He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how. – Viktor Frankl
The meaning of life is a question we avoid thinking about due to a lack of proper answers.
However, it is neither as profound nor as complicated as it seems.
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 often don’t have anything to wake up for (and the other way around).
Many scientists and philosophers consider life devoid of meaning because in the end, nothing matters.
While it is true in the grand scheme of things, it isn’t true at all in practice.
Meaning depends on the perspective you take to define it.
Meaning is a matter of scale.
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 as there are stars in the Milkey Way, 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.
The Earth could explode tomorrow, no one would notice, and nothing would change.
If we zoom in and look at it from a human scale though, it’s different.
The meaning of life for a cow, for example, is to eat grass and make more cows.
By doing so, the cow maintains the health of the soil by crapping and standing on it, which enriches it with oxygen and makes it fertile.
This helps thousands of small insects and microbes that live in the ground to go about their daily task. Each of them has a role to play in maintaining the 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.
Therefore, the meaning of life depends on the perspective we’re taking.
To quote Nassim Taleb, “things don’t scale“.
Your life has meaning within your household.
But it doesn’t in the universe.
We will therefore look at the meaning of life from a local perspective.
The Biological Meaning of Life Is to Live
Living organisms are characterized by the drive to survive and reproduce. It directs all of our actions.
This is true for every living thing.
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 it, surviving was their only reason to live, the only meaning in their lives.
A full stomach meant a happy life.
As society shifted from a nomadic to a sedentary lifestyle, technology insured humans would no longer need to go hunting as food production could be “automated” to some extend, or at least exchanged against a different type of work.
It was the beginning of trade and specialization.
Since food was insured by agriculture, humans had to find new reasons to wake up in the morning, 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 of needs has not been fulfilled.
Do you notice anything strange in this pyramid?
It’s like a video game.
Each level is harder to “complete”.
It’s easier to get food than safety, and it’s easier to get safety than love.
-> as you progress up, finding meaning in your life becomes harder.
This explains why richer societies are less happy than poorer societies.
So, how can you still find meaning once you reached the last level of the pyramid?
What’s beyond morality and creativity?
Enters Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) was an Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist. He spent three years in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau, during which he developed a theory about the meaning of life.
He found out that finding meaning in day-to-day activities helped prisoners survive.
He also noticed that those who gave up were the first ones to die.
This led him to conclude that every moment in life has meaning, including suffering, and death.
So, what is “meaning”?
Meaning is found when we strive to reach a goal in our lives in three different areas: work, love, and courage.
“Work”-related meaning can be achieving financial independence, having a successful career, or solving a specific problem.
Meaning in the realm of courage can be fighting for freedom or democracy (Nelson Mandela).
Finally, “love”-related meaning can be taking care of orphans, having kids, or relieving the pain of a dying family member (Mother Theresa).
Frankl explains that meaning is available to everyone as it comes from our inherent desire to change the status quo.
Since everyone has desires, everyone is capable to find meaning.
Striving for meaning means being willing to grow and endure pain. And the byproduct of this suffering is happiness.
-> meaning cannot be achieved if the task we choose isn’t difficult.
Frankl’s theory helps us understand the importance of goals and purposes in our lives. It helps us accept that a meaningful life is a difficult life.
However, I disagree with some of his ideas.
First, I don’t think we should assign labels to the areas where we can find meaning (work, love, courage).
Can a caveman really find meaning in “work”?
So I don’t think meaning comes from a specific area, but from a specific structure.
I have identified three different structures that seem to bring meaning.
- 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
In 2011, my mum took me and my sister on a trip to Venice with my communist cousin.
On our way to the city, we saw people protesting. As I was voicing my incomprehension, my cousin objected that it was important to have something to fight for in life.
I only found out what she meant 7 or 8 years later when I listened to Jonathan Haidt talk about the religious transformation of politics.
Fighting, as it turns out, is an efficient method to achieve meaning.
As humans, we have been fighting since the dawn of time.
When we stopped fighting in the wild for our food, we started fighting for liberty. Then we fought for our nations, for our kings, for honor, for justice, for peace and once we ran out of things to fight for, we invented new ones (climate change, veganism, the patriarchy).
Fighting changes lives.
In her TED Talk, Stacey Kramer highlights how “the best gift” she ever received came in the form of deadly cancer.
The fight gave a new meaning to her life, uniting her and her family against the disease.
