He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how. – Viktor Frankl
The meaning of life is one of these broad existential questions we avoid thinking about due to a lack of a proper answer. However, it is not as profound or complicated as it seems at first glimpse. If we hope to understand it, we first need to define it.
Defining the Meaning of Life
The meaning of life is the reason for life. It is why you wake up in the morning. People that don’t wake up in the morning most of the time don’t because they don’t have anything to wake up to. They don’t have any mission, any purpose.
Many scientists and philosophers, usually atheists, look at life as being devoid of meaning (Camus, for example). However, their vision is flawed. Meaning depends on the perspective you take to define it.
Choosing the Viewpoint
Let’s put things into perspective: we live in a galaxy called the Milky Way, housing 100 000 million stars (100 000 000 000). We also estimate there are as many galaxies, even though that number tends to double (200 000 000 000) as time goes by.
From a cosmic point of view, we are smaller than a drop of water in the Pacific ocean. It is therefore quite clear: we don’t matter. The Earth could explode tomorrow, no one would notice, and nothing would change in the universe.
If we zoom in and look at human scale though, it is a different story. The meaning of life for a cow, for example, is to eat grass and make more cows. Through doing so, the cow maintains the health of the soil by crapping and standing on it, which enriches it in oxygen and makes it fertile.
This helps thousands of small insects and microbes that live in the ground to go about their daily task, and each and every one of them helps maintain the entire ecosystem alive and healthy.
The cow, at the scale of the land field, is important. Should it disappear tomorrow and not be replaced, many would notice.
The meaning of life depends therefore on the perspective we’re taking. In the ecosystem, all living sentient matter because all participate in its functioning.
And to make sure all would wake up in the morning to cater to their daily tasks, nature encoded them with some sort of…motivation.
The Biological Meaning of Life Is to Live
Living organisms all have this drive to survive and reproduce which directs all of their actions throughout the day. Eating, reproducing, feeding the young, repeating. This pattern is observable for every type of animal or insect that exists. This was also our purpose.
For about 300 000 years, humans woke up in the morning to hunt and take care of their tribes. Even though they may not have understood why, surviving was their only reason to live, their only meaning. Their purpose was to go find food and ensure security. That was about it. A full stomach meant a happy life.
As society modernized with a shift from a nomadic to a sedentary lifestyle, technology insured humans would no longer need to go hunting as food production could be to some extent “automated”, or at least exchanged against a different type of work.
It was the beginning of trade. Since we didn’t spend as much time seeking to meet our physiological needs, humans had to find a new meaning, a new mission for their lives, a new why, as illustrated in Maslow’s pyramid of needs.
Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs
Maslow’s pyramid ranks humans’ needs from most important, to most superfluous. A need cannot be achieved if a lower level has not been fulfilled.
As such, humans’ first needs, as we can see, are physiological: eating, breathing, etc. For people struggling to put food on the table, the sole and unique meaning of their lives is to eat.
It is only when this need and all of the other physiological needs have been fulfilled on a daily basis, that they can take care of the upper level: safety. Then moving onto love, then esteem, then finally, self-actualization.
As such, the meaning of life as we understand it in Western society only intervenes at the fifth level of the pyramid. It is only once people have had food, water, love, safety, and esteem that they wonder about the philosophical question: what’s the meaning of my life?
People stuck on the second level don’t wonder about this question. For them, the meaning of life is to find love and belonging, before finding esteem, and finally, meaning can be searched for.
Be Grateful for Wondering What the Meaning of Life Is
As if you do, it means you have reached the fifth level on Maslow’s pyramid, which is, at the scale of the world, above average. But that doesn’t answer the question, does it?
Most of the time, when we ask about what we should do with our lives, we’re being told we should do something that “makes us happy”. It is terrible advice, as explained by Viktor Frankl.
Enters Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) was a psychiatrist and neurologist. He was also the author of the acclaimed book “Man’s search for meaning” where he detailed his life in the concentration camps of WWII.
He explained how having a meaning to pursue helped him endure the daily torture and eventually survive. It is this experience of pain and suffering that inspired his theory on the meaning of life (called logotherapy).
According to Frankl, meaning is established as a goal to achieve through work and efforts. It is the end result of a project, a desire, a wish that does not yet exist but could materialize through the will of the instigator.
