Meaning of life

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The meaning of life, or the answer to the question: "What is the meaning of life?", pertains to the

speculation throughout history. Different people and cultures believe different things for the answer to this question.

The meaning of life can be derived from philosophical and religious contemplation of, and scientific inquiries about

approach poses the question, "What is the meaning of my life?"

Origin of the expression

"The Storm Fiend" — Heading to Book II Chapter IX of Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, 1898 illustration by E. J. Sullivan

The first English use of the expression "meaning of life" appears in

Schiller.[3] These authors grappled with the rationalism and materialism of modernity. Carlyle called this the "Torch of Science", which burned "more fiercely than ever" and made religion "all parched away, under the Droughts of practical and spiritual Unbelief", resulting in the "Wilderness" of "the wide World in an Atheistic Century".[4]

Origin of the question

Philosopher in Meditation (detail) by Rembrandt.

Arthur Schopenhauer was the first to explicitly ask the question,[1] in an essay entitled "Character".

Since a man does not alter, and his moral character remains absolutely the same all through his life; since he must play out the part which he has received, without the least deviation from the character; since neither experience, nor philosophy, nor religion can effect any improvement in him, the question arises, What is the meaning of life at all? To what purpose is it played, this farce in which everything that is essential is irrevocably fixed and determined?[5]

Questions about the meaning of life have been expressed in a broad variety of other ways, including:

These questions have resulted in a wide range of competing answers and explications, from

theological, and spiritual

Scientific inquiry and perspectives

Many members of the scientific community and philosophy of science communities think that science can provide the relevant context, and set of parameters necessary for dealing with topics related to the meaning of life. In their view, science can offer a wide range of insights on topics ranging from the science of happiness to death anxiety. Scientific inquiry facilitates this through nomological investigation into various aspects of life and reality, such as the Big Bang, the origin of life, and evolution, and by studying the objective factors which correlate with the subjective experience of meaning and happiness.

Psychological significance and value in life

Researchers in positive psychology study empirical factors that lead to life satisfaction,[20] full engagement in activities,[21] making a fuller contribution by utilizing one's personal strengths,[22] and meaning based on investing in something larger than the self.[23] Large-data studies of flow experiences have consistently suggested that humans experience meaning and fulfillment when mastering challenging tasks and that the experience comes from the way tasks are approached and performed rather than the particular choice of task. For example, flow experiences can be obtained by prisoners in concentration camps with minimal facilities, and occur only slightly more often in billionaires. A classic example[21] is of two workers on an apparently boring production line in a factory. One treats the work as a tedious chore while the other turns it into a game to see how fast she can make each unit and achieves flow in the process.

Neuroscience describes reward, pleasure, and motivation in terms of neurotransmitter activity, especially in the limbic system and the ventral tegmental area in particular. If one believes that the meaning of life is to maximize pleasure and to ease general life, then this allows normative predictions about how to act to achieve this. Likewise, some ethical naturalists advocate a science of morality—the empirical pursuit of flourishing for all conscious creatures.

trolley problems
. It has shown that many types of ethical judgment are universal across cultures, suggesting that they may be innate, whilst others are culture-specific. The findings show actual human ethical reasoning to be at odds with most philosophical theories, for example consistently showing distinctions between action by cause and action by omission which would be absent from utility-based theories. Cognitive science has theorized about differences between conservative and liberal ethics and how they may be based on different metaphors from family life such as strong fathers vs nurturing mother models.

Neurotheology is a controversial field which tries to find neural correlates and mechanisms of religious experience. Some researchers have suggested that the human brain has innate mechanisms for such experiences and that living without using them for their evolved purposes may be a cause of imbalance. Studies have reported conflicting results on correlating happiness with religious belief and it is difficult to find unbiased meta-analyses.[24][25]

Terror Management Theory
, states that human meaning is derived from a fundamental fear of death, and values are selected when they allow us to escape the mental reminder of death.

Alongside this, there are a number of theories about the way in which humans evaluate the positive and negative aspects of their existence and thus the value and meaning they place on their lives. For example, depressive realism posits an exaggerated positivity in all except those experiencing depressive disorders who see life as it truly is, and David Benatar theorises that more weight is generally given to positive experiences, providing bias towards an over-optimistic view of life.

