What is the meaning of life, if there is one? Each of us must find our own meaning.
What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? That is THE question, the most profound question of all, that has been in the minds of all men and women for millennia.
I am not sure a blog post is a suitable place to discuss such a profound question, but I’ll try anyway. The purpose of this blog is to help shape a better and more humane future of work for all, and to do that, we also need to answer the big questions of life. If we don’t think enough about the profound and meaningful first, we won’t be able to transform and create the right future.
I must clarify that I won’t answer the question here because I don’t think there is one. There are many answers to the question. There isn’t one single meaning of life. Each one of us has to find our own meaning in our lives.
The question is more important than the answer. The answer doesn’t really matter. You need to ask yourself what the meaning of your life is and then find your path or travel your own journey.
The meaning of life in ancient times
As mentioned, the quest for the meaning of life is as old as our species. We have traditionally attached the meaning of life to religious, spiritual, or otherworldly beliefs. Our life had meaning because God created it. This is still the correct answer for many, and they might be right, but I am not a religious person, so I’ll have to find my meaning elsewhere.
Apart from religion, philosophy has been grappling with the question occupying us today since ancient times. Pre-Socratic philosophers focused their attention mainly on nature. Still, from Socrates onwards, the leading philosophy schools would focus on morality, virtue, and what it meant to live a good life. The ancients continuously asked themselves about the meaning and purpose of life.
The primary post-Socratic ancient schools were the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Cynics. It goes beyond the scope of this post to go deep into their thinking, but each of these schools made very different propositions about the meaning of life and what it meant to live a good life. Their proposals went from stoically enduring suffering and avoiding the siren calls of pleasure (Stoics), to pursuing hedonistic pleasure, good company, and good food (Epicureans), to eschewing the slavery of material needs and learning to live a simple life (Cynics).
All these schools were both right and wrong. Let me tell you a secret. The secret of living a good life is that there isn’t one single secret. Each of us has to find our own way to live the life that makes us happy. We all are unique and have different needs, tastes, inclinations, so we have different ways of having fulfilling lives.
I like elements from these three schools, and I think they all have their valuable learnings, but here I will quote the Stoic Seneca:
“A happy life is one which is in accordance with its own nature”Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Your life has its own unique meaning
It is easy to fall into existential angst when you don’t believe in God or a supernatural being. After all, if we are all products of a random process called evolution by natural selection and we all are here out of pure chance, what is the point of life?
There is no teleology or an overarching purpose in evolution and nature. From a biological point of view, we are a vast colony of cells whose primary purpose is the self-replication of our genes and our DNA. Paraphrasing Richard Dawkins in his now-classic The Selfish Gene, a human being (or an elephant for that matter) is the roundabout way our genes have to replicate themselves. Nothing else.
As the great theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg famously said:
“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”Steven Weinberg
If our existence is a pointless random event, then life is futile and meaningless. It is easy to fall into nihilism and empty existentialism, and this is not a pretty place to be in. I know it because I’ve been there like many others.
When you look at the sky on a clear night and look at the stars, two things usually happen. On the one hand, you realise how immense and vast the whole universe is and how tiny the Earth and its inhabitants are. This feeling is quite humbling and can bring you to helplessness and anxiety, with thoughts such as “do I really matter? I am nothing within all this vastness.”
On the other hand, it is also inevitable to feel some sense of awe and wonder. The fact that all those stars and galaxies exist, that all those laws of physics make it possible and glue all matter together, that life exists, and that you happen to be alive and able to think about it… is all wonderful in and itself. Again, you can think, “do I really matter? I am nothing, it’s true… but I am also everything”.
You are everything for yourself. You are all your thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations, and experiences. Without you, there is no you. There would only be nothingness, at least for you.
Life is wonderful because you have the chance to be in it. It is a gift, so once you are here, you may as well make the most of it. How? That’s for you to decide.
That is, for me, the meaning for life: that there is no real meaning apart from the one you want to give it.
There is not a single answer that is valid for all, as we are all different. If there were one, it would mean that our lives were already conditioned and pre-determined, that indeed we weren’t free.
Finding your meaning in life will be one of the most important things you should be doing. It is an essential part of finding happiness and fulfillment, so give it the importance it merits.
I like Seneca’s quote above. It is one of the most important truths one needs to understand to be happy: to be happy, you need to know your own nature first. We are all different and unique due to our genetic make-up and our environmental conditions. We all have different values, needs, tastes, and likings. The first thing to understand to be happy is that you need to know who you are. You need to know thyself and act accordingly.
This seems evident and straightforward, but it isn’t. How many of us follow our parents’ dreams, pursue a career we don’t want because of social pressure or have a lifestyle we didn’t choose? Many more people than you think. You might be one, and you didn’t realise it yet, or you know it deep inside, but you don’t want to accept it, as this would be too hard to endure.
Once you know yourself well and rediscover who you are, you can then think about what will give meaning to your life. Is it to love and be loved? Helping others? Your career? Building or creating something? Getting rich? Living a simple and healthy life? I cannot help you here; you need to find your own way.
There is ample research that shows that inner happiness, mental wellbeing, and a sense of fulfillment in life can only come once we have discovered the meaning of our life and our purpose in it. The effect will be stronger if our meaning is externally focused, helping others, and not too focused on ourselves. Try to be happy, and you won’t be; try helping others and doing good for society, and you will be, even if it wasn’t your objective.
The regrets of the dying
Some people will find meaning in their careers, which is fine. This is a free world, after all, but be careful. In her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, the former palliative cures nurse Bronnie Ware cites the most common regrets of the people she treated, who were all about to die. It won’t surprise you that none of them wished they had worked harder or had attended more work meetings (or God forbid, Zoom calls).
Their five main regrets were these:
– I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
– I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
– I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
– I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
– I wish that I had let myself be happier.
I can relate to all of these. I can understand how they made it to the top five. These are the regrets of the dying, but they are even more so the regrets of the living. We all wish we could do more of these, but most of us don’t do enough. We let these wishes escape through our fingers until it is too late, and they become our regrets on our deathbed.
The good news is that you are still on time to do something about it. If you are still lost and don’t know where to start to find meaning in your life, you can do worse than starting with any of these five things, or why not, all of them.
Life has only the meaning you are ready to give it. It can be meaningless and pointless or full of meaning and purpose. You decide. I know which of the two options will help you have a happier and more fulfilling life.
Just understand who you are, what ticks you, and what gives meaning to your life, then go for it. Don’t wait until it is too late.