The question “What is the meaning of life?” preoccupied people, and especially philosophers, throughout the ages. This question encompasses several fundamental questions such as: What is our purpose and goal in this life? What is the reason we were created? What is our nature?
We humans (or at least some of us) have a psychological need to feel that what we’re doing with our lives has significance, is important, that we are not just “passing time” until death arrives, and that our lives are worth living. It is important for us to figure out how we can find meaning and purpose in our lives. It is especially important for us in light of the problems of contemporary culture: the moral void of materialistic consumerism and nihilism, the anti-rational and pseudo-scientific attitude prevalent in some groups, and the dark extremism of fundamentalists.
Who determines meaning?
A person is the only authority that can ultimately determine the meaning of his own life. Only a person, and not anyone else or any other source, determines whether he feels that what he is doing with his life is meaningful to him or not.
For example, society views being a physician as an esteemed profession, and views healing people as important and significant. But as far as the doctor is concerned, it is important that she herself would feel that practicing medicine is significant for her. Perhaps she studied to become a doctor only because her parents pressured her to do so, and she would actually prefer to follow a different profession?
Therefore it is extremely important that we dedicate time to ourselves, mark some time in our busy schedules to ask ourselves and find out: Who am I? What do I feel? What do I want? What are my preferences and values? Am I doing something only to please other people, because this is what is expected of me? Am I following the usual path that everyone in society follows? Or do I really listen to myself, examine and try different options, to find out the unique path that is specifically suited for me?
Meaning in a finite life
Because human life is finite, people may sometimes fall into the nihilistic attitude that “life has no meaning”, saying “We’re all going to die, so what’s the point? Why bother?” But the finiteness of life does not entail that life has no meaning.
For example, people enjoy playing chess. But what’s the point and purpose in this game? After all, at the end of the game, all the pieces are returned to the box, regardless of how they were moved throughout the game. Nonetheless, we did experience a game, we had an experience. Existence as a whole, viewed as encompassing both past and future, is different thanks to the game we played. The same is true for our own life experience, regardless of how long it lasts. What we do in our life influences the lives of others and the universe itself.
If any purpose we propose is countered by yet another question “But what is THAT good for? What’s next?” then we reach an infinite regress. Its only resolution is the understanding that an experience has meaning in and of itself.
Psychological experience of meaninglessness
For some people, delving into philosophical questions will not make their feeling of meaninglessness disappear. A feeling of meaninglessness may indicate suffering from a state of depression (in contrast, a feeling of meaninglessness does not arise when one experiences genuine enjoyment and satisfaction). This depression could arise as a result of a great catastrophe, despair, a feeling of helplessness, or an internal regime of oppression where our patterns of thinking are very rigid and critical towards ourselves and negative towards life in general. In such a psychological state, everything feels pointless, and then the question arises in our mind: “What’s the point of all this?”, actually hinting that there is no point at all. This may lead us to an obsession with the philosophical question of the meaning of life, while what we really need is emotional and psychological healing.
The primary question to address is: “What is the purpose of life?”. As explained above, there is no one single answer that holds true for everyone, as each person needs to explore this question by himself and find his own answers. Nevertheless, there are themes common to many people.
“Purpose” implies a goal to strive towards, a directionality of advancement and progress towards achieving the goal. Not any goal would suffice. For example, the acquisition of wealth has not proven to be a reliable source for satisfying the psychological need for a sense of meaning in life. Those whose driving force in life is the accumulation of material possessions usually end up feeling that life is meaningless. This is because physical materials satisfy only physical needs or low-level desires but cannot satisfy high-level psychological needs such as self-improvement, connection, and contribution. The same is true for entertainment and pleasures – they provide a fleeting enjoyment, but they cannot satisfy deeper needs.
Sources of Meaning
There are several possible sources of meaning, as explained in the next post.