Emerging research shows that meaning in life predicts better physical health outcomes. Greater meaning has been associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease,[26] reduced risk of heart attack among individuals with coronary heart disease,[27] reduced risk of stroke,[28] and increased longevity in both American and Japanese samples.[29] In 2014, the British National Health Service began recommending a five-step plan for mental well-being based on meaningful lives, whose steps are:[30]

  1. Connect with community and family
  2. Physical exercise
  3. Lifelong learning
  4. Giving to others
  5. Mindfulness of the world around you

Origin and nature of biological life

DNA contains the genetic instructions for the development and functioning of all known organisms

The exact mechanisms of

George C. Williams, Richard Dawkins, and David Haig, among others, concluded that if there is a primary function to life, it is the replication of DNA and the survival of one's genes.[32][33] Responding to an interview question from Richard Dawkins about "what it is all for", James Watson stated "I don't think we're for anything. We're just the products of evolution."[34]

Though scientists have intensively studied life on Earth, defining life in unequivocal terms is still a challenge.[35][36] Physically, one may say that life "feeds on negative entropy"[37][38][39] which refers to the process by which living entities decrease their internal entropy at the expense of some form of energy taken in from the environment.[40][41][42] Biologists generally agree that lifeforms are self-organizing systems which regulate their internal environments as to maintain this organized state, metabolism serves to provide energy, and reproduction causes life to continue over a span of multiple generations. Typically, organisms are responsive to stimuli and genetic information changes from generation to generation, resulting in adaptation through evolution; this optimizes the chances of survival for the individual organism and its descendants respectively.[43]

Non-cellular replicating agents, notably

parasites and endosymbionts are also incapable of independent life. Astrobiology
studies the possibility of different forms of life on other worlds, including replicating structures made from materials other than DNA.

Origins and ultimate fate of the universe

Though the Big Bang theory was met with much skepticism when first introduced, it has become well-supported by several independent observations.[44] However, current physics can only describe the early universe from around 10−43 seconds after the Big Bang (where zero time corresponds to infinite temperature); a theory of quantum gravity would be required to understand events before that time. Nevertheless, many physicists have speculated about what would have preceded this limit, and how the universe came into being.[45] For example, one interpretation is that the Big Bang occurred coincidentally, and when considering the anthropic principle, it is sometimes interpreted as implying the existence of a multiverse.[46]

The ultimate fate of the universe, and implicitly of humanity, is hypothesized as one in which biological life will eventually become unsustainable, such as through a

Big Freeze, Big Rip, or Big Crunch


Many-worlds theories claim that every possibility of quantum mechanics
is played out in parallel universes.

Scientific questions about the mind

The nature and origin of

theoretical physicists have also made several allusions to the subject.[48][49]

Hieronymus Bosch's Ascent of the Blessed depicts a tunnel of light and spiritual figures, often described in reports of near-death experiences

Multiple Drafts Model, hold that consciousness can be wholly explained by neuroscience through the workings of the brain and its neurons, thus adhering to biological naturalism.[49][50][51]

On the other hand, some scientists, like Andrei Linde, have considered that consciousness, like spacetime, might have its own intrinsic degrees of freedom, and that one's perceptions may be as real as (or even more real than) material objects.[52] Hypotheses of consciousness and spacetime explain consciousness in describing a "space of conscious elements",[52] often encompassing a number of extra dimensions.[53] Electromagnetic theories of consciousness solve the binding problem of consciousness in saying that the electromagnetic field generated by the brain is the actual carrier of conscious experience; there is however disagreement about the implementations of such a theory relating to other workings of the mind.[54][55] Quantum mind theories use quantum theory in explaining certain properties of the mind. Explaining the process of free will through quantum phenomena is a popular alternative to determinism.


Based on the premises of non-materialistic explanations of the mind, some have suggested the existence of a

parapsychologists have orchestrated various experiments, but successful results might be due to poor experimental controls and might have alternative explanations.[58][59][60][61]

Nature of meaning in life

Reker and Wong define personal meaning as the "cognizance of order, coherence and purpose in one's existence, the pursuit and attainment of worthwhile goals, and an accompanying sense of fulfillment" (p. 221).[62] In 2016, Martela and Steger defined meaning as coherence, purpose, and significance.[63] In contrast, Wong has proposed a four-component solution to the question of meaning in life,[64][65] with the four components purpose, understanding, responsibility, and enjoyment (PURE):

  1. You need to choose a worthy purpose or a significant life goal.
  2. You need to have sufficient understanding of who you are, what life demands of you, and how you can play a significant role in life.
  3. You and you alone are responsible for deciding what kind of life you want to live, and what constitutes a significant and worthwhile life goal.
  4. You will enjoy a deep sense of significance and satisfaction only when you have exercised your responsibility for self-determination and actively pursue a worthy life-goal.

