How do you find the meaning of life? Does it even have one? If not, what is there to live for? What do you do if the meaning of life gets lost? Many people ask themselves these questions. Indeed ‘Questioning where we came from and where we’re going is what separates humans from animals’ is an often repeated aphorism.
As we all know demand creates supply, and countless religious teachings, philosophical schools and secular doctrines have attempted to offer up their own answers.
‘The meaning of life is to get closer to God,’ say some. ‘Children are the most important thing in life,’ say others. Still others believe that there is no meaning to life and you should do what you like. Meanwhile there are some who long ago stopped thinking about these questions at all.
You could say that the meaning of life is individual and depends on the person. Someone may completely devote themselves to work and be unable to imagine life without it; someone else will go to their place of worship and think of their afterlife. So where exactly is the problem then, if people are free to find their meaning and live in accordance with it?
Well, one problem is that some people can’t see meaning in anything in life; they feel that it’s empty and that nothing is worth making an effort for. Other people think that they’ve found the meaning of life, but if the thing that this certainty relies on suddenly breaks they end up with nothing. Others are unable to find peace because they simply can’t seem to find answers to the most fundamental questions about the universe.
Another problem as I see it is that searching for the meaning of life, as well as the fear of losing it, causes people a considerable amount of suffering. Since this site is dedicated to solving problems, I’m not going to talk about an abstract philosophical concept, but address the problems you may face when searching for the meaning of your own life. The aim is to help you overcome the painful turmoil associated with the issue and ease the distress you can feel when you think you’ve lost this meaning.
Problem 1 – The Torture of Searching
Many people don’t know why they’re here; they think that if they could understand the reason they wake up each day they would be able to find joy in life. It’s this searching which forces people to stubbornly cling to the work they toil at, the religion they follow or the secular concepts they believe in. Some fill the emptiness with recreation, sex, alcohol and drugs and find meaning in pleasure.
One time a man came up to me in the street with a book in his hand and politely asked me if I knew where the world had come from, who had made humankind, why everything existed and where it was going. I smiled and said I did not.
The man started to talk about God and the Bible, saying that this book answered all the questions which torment human beings. He was very effective at fulfilling his missionary objective: he presented his religion wrapped in answers to the most troubling questions. He understood the emptiness that fills so many people, forcing them to ask ‘why are we here?’, and was offering a way to fill this void. He was telling them where to seek the answer to the question practically every individual asks the universe, and on this he had built his own technique of drawing in his flock. He would have made an excellent sales executive.
But does finding answers to these troubling questions really bring us peace and happiness? In my view this is a question which is open to debate and the answer is complex.
Buddha said that he who asks, ‘Is there a God?’, ‘Is there a meaning to life?’ with stubborn persistence is reminiscent of a person who’s been shot with an arrow and instead of pulling it out lies there asking, ‘Who fired this at me?’
Buddha was trying to say that asking these questions has little point, and the search for answers won’t bring us happiness. I would agree with this, and moreover I believe that searching for the meaning of life not only doesn’t bring happiness, but often leads to suffering.
To rephrase the aphorism at the beginning of this article, ‘The ability to suffer due to pointless questions which possibly don’t have answers is a purely human trait!’
We believe that if we could discover the meaning of all existence once and for all, we’d be bestowed with eternal peace and satisfaction. But it doesn’t always happen that way. I’ll talk about why this is when looking at the next set of problems associated with searching for the meaning of life.
But for now I’ll try to speculate on whether or not life has any meaning and if it’s within the realms of our comprehension.
A human being is nothing but one of a vast quantity of biological forms which exist on Earth, possibly in the Universe. Our perception is imperfect, heavily influenced by the emotions we feel, the culture in which we live, the memories we have. There is still much that science doesn’t know about the processes which form stars and planets, about the history of the development of the Universe. We can see a mere 1% of the electromagnetic spectrum. In addition, the way we perceive things is purely ‘human’ – a mosquito, for example, sees the world completely differently.
Being absolutely sure that such an imperfect ‘organ’ as the human mind is capable of comprehending an overall divine or ecumenical vision underlying our lives would be rather presumptuous. Isn’t it possible that our mind is not capable of knowing the meaning of life? At least not for now? And even if we suddenly think that we’ve discovered where everyone came from and where they’re going, we can’t actually be sure that we’re right. We can only believe.
Why not accept this? Why not admit to ourselves that our intellect isn’t all powerful and that there are some questions which are beyond its reach? Why not admit that our burning and natural curiosity may never be satisfied?
I believe that if you calmly acknowledged and accepted all this it would avoid a lot of the torment which comes from searching for the meaning of life. The meaning of life could be this, that or something else that we would never imagine! It’s possible that there is no meaning, or that when we die the atoms of our bodies turn into building material for other matter, just as they were at one time part of the stars. No one knows. Accept this and realise that your intellect has boundaries.
