Thoughts on the Meaning of Life
“What is the meaning of life?” is probably a question every human thinks about at some point in his or her life. When you are watching the stars in the night sky, you can’t help but wonder what is the sense of all of this. Yet the question is an elusive one, as there seems to be no definite answer – we all have different thoughts on the sense of life.
In this post, we’ll explore some of these viewpoints. We’ll first look at six different schools of thought and what they’ve said about the meaning of life. We’ll then look at some of the most common perspectives on the subject: the religious and the secular way of explaining your purpose. Finally, we’ll provide you some steps to help make more sense of it all and to find your own purpose and passion to live a more meaningful life.
6 VIEWS ON THE MEANING OF LIFE
The intriguing question “Why am I here?” has been a driving force of philosophy and different schools of thoughts. It’s hard to know when exactly did humans first start pondering the sense of life, but the variety of ways you can answer these questions shows how essential the idea has been for human thinking.
It’s not a surprise then to find out how many different ideas there are around when it comes to the meaning of life. Most philosophical schools of thought have had an input into what makes life meaningful and worth living.
We’re introducing six different views on the topic, to guide you through a snapshot of explanations.
“…one ought always to ask oneself what would happen if everyone did as one is doing; nor can one escape from that disturbing thought except by a kind of self-deception.” – Jean-Paul Sartre
The Humanists are perhaps one the most known group discussing the meaning of life in today’s world. One of the reasons is its challenge of religious schools of thought that often controls the current discussion.
For the Humanists, there is no specific meaning of life; instead everyone has their own reasons. Instead of turning outwards to seek for a purpose, people should consider the things that provide them happiness and meaning.
Therefore, instead of focusing on the sense of life, you should focus on figuring out what makes you happy. The key is finding enjoyment in things that are meaningful to you, even though they might not appeal to everyone. Yet, you should also ensure the things you find enjoyable don’t infringe on the rights and needs of others.
Watch the below video, which the British Humanist Association recently ran on how to know what is right and what is wrong:
“The things you really need are few and easy to come by; but the things you can imagine you need are infinite, and you will never be satisfied.” – Epicurus
The Epicureans are often quoted when people discuss the meaning of life. Unfortunately, the ideas of these thinkers can easily be simplified and viewed through rose-tinted glasses.
To understand the Epicureans’ view of the sense of life, you must understand how they viewed human body and every other thing in the universe. To them everything is made up of small particles and without the particles a person cannot live. Furthermore, the particles can’t survive without a living body, which means that nothing can survive after death. Therefore, there’s no afterlife – all you have is the time here on Earth.
This results in the meaning of life being the need to essentially maximize pleasure and minimize pain. But it doesn’t mean you should do what you want. According to Epicurus, good behavior and just actions are necessary for feeling pleasure, as guilt and anxiety will always catch up with you and make you feel pain. Therefore, you should only do things that won’t cause pain and anxiety in the long-term or later on.
“We have two ears and one tongue so that we would listen more and talk less.” – Diogenes
The Cynics were a group of thinkers in ancient Greece, highly influenced by the teachings of Socrates. The group saw the society around them filled with hypocrisy and wealth, and they felt it wasn’t helping people live virtuously or stay happy.
The meaning of life was to be found in a moral existence that was compatible with the natural order of things. For people to be happy, they had to decide for themselves what was right and wrong. It also called for self-sufficiency, as freedom from the need for possessions and for companionship was the ultimate way of living a meaningful existence.
“Every belief, every considering something-true is necessarily false because there is simply no true world.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Nihilism is perhaps among the most misunderstood schools of thoughts, as its basic tenets can often be simplified a bit too far, just like the teachings of Epicurus. Nonetheless, for a true nihilist, there are no things such as value or knowledge. In fact, there is no point to human existence.
It isn’t surprising then how the meaning of life of nihilism is essentially that there isn’t any meaning. Although in the eyes of a nihilist, the meaninglessness doesn’t matter, as nothing in the world is valuable.
“The art of life lies in taking pleasures as they pass, and the keenest pleasures are not intellectual, nor are they always moral.” – Aristippus
The Cyrenaics are a group of like-minded thinkers who formed around 400 B.C. The founder, Aristippus, was a student of Socrates and the famous philosopher largely influenced the group’s ideas.
For the Cyrenaics, knowledge and experience are subjective, always influenced by individual experiences. For this reason, truth is innately personal, with each person experiences the world distinct to anyone else.
Pleasure in the present moment is what we should be aiming for. The future was uncertain, according to the Cyrenaics, which means you should live in the moment, not by planning for the future. In essence, the meaning of life would be to seek things that are most enjoyable to you in the moment, even if it’s outside of the social convention.
“One who talks a lot but takes actions slowly will not be listened to even if he is right.” – Mozi
Another group of thinkers established itself in China during the same time as the Cyrenaics were starting out in Greece. The movement’s father was Mozi and Mohism’s central idea was to argue and discuss ideas such as the sense of life.
Mohism involves 10 doctrines, which people should abide by in everyday lives. For them, the meaning of life is only achieved through compassion and care towards other people, by treating everyone’s needs equally.
This would mean seeking universal equality, which for Mohism also meant removing concentration of wealth. People should also avoid consuming luxury and entertainment for the sake of it, and instead focus on ensuring everyone had the same degree of happiness.
Watch this lengthy documentary on the meaning of life. Very insightful.
THE COMMON PERSPECTIVES ON THE MEANING OF LIFE
While the above are some of the strategies used to explain where and how to find the meaning of life, there are other ways to answer the question “What is the meaning of life?” The answers are not necessarily associated with a specific philosophy in life, but nonetheless, are answers people regularly find themselves giving when they ponder the issue.