Thus, a sense of significance permeates every dimension of meaning, rather than standing as a separate factor.

Although most psychology researchers consider meaning in life as a subjective feeling or judgment, most philosophers (e.g., Thaddeus Metz, Daniel Haybron) propose that there are also objective, concrete criteria for what constitutes meaning in life.[66][67] Wong has proposed that whether life is meaningful depends not only on subjective feelings but, more importantly, on whether a person's goal-striving and life as a whole is meaningful according to some objective normative standard.[65]

Western philosophical perspectives

The philosophical perspectives on the meaning of life are those ideologies that explain life in terms of ideals or abstractions defined by humans.

Ancient Greek philosophy


universals. His theory of forms proposes that universals do not physically exist, like objects, but as heavenly forms. In the dialogue of the Republic, the character of Socrates describes the Form of the Good
. His theory on justice in the soul relates to the idea of happiness relevant to the question of the meaning of life.

In Platonism, the meaning of life is in attaining the highest form of knowledge, which is the

) of the Good, from which all good and just things derive utility and value.


, he could not simply study what virtue is, he had to be virtuous, via virtuous activities. To do this, Aristotle established what is virtuous:

Every skill and every inquiry, and similarly, every action and choice of action, is thought to have some good as its object. This is why the good has rightly been defined as the object of all endeavor [...]
Everything is done with a goal, and that goal is "good".

Yet, if action A is done towards achieving goal B, then goal B also would have a goal, goal C, and goal C also would have a goal, and so would continue this pattern, until something stopped its

, usually translated as "happiness", "well-being", "flourishing", and "excellence".

What is the highest good in all matters of action? To the name, there is an almost complete agreement; for uneducated and educated alike call it happiness, and make happiness identical with the good life and successful living. They disagree, however, about the meaning of happiness.


and a concomitant vicious character.

The Cynical life rejects conventional desires for

power, health, and fame, by being free of the possessions acquired in pursuing the conventional.[68][69] As reasoning creatures, people could achieve happiness via rigorous training, by living in a way natural to human beings. The world equally belongs to everyone, so suffering is caused by false judgments of what is valuable and what is worthless per the customs and conventions of society


hedonistic world view, wherein bodily gratification is more intense than mental pleasure. Cyrenaics prefer immediate gratification to the long-term gain of delayed gratification; denial is unpleasant unhappiness.[70][71]


) is absent through one's knowledge of the workings of the world and of the limits of one's desires. Combined, freedom from pain and freedom from fear are happiness in its highest form. Epicurus' lauded enjoyment of simple pleasures is quasi-ascetic "abstention" from sex and the appetites:

"When we say ... that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do, by some, through ignorance, prejudice or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure, we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not by an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not by sexual lust, nor the enjoyment of fish, and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul."[72]

The Epicurean meaning of life rejects immortality and mysticism; there is a soul, but it is as mortal as the body. There is no afterlife, yet, one need not fear death, because "Death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved, is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us."[73]


Zeno of Citium, a pupil of Crates of Thebes, established the school which teaches that living according to reason and virtue is to be in harmony with the universe's divine order, entailed by one's recognition of the universal logos, or reason, an essential value of all people. The meaning of life is "freedom from suffering" through apatheia (Gr: απαθεια), that is, being objective and having "clear judgement", not indifference.

Stoicism's prime directives are virtue, reason, and natural law, abided to develop personal self-control and mental fortitude as means of overcoming destructive emotions. The Stoic does not seek to extinguish emotions, only to avoid emotional troubles, by developing clear judgment and inner calm through diligently practiced logic, reflection, and concentration.

The Stoic ethical foundation is that "good lies in the state of the soul", itself, exemplified in wisdom and self-control, thus improving one's spiritual well-being: "Virtue consists in a will which is in agreement with Nature."[73] The principle applies to one's personal relations thus: "to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy".[73]

Enlightenment philosophy

The Enlightenment and the colonial era both changed the nature of European philosophy and exported it worldwide. Devotion and subservience to God were largely replaced by notions of inalienable natural rights and the potentialities of reason, and universal ideals of love and compassion gave way to civic notions of freedom, equality, and citizenship. The meaning of life changed as well, focusing less on humankind's relationship to God and more on the relationship between individuals and their society. This era is filled with theories that equate meaningful existence with the social order.

Classical liberalism

rights (including the right to retain the wealth generated by one's own work), and sought out means to balance rights across society. Broadly speaking, it considers individual liberty to be the most important goal,[74]
because only through ensured liberty are the other inherent rights protected.