In one way, this conclusion may seem pessimistic, discounting in a oner any possibility of finding the meaning of life. But this isn’t the case. Despite the fact that ‘I know that I don’t know’, I still have faith. I believe that life does have a meaning. But my belief is just that – faith – and not certainty, or a claim to absolute knowledge which is masquerading as faith. In my view, having faith allows the probability and possibility of mistakes.
Yes, I believe that life has a meaning, and I believe that it lies in a variety of things, although this faith is fairly hazy and undefined. But at the same time I realise that my ideas about this might be very limited, or that I might be completely mistaken. Maybe I’m right in my belief, maybe only partially, or maybe I’m totally wrong and there’s a big surprise awaiting me when I’m dead (if I exist at all after that). Or there’s nothing waiting. Anything’s possible and I accept that – I am human after all, and can’t know everything!
(You can see what I believe to be the meaning of life at the end of this article.)
I can’t say I would challenge someone’s attempts to believe or even expound on the meaning of life within a circle of friends or privately.
I simply want people to stop letting their search make them suffer, to not become so attached to it, to stop thinking that seeking the meaning of life is the meaning of life! Some people have the idea that until they find exact answers to the most universal questions about life, they’ll never find peace. But isn’t it possible that if they understood that these questions may remain unanswered forever, they’d stop letting the fact that there are things they don’t know make them suffer? Maybe they’d find faith and maybe not, but at least the realisation that some questions have no answers might bring them solace.
Problem 2 – the elusive meaning
Sometimes, if the agonising search for the meaning of life finally leads a person to some perceived discovery, they’ll desperately try to hang on to it as though clinging to a rope being lowered from a ship. Maybe they’ll have peace and an aim – for as long as whatever it is which is filling their life with substance and logic exists. But what if something happens to this thing upon which the person’s very existence is resting?
Imagine someone is really attached to their work, their money, the power and influence their social role bestows upon them – these are the things in which the person has found a sense of meaning for their existence and role in life.
But suddenly economic upheaval pushes their business to ruin – and their meaning is lost!
The economic crisis of the 2000s provoked a whole wave of suicides in the USA and EU; some publications gave the shocking statistic of 13 thousand: 13 thousand people – many of whom surely had families – who weren’t simply ruined or faced with financial hardship, but whose life meaning suddenly and wholly disappeared, pushing them to this awful act!
Of course, it doesn’t always happen exactly like that. Sometimes a person becomes disillusioned with the thing they held to be the meaning of their life. For example, someone devotes themselves to their job for years and years, working all hours, but then has a sudden realisation that while they’ve been stubbornly slaving away, life has irrevocably passed them by. Meanwhile, the money they earned hasn’t brought them the satisfaction they’d expected. Maybe they thought they had the meaning of life all worked out but subsequently come to the bitter conclusion that they were deluding themselves. This disappointment can be profoundly painful.
But why talk only about work?
What about children?
When I lived in my old flat I often bumped into my neighbour while on my way out. Several years before her son had tragically died, a loss which she simply could not accept. She lived in a constant state of pain and reminiscence about the past. Her life had lost all purpose and meaning.
Many of you have most likely noticed the way that many religious people aggressively react to any criticism of their faith. There’s nothing surprising in this.
It happens because if we express doubts about the foundations of their ideology, pulling the rug out from under them so to speak, questioning the thing which gives their life meaning and without which it would become empty and purposeless, they go on the defensive, protecting the only real thing of value for them.
A believer’s reverence for the sanctity of their religion is often simply a manifestation of their gratitude that their faith allows them to feel that life has a meaning and prevents the painful emptiness from eating away at them.
But if a person starts to doubt the foundations of their faith, as often happens, they start to feel as if the straw they’re clutching is starting to break, that the ground is falling away from under their feet, and the inner emptiness is staring them right in the eye with sneering mockery… Their consciousness becomes a field of strife between reason, conscience and doctrinal belief. Sometimes it’s impossible to reach a compromise in this struggle – people are either forced to betray reason in order to retain the meaning of their life, or listen to reason and lose the meaning. Not everyone manages to keep hold of both.
In this last point I’m not trying to deduce the fundamental characteristic of religiosity and I’d say that I’m more of a supporter of religion than an opponent. I also realise that it’s not just the faithful but a great many of us who behave like this when our ideas are subject to doubt.
Nor am I trying to say that there’s no meaning in work or raising children. I only used these examples to indicate the danger of a strong and unhealthy attachment to whatever the meaning of your life is based upon – or more accurately, the danger of basing the meaning of life on one specific thing.