In general, the outlook on the sense of life can be divided into two types of answers: the religious perspectives and the secular perspectives.
A number of people include religious elements to their meaning of life. The religious perspectives tend to ascribe to an ‘outside’ force, which provides purpose and meaning. More importantly, the external force or spirit is what guides the behavior, often not just in this life, but the one after.
The world has experienced a number of religions and even today, you have a number of different ways to practice and believe. If you were to make a simplification, you could divide religions to the western religions, such as Christianity, and the eastern religions, such as Taoism. The distinction isn’t necessarily as much to do with the location, but rather the belief system. Western religions are typically considered monotheist, like Judaism and Islam, whereas eastern religions are more pluralist, such as Hinduism.
If you view the western religions on answering the question “What is the meaning of life”, the answers often fall along the lines of:
- “to serve God”
- “to gain entry to heaven”
- “to spread the message to others”
On the other hand, the eastern religions answers follow the patterns of:
- “break free of life cycle”
- “receive enlightenment”
As you can see, the purpose and meaning are focused on not just the here and now, but for what happens to you after your time ends on this earth.
Below are some of the famous, religion-inspired quotes regarding the sense of life, which hopefully inspire you to think about the purpose of life:
“May you live your life as if the maxim of your actions were to become universal law.” – Immanuel Kant
“You will never be able to please all of the people all of the time, so concentrate on pleasing your Maker because that’s what really matters.” – Mufti Ismail Menk
“Your duty is to treat everybody with love as a manifestations of the Lord” – Swami Sivananda
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” – Lao Tzu
But there have always been secular ways of thinking about the sense of life. As religious belief is waning in many Western countries, secular ideas around life’s meaningfulness and purpose are even more prominent.
For secular perspectives, the focus is naturally on the here and now. Since there is no belief in the afterlife or reincarnation, the purpose is to be happy and have an impact in the current moment or at least during one’s life on earth.
Secular answers to questions, such as “What is the meaning of life?” would include things like:
- “being nice”
- “living morally sound life and respecting others”
- “helping the planet”
Secular perspectives don’t necessarily deny the existence of a god or a spiritual force; the difference is that the meaning and purpose doesn’t stem from an external source and you aren’t living in a specific manner on Earth in order to gain something later. Your actions are not aiming to please or prepare you for another unknown existence. Therefore, secular perspectives are much more focused on the present.
Just like there is variety of religious perspectives, secular thoughts on the meaning of life can differ in tone and style. You can be advised to focus on helping others and creating things that are useful for others, while some thinkers call for you to focus on yourself and your desires more.
We’ve gathered some of the challenging thoughts on the sense of life, in terms of secular perspectives, and you can find them below:
“There is only one meaning of life: the act of living itself.” – Erich Fromm
“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.” – Viktor E. Frankl
“Living in a way that reflects one’s values is not just about what you do, it is also about how you do things.” – Deborah Day
“Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another.” – Thomas Merton
HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR LIFE’S PURPOSE
“Each man must look to himself to teach him the meaning of life. It is not something discovered: it is something molded.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery
There are a number of ways to live a purposeful life and the truth is, people have different ways of answering the questions “What’s the meaning of life?” If you are thinking about what gives meaning and purpose to your life, you can use the above steps to help create your own thoughts and actions about the sense of life.
Step 1: Discover yourself
“I can teach anybody how to get what they want out of life. The problem is that I can’t find anybody who can tell me what they want.” – Mark Twain
First, you should discover yourself – to find the things that define you. A good way to start is by thinking about the things that are most important to you, the personal values that matter the most. This might be your family or friends, it might deal with being kind or perhaps it’s changing the society around you.
This video might inspire you to find out what you really want from life.
Whatever your true valuables are, write them down and reflect on why they mean so much to you. What is it that they add to your life?
You also want to define the things that are meaningless to you, the things you don’t enjoy. These could be things such as the daily grind or owning material possessions. It might be bigger things like having a family or settling down. Be honest with yourself and discover the things that wouldn’t add value or purpose to your being.
Step 2: Identify your unique talents
“Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.” – Henry Van Dyke
We all have unique talents; we just have to find them and learn to use them to our benefit. Examine your skills and discover the things you are good at doing. It might be that you are good at writing stories or you might be good at helping other people find their voice. Perhaps numbers come easy to you or you can come up with amazing flavor combinations when cooking.
Everyone has these unique characteristics – the things we do better than anyone else. You don’t even need to use the talent as a profession or a way to earn money. When you find something you enjoy, you can do it whenever you have time – the fulfillment you get is a big enough reward.
Step 3: Find a cause you are passionate about
“There is no passion to be found in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” – Nelson Mandela
Finally, you want to find your true passion because it can open a completely new world for you, in terms of happiness and fulfillment.
What is an issue or a topic you are passionate about? Perhaps it’s big themes like education or solving childhood poverty. But passion can be smaller things like gardening or reading books.
You might want to solve or change an issue in your local community or society, perhaps by starting your own business. But you can also manifest your passion by setting up your own blog about contemporary poetry or organizing baking nights with friends. The key is to find something that you are passionate about and then work towards your passion like there is no tomorrow.
The answer to the question will always be different depending on whom you ask. Perhaps that’s the beauty of the sense of life – we all find our own meaning and purpose, with each perspective adding something to the conversation.
Finding meaning in your everyday life is important and it can be useful to reflect on things. Reading other viewpoints, discovering your own inner passion and talent, and understanding the different ways of explaining the world can help you live a more purposeful life.
Now, what do you think? What’s the meaning of life?
“You will get little or nothing from the printed page if you bring it nothing but your eye.” ― …