There are many forms and derivations of liberalism, but their central conceptions of the meaning of life trace back to three main ideas. Early thinkers such as

social contracts
to create an environment that supports those efforts.


Immanuel Kant is regarded as one of the most influential thinkers of the late Enlightenment

Categorical Imperative", derived from the concept of duty. Kantians believe all actions are performed in accordance with some underlying maxim
or principle, and for actions to be ethical, they must adhere to the categorical imperative.

Simply put, the test is that one must universalize the maxim (imagine that all people acted in this way) and then see if it would still be possible to perform the maxim in the world without contradiction. In Groundwork, Kant gives the example of a person who seeks to borrow money without intending to pay it back. This is a contradiction because if it were a universal action, no person would lend money anymore as he knows that he will never be paid back. The maxim of this action, says Kant, results in a contradiction in conceivability (and thus contradicts perfect duty).

Kant also denied that the consequences of an act in any way contribute to the moral worth of that act, his reasoning being that the physical world is outside one's full control and thus one cannot be held accountable for the events that occur in it.

19th-century philosophy

The first English use of the expression "meaning of life" appeared in Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (1833–August 1834): "Our Life is compassed round with Necessity; yet is the meaning of Life itself no other than Freedom, than Voluntary Force: thus have we a warfare; in the beginning, especially, a hard-fought battle."[75]


The origins of

greatest happiness principle

Jeremy Bentham's foremost proponent was James Mill, a significant philosopher in his day, and father of John Stuart Mill. The younger Mill was educated per Bentham's principles, including transcribing and summarizing much of his father's work.[77]


Nihilism suggests that life is without objective meaning.

Friedrich Nietzsche characterized nihilism as emptying the world, and especially human existence, of meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, and essential value; succinctly, nihilism is the process of "the devaluing of the highest values".[78] Seeing the nihilist as a natural result of the idea that God is dead, and insisting it was something to overcome, his questioning of the nihilist's life-negating values returned meaning to the Earth.[79]

The End of the World
by John Martin.


being" is forgotten, and is transformed into value, in other words, the reduction of being to exchange value.[78] Heidegger, in accordance with Nietzsche, saw in the so-called "death of God
" a potential source for nihilism:

If God, as the supra-sensory ground and goal, of all reality, is dead; if the supra-sensory world of the Ideas has suffered the loss of its obligatory, and above it, its vitalizing and up-building power, then nothing more remains to which Man can cling, and by which he can orient himself.[80]

The French philosopher Albert Camus asserts that the absurdity of the human condition is that people search for external values and meaning in a world which has none and is indifferent to them. Camus writes of value-nihilists such as Meursault,[81] but also of values in a nihilistic world, that people can instead strive to be "heroic nihilists", living with dignity in the face of absurdity, living with "secular saintliness", fraternal solidarity, and rebelling against and transcending the world's indifference.[82]

20th-century philosophy

The current era has seen radical changes in both formal and popular conceptions of human nature. The knowledge disclosed by modern science has effectively rewritten the relationship of humankind to the natural world. Advances in medicine and technology have freed humans from significant limitations and ailments of previous eras;[83] and philosophy—particularly following the linguistic turn—has altered how the relationships people have with themselves and each other are conceived. Questions about the meaning of life have also seen radical changes, from attempts to reevaluate human existence in biological and scientific terms (as in pragmatism and logical positivism) to efforts to meta-theorize about meaning-making as a personal, individual-driven activity (existentialism, secular humanism).


Pragmatism originated in the late-19th-century US, concerning itself (mostly) with truth, and positing that "only in struggling with the environment" do data, and derived theories, have meaning, and that consequences, like utility and practicality, are also components of truth. Moreover, pragmatism posits that anything useful and practical is not always true, arguing that what most contributes to the most human good in the long course is true. In practice, theoretical claims must be practically verifiable, i.e. one should be able to predict and test claims, and, that, ultimately, the needs of humankind should guide human intellectual inquiry.

Pragmatic philosophers suggest that the practical, useful understanding of life is more important than searching for an impractical abstract truth about life. William James argued that truth could be made, but not sought.[84][85] To a pragmatist, the meaning of life is discoverable only via experience.


Theists believe God created the universe and that God had a purpose in doing so. Theists also hold the view that humans find their meaning and purpose for life in God's purpose in creating. Some theists further hold that if there were no God to give life ultimate meaning, value, and purpose, then life would be absurd.[86]


existential angst