This attachment, the fixation on one thing alone, is also limiting. Firstly, it can lead us to not noticing or discounting the significance of all those things beyond the boundaries of our individual ‘range’ of the meaning of life: we devote little time to our loved ones because of work, or ruin our health with drugs and alcohol as we see the meaning of life to be instant gratification. Secondly, if our view is reduced to one thing alone, it can form an unhealthy attachment to that thing – for example, someone trying to exert complete control over their children’s lives as they have no life of their own. Thirdly, a strong attachment engenders fear of loss. If we see the foundation of our existence as the possession of one single thing, the thought of losing that thing can give rise to fear and anxiety.
I want to conclude this idea quickly as I feel that this section is taking on a pessimistic and doomed tone, and I’d like to rectify that. Remember I’m not writing about the temporality of human existence, but about overcoming problems and attaining happiness and satisfaction!
And of course I don’t accept that this ‘elusive meaning’ can utterly defeat anyone. There’s always a way out!
A wise investor won’t put all his money into one project as the project could fold and sink all of his capital in a oner. So he spreads his means between different ventures, each of which provides a return. That way if something bad happens to one of these sources of income he still has the others.
I understand that it isn’t completely appropriate to apply this approach to life in relation to the things we love – it would be too cynical. But we can learn something from the smart investor.
Try not to attach the meaning of your life completely to one thing alone. Be open to the world and all the opportunities it’s hiding within itself. Don’t bind your life to a single thing, be that work, service or even family. Learn to find joy in diversity, seek new passions and find pleasure in unexpected things. The nature of reality is such that all things are inconstant and investing meaning in one thing means we really risk losing out …
I don’t want to draw an analogy with investments beyond a certain point. Yes, the income of our imaginary investor depends only on projects in which he has put money, but I don’t want you to feel the meaning of life depends only on external factors. They’re too unstable and volatile to wholly rely on, and sooner or later you become saturated with them. Therefore a certain internal state is also necessary. This is in fact the most important aspect, as your perception determines whether or not you can gain pleasure from external things and events. I’ll talk about this issue when examining the next question.
Problem 3 – meaninglessness and emptiness
Many people see no meaning in anything they do and life seems empty and pointless. Some of these people have submissively resigned themselves to this, others continue to suffer because of it, and some don’t stop looking for meaning, trying to discover that life straw to clutch onto.
People don’t cling desperately to religion or work for the sake of these things themselves. Beyond them, they see only emptiness so these things become their salvation – as I know first hand.
Before I graduated from university, I was aimlessly messing about, having a good time getting drunk, and I literally could not find myself. And when I got my first job, I devoted myself to it with a zeal bordering on fanaticism. I worked all the hours of the day, did unpaid overtime, went in even when I was ill and didn’t think about anything apart from my work.
It was an expression of my gratitude for having acquired a feeling that life was full of meaning. Before this, I’d been constantly at a loose end. But suddenly I had tasks, work duties, directed activity, a profession, a clear place and hierarchy. Before I started work I was completely by myself and had loads of free time which gave me considerable discomfort and left me bored. But now my time was completely given over to work, it wasn’t just a void – I had meaning and purpose. A feeling formed that I was finally being taken by the hand and led somewhere.
I remember myself at that time and am able to say with certainty that a servile, reverential attitude can be exhibited by people not only towards religion but to anything that gives their life meaning, even work. And it doesn’t stop there. In order to make a person risk their life for someone else’s political interests they have to be given the idea that there’s meaning in all they’re doing and in whatever it is they’re dying for. It’s a tactic shamelessly used in army discipline all over the world. Modern-day corporations also adopt much from this idea into their work ethic.
And it’s the fact that people are so self-sacrificing when devoting themselves to whatever gives their life meaning which is the problem; they don’t see pleasure or joy in the very fact that they’re alive, their life is full of emptiness from which they seek salvation in all these different places, as I did with my job and alcohol.
But later, when I got into self-development and the illusions which had enveloped me started to be dispelled, I realised that while I was labouring for 12 hours a day, devoting barely any time to my wife or other things in my life, spending my free time in recreation, shopping and drinking, life was waiting somewhere on the sidelines. This is how some people end up working until they’re drawing their pension, losing their health and energy along the way. And for what?
Basically, I encountered the problem of ‘elusive meaning’. But this didn’t lead me to despair. The realisation was the result of the emptiness, restlessness and unhappiness of my existence, the feeling of disconnection from my genuine desires, from my ‘true self’, all of which were eating me up from within. That started to dissipate when I began to gain a deeper understanding of myself, and feelings of peace and joy started to arise in me. I realised that before this I’d been seeking something to fill the emptiness which was engulfing me. But if this emptiness weren’t there, if a person felt satisfaction simply from the fact that they were living and breathing, then wouldn’t it be true that there was nothing to fill?