This brought them closer together and help them find meaning – something to wake up for.
Many predatory organizations use a good reason to fight for something as a method to lure in members.
BLM, the Scientology Church, pretty much any other cults, political parties (communism and socialism, mainly) seduce by “walking towards the fight for freedom and justice”.
In a society where so many people (young men especially) have a life devoid of all meaning, the result can be deadly.
One of the organizations that best manage to harness men’s lack of meaning is none other than ISIS.
Through intelligent marketing and emotional discourse, ISIS promised a fight “for the Caliphate, for God, for Islam and for the Muslims who’ve fallen under the bombs of Westerners”.
That message spoke to many.
Animated by the perspective to find something worth waking up for, tens of thousands of marginalized young men ran towards those that offered them a meaningful perspective at a time when they had none – even if that perspective was death.
All in all, dying for something still sounded like a better deal than living for nothing.
And it worked.
Humans are obsessed with fighting as a way to make their lives meaningful.
Consider that competition in sports, movies (Lord of the Rings, Saving Private Ryan), video games (COD, Counter-Strike), the educational system, and even capitalism, are based on fighting.
Fighting gives life an exciting and powerful meaning.
All is left for you to do is to pick up the right fight you’re willing to lead.
Pets and Plants Instead of Babies
The purpose of any species is to thrive. As a result, humans have an undeniable need to care for things.
In the West, where the current fashion is to go against nature, kids have been replaced by pets and plants in millennials’ households.
No wonder millennials’ satisfaction is at an all-time low (no one can fight their own nature.)
The need to take care of something is deeply hardwired inside us, and has helped millions of businesses make money.
Dolls for little girls, the Tamagotchi in the late 90s, the Sims, the entire animal industry, and the millions of online games where you need to develop your village, your dinosaur, your spaceship, and God knows what are based on the human need to care.
It’s the oldest way we have been achieving it.
Companies, Buildings, and Countries
Building something is the hardest way to make your life meaningful because it’s the hardest goal to achieve.
No wonder it’s also the least chosen path for most people.
Ever since mankind developed the ability to build, men and women have embarked on a lifetime quest to fulfill their grand vision of megaprojects.
The Pharaohs, Ceasar, Napoleon, Ghengis Khan, sought meaning in their lives through the realization of a vision.
Their desire was so strong they inspired hundreds of thousands of people in their quest, and marked human history forever.
Happiness ≠ Meaning
There is this idea that the meaning of life is to be happy.
Not only this idea is wrong, but pursuing happiness is the most guaranteed way to end up unhappy.
There are two reasons for that.
Firstly, happiness is not a purpose nor an end-state, and cannot be reached by itself.
As we have discussed, happiness is a consequence of doing something meaningful, such as fighting for freedom, raising kids, or building a company.
Seeking happiness instead of meaning is like trying to reach the North Pole going south: it won’t work.
Second, happiness is often mixed up with pleasure.
Happiness – real happiness – is a long-term result obtained out of an effort invested towards the fulfillment of a meaningful purpose we chose for ourselves.
Pleasure is the fulfillment of a need that releases dopamine, like eating sweet foods. It’s only felt in the short term.
Happiness demands pain first, reward later.
Pleasure works as reward first, pain later.
This is why addictive substances are “pleasurable”.
Modernity and the Crisis of Meaning
People were much happier in the past than they are now.
Because life in the past was harder.
Humans are inherently masochistic. We find happiness (and not pleasure) out of pain and efforts made to learn a new skill or overcome obstacles.
The more difficult your life is, the happier you will be once you’ll have overcome your obstacles.
Such is the price of happiness.
You can’t be happy if your life is “easy” (it is the metaphorical message of the book “The Alchemist”.)
By the same token, life is less happy now because it is easier and more pleasurable. The myriad of dopamine-triggering activities has made us addicted to short-term pleasure. Their inevitable crashes make us miserable.
Pleasure and happiness is a zero-sum game.
More of one means de facto less of the other.
The Bottom Line
On a cosmic scale, life has no meaning, and nothing matters.
On a local scale, your life has meaning because your actions have consequences.
The meaning of life depends therefore on the lens we take to see it.
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 must transcend the pyramid and choose their own meaning of life.
Meaning can be accessed by fighting for/against something, building something, or taking care of something.
The failure to identify or pursue meaning in life will lead to deep existential frustrations, often embodied in pleasurable escapes.