It is the desire to reach this end goal that gives the subject something to live for, a reason for his existence from which derives the by-product: happiness. Happiness in itself is therefore not a purpose, but a consequence stemming out of going after the purpose.
Meaning, according to Frankl, can be found within three different areas: work, love, and courage. An example of a “work”-related meaning could be achieving financial independence, or having a successful career (MJ DeMarco).
An example of a “courage”-related meaning could be fighting for freedom or democracy in one’s country (Alexei Navalny, Nelson Mandela). Finally, an example of a “love”-related meaning could be taking care of orphans, having kids, or relieving the pain of a dying family member (Mother Theresa).
The meaning of one’s life essentially stems from the desire to change the status quo. Should you have no meaning in your life, it would mean you would simply be happy with everything you see, have, and live in your daily life. Needless to say that the chances of this happening are close to zero. As humans, there is always something we want that we don’t have yet.
Frankl further pretends that out of work, courage, and love, the latter is the highest form of meaning for humans.
While I understand what he writes, I don’t assign identities to meaning (work, love, courage). I’d rather look at meaning from the structure used by the fulfiller to reach their purpose. To me, meaning can be achieved by undertaking three different types of tasks: fighting for/against something (freedom, oppression, justice); raising/taking care of something (pet, kids); building something (a country, a company, writing a book).
Let’s have a look at some examples.
The Need to Fight: Venice and the Success of ISIS
Some almost 10 years ago, my mum took me and my sister on a trip to Venice with my communist cousin. As we were entering the city, we saw a protest for I don’t remember which left-wing issue. As I was voicing my absence of understanding, my cousin simply objected that it was important to have something to fight for in life.
I had not understood what it meant at the time (I must have been 16 or 17), but she had in fact outlined one of the structures of the meaning of life. Fighting for something has been in our genes from the very beginning, and its attractiveness has never decreased since.
When we stopped fighting in the wild for our lives, we started fighting for liberty, then we fought for our nations, for our kings, for honor. We fought for justice, for peace and now, we’re fighting for climate change.
In her TED Talk, Stacey Kramer highlights how the best gift she ever received came in the form of deadly cancer, whose fight gave a new meaning to her life, uniting her and her family against the disease. Adversity is a strong catalyst for unity, and may sometimes be welcome for situations where cooperation is a dire need. Adversity motivates people to fight and fighting gives people meaning.
As such, the best organization that managed to give meaning to those who had none was without a doubt ISIS. Through intelligent marketing and emotional discourse, ISIS promised to all the marginalized members of the youth that had nothing to fight for, a combat “for the Caliphate, for God, for Islam and for the Muslims who’ve fallen under the bombs of Westerners”.
Animated by the perspective to finally find meaning, to wake up for something, tens of thousands of young adults and teenagers, usually unemployed, addicted, or simply lost, ran towards those that offered them a meaningful perspective at a time when they had none, even though this perspective was most of the time…death.
Indeed, dying for something still sounded like a better deal than living for nothing.
And it worked.
This obsession with fighting is found in many other areas of our society. All sport competitions embody the components of fights, whether against other teams (basketball) or against oneself (athletic jumping, free solo).
Movies depicting giant fights are the most popular at the box office, from Saving Private Ryan to the Lord of the Rings. Players spend hundreds of hours fighting each other digitally on computers, from Counter-Strike to Call of Duty.
And finally, the worlwide economic system (capitalism) is based on competition or “fighting” the other team.
Fighting gives life an exciting and powerful meaning. All is left for you to do is to pick the type of fight you are willing to put up with.
Pets, Plants, and Babies
The second type of meaning for one’s life is expressed through the need to take care of something. Under this desire is the obvious need to make sure humans will reproduce and continue their species through the desire to have and raise kids.
This strong wish we have to take care of something is further expressed through the adoption of pets, plants, or even digitized creatures such as the success of the Tamagotchi attested in the late 90s.
The desire to cater to the needs of another living organism is also found in many different areas of society, from the Sims in the realm of video games, to the dolls little girls used to receive when it was still politically correct to buy your daughter a fake plastic baby.
Finally, having kids itself is many people’s meaning of life, and may be one of the most common answers to the question.
