At some point during their lifetime, most people begin to concern themselves with living a meaningful life. They find themselves wanting to see some sort of purpose to their existence.
An array of social actors is quick to jump at meeting this want, by telling them what the meaning of life is and how they should live. Religion will tell you the meaning of life is to serve God, teachers might tell you that life is about working hard and being dutiful, family members may teach you that your main responsibility in life is to start a family yourself, and various authority figures will tell you that the purpose of life is to help others.
A lot of people readily and unquestioningly accept such theories, and seek to live their lives correspondingly. It can be comforting to assume such social actors hold the supreme truth about the meaning of life and simply adopt their outlook.
Things get complicated though if one day you start to rationally scrutinize the evidence supporting these ideas, because you will very likely begin to doubt their validity, as well as the credibility of their sources. It’s a stage that many intelligent, open-minded and thirsty-for-knowledge people reach sooner or later.
At this point, many people enroll on a journey of inner and outer discovery, trying to find the true purpose of life, or at least the true purpose of their own life.
Some read books, talk to friends about this topic, and seriously reflect on it, but many go much further. I know men and women who’ve went to meditate at secluded Buddhist monasteries in Asia, used strong hallucinogenic drugs in the Amazon jungle, or gone through years of psychoanalytic therapy in their search for the meaning of life.
Eventually, some people on this journey come to believe they have discovered the meaning of life, or at least their life, but many never do. They keep feeling lost.
For the people in all these categories, I wanna offer here a highly-empowering way of thinking about the meaning of life.
What Is the Meaning of Life?
I think the entire endeavor to find the meaning of life starts off from a false premise: the premise that life does indeed have an inherent meaning. I believe that, in reality, life has no intrinsic meaning. In itself, life is meaningless. Here’s why.
The term “intrinsic meaning” denotes a conscious, objective purpose with which something or someone has been created. But such a purpose can only be attributed to something or someone by a conscious external creator. When a shoemaker makes a pair of shoes, he makes it with a conscious purpose in mind: to be worn by a person on their feet and walk more comfortably. The intention precedes the existence of the shoes.
This would be true for our existence as well, if we humans were created by a conscious creator; which is what many religions will have you believe. But we’re not. To me this idea is just religious gibberish with no real logic or evidence to support it. The evolutionary theory on the other hand is an elegant and vastly better proven explanation of how we got here.
According to it, we are the result of a natural process of mutation and selection stretching over millions of years, which among other things, made organisms evolve from simpler forms (like, say, the ameba) to more complex forms (like us).
We are the product of an evolutionary process. And while this process follows certain laws of nature, it’s a stretch to say that it has a purpose. It takes consciousness to give something or someone an explicit purpose, which only humans in the known universe have.
Even if you’re not a religious person though, you may still be prone at times to think of us and the world as having been designed consciously. It seems we humans have an inclination to reason in terms of an inherent purpose when thinking about origins. Psychologists call this teleo-functional reasoning. Nevertheless, this inclination doesn’t mean in any way that life does have an intrinsic purpose. It’s just a faulty mode of thinking.
Thus, we return to the conclusion that our lives have no real inherent meaning. Any person or institution claiming to know the meaning of life is making a false claim.
Also, no matter how much you search for the intrinsic meaning of life, you won’t find it; because you can’t find something that doesn’t exist. You may project a certain meaning on life and think you’ve found its objective meaning, but it’s still a subjective projection.
A Better Way of Thinking about Meaning
The notion that life has no intrinsic, objective meaning can be scary. However, if you take this train of thought forward, it leads to a very liberating conclusion. The conclusion that, as a conscious being, you can give your life any subjective meaning you want.
And you see, although life has no objective meaning, living in certain ways can still feel very meaningful to you. So if you choose a subjective meaning for your life that resonates with you at some level, living in accordance with that meaning will be very fulfilling, without the need for an objective meaning.
Your life is about whatever you want it to be. The aim is not to find the meaning of life. It is to give a meaning to your life that feels worthy to you. It’s not an inherent meaning, and you know it. You’re not deluding yourself. But it resonates with you, and that is enough.
One more thing I wanna add is that you don’t have to give your life some purpose now and pursue it for as long as you live. In fact you’ll probably be happiest if you live a life with a dynamic meaning: a meaning that changes over time.
Right now a certain direction in life may feel relevant to you and worth pursuing. But your motivations change. A few years down the road some other direction may resonate with you more. It’s good to switch directions when that happens. Let your life change as you change.
In my life at one point, developing my confidence and my communication skills seemed the most meaningful thing to do. And I pursued that purpose. After a while that took a backseat to helping others develop their own confidence and communication skills.
A few years ago, I became fascinated with travelling and discovering new places, and I found that experience to be very meaningful. Now I find more meaning in spending regular time in some of these places I discovered while travelling and connecting a part of my life to them.
Who knows a few years from now what direction my life will take? It’s fluid; like a river. I know my life has no objective meaning, but I live it with a personal meaning, which shifts over time. And that is what makes it worth living.
So, choose the meaning you want for your life, live accordingly, and let that meaning change in time if it suits you.
Don’t wait for someone to come and tell you how to live, or for some absolute purpose to reveal itself to you. It’s a dead-end strategy. Don’t deny your natural freedom. Instead, make the most of it. Be the active designer of your life, from top to bottom.