What is the meaning of life?

  • Other ways of phrasing it: "For what ultimate purpose am I here?", "Why does the universe exist?"
    • Some people also seem to use the question as a way of asking, "How should I be living my life to be happy / content / no longer questioning how I'm spending my time?"; in other words, they're envisioning the "meaning" of their life as being the thing that, once they're are doing it, will resolve some unpleasant feeling they currently have.
  • It seems to me that this question is a result of humans extending human concepts to things that shouldn't be thought of in human terms; it's anthropomorphism applied to the entire universe instead of to just a tree or a dog. here's a similar example: when I was a young kid I would sometimes cry at the thought of throwing away toys because I would imagine what it would be like to be a conscious toy and be thrown away, and I felt guilty about treating the toy so "badly". This was me applying a useful human tendency (compassion, placing myself in the position of another) to an arguably inappropriate target (a toy), and feeling bad as a result. I think humans have a natural tendency to try to understand the motivations behind other humans' or animals' behaviors, and I think that this "Meaning of Life" question is a result of applying this tendency to an inappropriate target (the Universe).
  • I think this is a bad way of thinking about life; thinking about life like this has made me feel depressed in the past and I've seen it make other people depressed [Q: Why does it make people get depressed? A: Maybe because it makes people feel unimportant, and people feel depressed when they feel unimportant.]
  • It seems to me that you do not need to resolve this question to be happy; it's a big red herring (in any case, at the moment I think the answer I describe above is the true one).  Just focus on meeting your needs (eat well, sleep well, spend a lot of time with people you like, have those people make you feel important, keep yourself busy/occupied/distracted).  I suspect when a lot of people say that they've found the answer to this question, they've really just found something to focus their effort on and feel important about (their family, their work, etc.).

Other people's thoughts

  • The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - The Meaning of Life
    • After four years of philosophy in undergrad, I came away with the opinion that by far the best resource a person can read on any philosophical topic is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on the topic.
  • Marty Nemko - What the Hell is the Meaning of Life?
    • Summary / key quotes:
      • When I was a teenager, I thought money was the answer. Then I tried noble work—teaching in the inner-city. Next, I tried prestige: got a PhD from Berkeley, became a professor. I’ve been trying the values route: focusing on what did I most value: work. To that end, I decided to be a career counselor. Many people find the meaning of life through relationships. Many other people find the meaning of life in religious faith. Is that all there is? I want to live as meaningful life as possible in the time I have. How the hell do I do it? Here’s my current thinking, subject to revision: It comes down to spending as much time as possible using my best skills (writing and speaking) to make a difference. I guess I should be grateful--that's a pretty full life. Yet somehow, I still feel empty.
    • Interestingly, he seems to use "the meaning of life" to mean, "How should I be living my life to be happy / content / no longer questioning how I'm spending my time?".
    • Note that he doesn't seem very happy in the article; I think it's because he hasn't met other needs, rather than any philosophical problem figuring out what the meaning of life is.  If I was helping him, I would try to go through Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and figure out which of his needs he isn't meeting.  It might just be that he has a certain part of his brain that has been programmed (through his genes and/or environment) to always question his current actions, and he hasn't found a way to quiet that part of his brain.  I think this explanation connects well with the hypothesis he proposes at the end of the article: "Maybe I'm just constitutionally a kvetch [complainer]."
  • Tim Ferriss on the meaning of life, taken from the 4-Hour Workweek:
    • In the process of searching for a new focus [for your life], it is almost inevitable that the "big" questions will creep in. There is pressure from pseudophilosophers everywhere to cast aside the impertinent and answer the eternal. Two popular examples are "What is the meaning of life?" and "What is the point of it all?" There are many more, ranging from the introspective to the ontological, but I have one answer for almost all of them--I don't answer them at all. I'm no nihilist. In fact, I've spent more than a decade investigating the mind and concept of meaning, a quest that has taken me from the neuroscience laboratories of top universities to the halls of religious institutions worldwide. The conclusion after it all is surprising. I am 100% convinced that most big questions we feel compelled to face--handed down through centuries of overthinking and mistranslation--use terms so undefined as to make attempting to answer them a complete waste of time. This isn't depressing. It's liberating. Consider the question of questions: What is the meaning of life? If pressed, I have but one response: It is the characteristic state or condition of a living organism. "But that's just a definition," the questioner will retort, "that's not what I mean at all." What do you mean, then? Until the question is clear--each term in it defined--there is no point in answering it. The "meaning" of "life" question is unanswerable without further elaboration. [Source: The 4-Hour Workweek, pp291-292]

    • I think Ferriss has a good point, but I also think he's kind of dodging the question by not taking the further step of explaining to the questioner exactly what the questioner is curious about and what can be known about that curiosity.