselves. And so on.
The key idea is that people define “better world” in very different ways.
In this sense, “making the world a better place” isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. As an answer to the meaning of life, this idea itself contains several implicit assumptions. It assumes something about the nature of the world, for example: that it is something flawed and in need of repair. It assumes that this “repair” will 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 skills and ability to do so. It assumes that any unintended consequences will be either positive or negligible. And so on.
Even those few (and there are more) make some pretty big leaps.
History can illuminate here. But, spoiler alert: it’s not a flattering picture. It shows fairly often that many of those who thought they were making the world a better place actually made things worse. If we look at the greatest villains across all movies and stories, each of them usually thinks he or she is making things better, as they define it.
This points us toward a certain conclusion. Before we barge in to start saving the world, we should first do some hard thinking to make sure our understanding of both the world – and ourselves – is correct.
Philosophy can help us here. There seems to be a genuine hazard when ethics (“what should I do?”) becomes unanchored from metaphysics (“What is real?”) The risk can be taking a good cause (something nominally ethical), adopting it as a cover story, and using that to rationalize a license to wreak havoc. Blindly launching an effort to “Do good!” without a clear understanding of what “good” actually is can lead to waking nightmares. History is pretty clear on this point. It’s the stuff of tragedy.
To be clear, again, none of these are meant to discourage anyone from doing good deeds. The idea isn’t that anyone who wants to improve the world should necessarily be treated as a potential supervillain.
There’s just reason for caution, clarity, and self-knowledge.
10) Transcendence: “Become part of something bigger.”
Again, life is hard. It can sometimes seem deeply wrong, unfair, and full of apparently pointless suffering.
Some rebel against this condition by working to overcome bad with good.
But some decide to blindly rebel against this entire state of affairs and just lash out in one way or another – to “burn it all down.”
Acting against something bad can be good. But the key ingredient that makes all the difference is the “how.”
It’s impossible to burn life itself down. We might think in the abstract, but we act in the particular. We might want to rage against the universe, but we still live in it. The ones affected by this rebellion are often specific individuals. These individuals sometimes had little or nothing to do with the original pain.
This can lead to rebelling against pain, injustice, and suffering by creating more pain, injustice, and suffering.
This can be like rebelling against “The Chief Bad Guy” by also giving him all your money, and your house, and your clothes.
Some solutions are worse than the problems.
Those are a few answers to the meaning of life that don't fully work.
We’ve covered a few popular answers, and pointed out a few bugs in them – maybe a little unfairly in some cases.
Hopefully this has helped offer some tools that help us sort the cotton candy from the steak, the existential empty calories from the rest.
Hopefully, this makes it a little easier to feast.
But of course, merely pointing out flaws won’t get us where we want to go. Criticizing is easy. Creating is hard. It’s one thing to throw rocks at others’ proposed answers to problems. It’s another to actually answer the problem in a valid, genuine way.
So then, what now?
Now it’s time to reverse course.
Is there a positive answer to the meaning of life that overcomes the problems mentioned above?
Instead of just beating up on other answers, let’s take a more positive turn, and explore aspects that each of the above answers do well– to try to understand, in other words, the qualities that make 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.