So what led me to this conclusion?
‘Whoever spends time talking about the meaning of life isn’t truly living.’ This is a rough quotation of something I heard somewhere once. Although it’s not word for word, the gist is there and it’s an aphorism I wholeheartedly agree with. If people experience unhappiness or inner dissatisfaction, or are simply unable to enjoy the fact that they’re alive, they start to value the things that temporarily lift the feeling of futility. But, like a fragile straw, the connection to these things often breaks, sweeping the person into an abyss of emptiness and meaninglessness. And even if the straw remains intact, life still passes them by while they’re busy doing something else.
I wrote above about people who find refuge from the feeling of meaninglessness in work, family or religion. But there are others who find no satisfaction in these things; they’re unable to catch even tiny glimpses of meaningfulness in their lives. What can be done with all of them?
It’s possible that we’ll never find out what the all-encompassing plan of the universe is. Maybe all life really is seeking God? Or is it simply an aggregate of strictly determined physical reactions, originating nowhere and going nowhere? Or what if it’s all a computer program, like in The Matrix? You can’t discount this as a possibility.
As I wrote earlier, finding out ‘what it’s all about’ is a matter of life and death for some people. But now I’ll say something which might surprise you. In actual fact it doesn’t make much difference what the plan of the universe is. We may never understand it. But what we can do is live this life fully and with enjoyment. Even if it is just a big delusion, our suffering and happiness are real. And what we can do on this Earth is be happy, irrespective of what life is actually all about. So be it that we may never know the universal meaning of life. What we then have are first-hand experiences, a ‘localised meaning of existence’ – reaching a state of joy, love, harmony, peace and happiness.
I can assure you if a person finds just a part of this state then all those dogged questions about the meaning of life will lose all importance because this person already sees meaning in the simple fact that they’re alive, in ‘the here and now’.
The meaning of life stems from our perception, our internal state. But this isn’t set against the outside world, seeking to withdraw into self-containment! On the contrary, this state supports and bestows with meaning the things we already have: family, work, caring about self-development and that of our loved ones. However, despite the fact that the meaning of life is inextricably linked with these things, it isn’t satisfied by them alone. It arises from life consciousness, from the very fact that we’re living and breathing.
It ultimately comes down to our mind’s conscience, our relationship with things, our perception. External things are simply empty vessels, and it’s only our perception that’s capable of filling them with anything. If there’s nothing inside, the vessels will remain as empty glasses.
On the other hand, if we experience life in all its manifestations, than we understand what we need to change in it, what we should remove, what upsets our experience. We can arrive at an understanding that while we’ve been chasing money, prestige and women, life has passed us by and we suddenly realise that we’ve been chasing ghosts. That we were occupied with a long line of these things but that we weren’t really living!
So how do you reach this state?
I’m convinced that this state of enjoying existence is attainable through nurturing love of yourself, your fellow human beings, and all living things, through developing compassion and empathy, through achieving awareness and acceptance with the help of meditation, yoga and other practices, though self-discipline, through clipping away vices and forming virtues, through learning your own true nature, through strengthening the health of your body and soul, through acknowledging your indissoluble unity with the whole world and through overcoming unhealthy attachments.
The commandments of different religions which pertain to developing love and compassion weren’t thought up by accident. They’re not just a way of attaining some kind of blessing after death. They’re also the path to happiness in the here and now, to discovering heaven within yourself, and not just beyond the boundary of death!
If religion helps you the get closer to these thing, then it’s a wonderful religion and it doesn’t matter which God it’s devoted to. If it’s secular teaching which shows you the path, then it’s an excellent teaching and it doesn’t matter whose it is. No religion or teaching should serve as a means of escape from your dissatisfaction and unhappiness, like some kind of opiate.
But if they simply show you the way and help you to independently reach a state of harmony and clarity, to eliminate the reasons for your vices, and to develop your personal qualities, rather than just concealing them behind a façade of righteousness, then that’s great! My own path was meditation but I’m not denying that there may be other ways. I believe, though, that without a practice which develops awareness and compassion, such as meditation, you won’t succeed on your path.
Much of the material on my site is dedicated to the issues of meditation and self-development; you can read it there for I’m only giving a brief outline here.
Above I promised to reveal my thoughts about the universal meaning of life. What I believe is that the things which help you attain a feeling of happiness and experience the meaning of life here and now – awareness, love, acceptance and kindness – are also components of the all-encompassing meaning of existence and will lead us to non-denominational harmony, or God if you like. That is my belief! But it could all be completely otherwise – and I accept that!