Companies, Buildings, and Countries
The last type of meaning-making activity is building something. Ever since mankind developed the ability to build, men and women through the ages have embarked on a lifetime quest to fulfill their vision. The need to create and make out of nothing that which did not yet exist were powerful catalyst for action. The difficulty of the task often made it even more appealing once fulfilled.
These people were the kings that built countries (Clovis, in France), the architects that built cathedrals (Gaudi), the writers that wrote books (Simenon), and the entrepreneurs that built companies (Jim Walton).
Happiness ≠ Meaning
The meaning of life isn’t happiness, and it shouldn’t be either, for two main reasons.
Firstly, happiness is not a purpose and cannot be reached by itself.
It is, as we have seen, only a by-product, a consequence of doing something meaningful, such as fighting, building, or taking care of something. Seeking happiness before meaning is therefore the equivalent of heating the cake form before adding the ingredients: it just doesn’t work.
The second reason is that happiness is often mixed up with pleasure. Happiness – real happiness – is a long-term result obtained out of an effort, out of pain, and out of hard work invested in order for one to grow and become the person who is capable to achieve the meaningful purpose they have set out for themselves.
Pleasure is entirely different. It is merely the fulfillment of a need that releases dopamine and is hence short-termed, such as eating sweet foods for example. When you are hungry, it’s not the food that makes you “happy”. It is the fulfilling of the need.
The Past Was More Suited for Meaningful Lives
Believe it or not, life used to be much happier in the past than it is now. Why? Because it was harder. Humans are inherently masochistic, we find happiness (and not pleasure) out of pain and efforts endured in situations such as learning a new skill or overcoming obstacles.
It is the triumph over the difficulties of life that makes us happy (truly happy) and grow. As such, the more difficult your life is, the happier you will be once you’ll have overcome your obstacles. You can’t be happy if your life is “easy” (it is the metaphorical message of the book “The Alchemist”.)
Similarly, I believe life to be less happy now because it is easier and more pleasurable. The myriad of dopamine-triggering activities has made us addicted to short-term pleasure, cursed with inevitable dopamine crashes, making us wanting more and more and more.
Pleasure and happiness is a zero-sum game, more of one means de facto less of the other, and that is because of their opposite nature. Happiness is a consequence of an investment into pain and efforts to overcome a meaningful long-term obstacle. Bad feeling first, good feeling after.
Pleasure is the opposite: it is a short-term good feeling to which succeeds more suffering.
As such, while life was less pleasurable and harder in the past, people seemed to know the difference between happiness and pleasure. They had a propensity to seek what made them happy and not what gave them pleasure. This explains why religious careers, whose point was to entirely give up pleasure to prefer happiness, were so popular.
They have almost entirely disappeared nowadays.
As religion and Judeo-Christian values collapsed since WWII, the new meaning of life for people to pursue became pleasure. “Do something that makes you happy” came to be the general motto, so people went on to seek what made them feel good.
For the baby boomers and gen X, it was drinking, partying, compulsive consumption, gambling, lust, and gluttony, drugs, with the results that we know of today.
The way millennials experience pleasure is much more…lonely: video games, Netflix, social media scolling, and “traveling”. But we’re getting off-topic.
Happiness, pleasure, efforts, and meaning are therefore all linked together since they all influence the end-state of somebody.
The meaning of life is ultimately the pursuit of a meaningful long-term purpose through the investment of pain and efforts whose consequence, on top of the realization of the goal, will be happiness.
The Bottom Line
On a cosmic scale, life has no meaning, and nothing matters. At a local scale though, you matter and your life can have meaning because your actions have consequences. The meaning of life depends therefore both on the lens we adopt to take a look at it and on one’s personal situation.
Chronologically, the meaning of life is first expressed through the desire to fulfill basic needs as illustrated in Maslow’s pyramid. Individuals that have reached the fifth level of the pyramid need to search for an external long-term reason for their existence, understood in the Western world as “meaning”.
This meaning can be of three natures: a fight for/against something/someone, the building of a long-term project, or the raising and catering of another living being.
The failure to identify or pursue meaning in life will lead to deep existential frustrations.
The cause of violence, addiction, and substance abuse?