The following citations are used in The Meaning of Life. The citation's text, links, and notes are provided for convenience in reviewing the materials further:
Author's Note: While you may disagree with the credibility of a particular source, it is my position that ideas are either correct or incorrect—regardless of who says them. It is my humble recommendation that you should consider any idea on its merits vs. judging based on the source's reputation or past incorrect statements.
“Life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning.” — Viktor E. Frankl
“My life is my message.” — Mahatma Gandhi
“Life is a journey, not a destination.” — Proverb
“Life is growth. If we stop growing, technically and spiritually, we are as good as dead.” — Morihei Ueshiba
The idea that a mixture of chemicals and a catalyst such as lightning might have triggered self-replication in the first life form.
The idea that ultraviolet light might have been involved in the origins of life.
The idea that hydrothermal vent activity on the ocean floor might have been involved in the origins of life.
"I think you can say that life is a system in which proteins and nucleic acids interact in ways that allow the structure to grow and reproduce. It's that growth and reproduction, the ability to make more of yourself, that's important." — Andy Knoll, paleontologist and professor of biology at Harvard University
"Meaning can only ever exist within the confines of the human mind, and in this way the meaning of life is not somewhere out there but right between our ears." — Stephen Hawking
At a fundamental level, life forms have two general states based on environmental conditions: growth and protection.
Pleasure Principle: humans have core instincts to seek pleasure and avoid pain.
Freud, Sigmund. Project for a Scientific Psychology. 1895.
Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: biology, safety, belonging, self-esteem, self-actualization.
“People grow through experiences if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
“That all our knowledge begins with experience there can be no doubt.” — Immanuel Kant
“All knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it.” — Albert Einstein
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that the “optimal experience” people could have was one where the challenge level of the activity was appropriate for their skill level. Mihaly called this state “flow” to reflect how engrossed people are in the activity.
People remember: 10 percent of what they read; 20 percent of what they hear; 30 percent of what they see; 50 percent of what they see and hear; 70 percent of what they say; 90 percent of what they do and say.
This mentality, called the “Fixed Mindset” in Mindset by Carol Dweck, prevents many people from pursuing areas of interest because they believe that their innate potential is low.
Research has found that experiential purchases tend to provide more excitement and anticipation beforehand and enduring happiness afterward than material purchases.
“The significance of man is not in what he attains, but rather in what he longs to attain. . . . We are all climbing toward the summit of our hearts' desire.” — Kahlil Gibran
“Just don't give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don't think you can go wrong.” — Ella Fitzgerald
Life that was able to sense an absence of resources and trigger the behavior to move toward the energy was more likely to survive than organisms that moved randomly.
Gratitude encourages prosocial behavior in the future.
Grant, Adam M., and Francesca Gino. “A Little Thanks Goes a Long Way: Explaining Why Gratitude Expressions Motivate Prosocial Behavior.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 98, no. 6, June 2010, pp. 946–955.
Humans have rewards systems in their brains that activate for both the deliberate helper and the grateful beneficiary.
Citation of Tom Sawyer's painting a fence story and, “Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and . . . Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”
Drive by Daniel Pink provides several examples of scientific studies where extrinsic rewards, such as compensation, negatively impacted participants’ intrinsic interest in the activity they were performing.
As William Shakespeare famously wrote in Hamlet, “For nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Research shows that any single event—no matter how large—affects overall happiness levels and life satisfaction for no more than a year before it returns to a baseline average.
You need to desire and appreciate everyday activities as well as major life objectives to raise your overall meaning and satisfaction with life.
Emmons, Robert A., and Michael E. McCullough. “Counting Blessings versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life.” Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, vol. 84, no. 2, 2003, pp. 377–389.
A study conducted by George Loewenstein and published in The Economic Journal found that just the anticipation of positive future events had utility for the anticipator.
“Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.” — Henry Ford
“The mind is the limit. As long as the mind can envision the fact that you can do something, you can do it, as long as you really believe 100 percent.”— Arnold Schwarzenegger
Dychtwald, Ken. “Powers of Mind: A New Age Interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger.” New Age, Jan. 1978, pp. 38–52.
“Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.” — William James
Tali Sharot explains that people are less likely to perform the activities that will protect them from negative outcomes because of the optimism bias.
Roger Bannister running a sub-four-minute mile was elevated to mythical levels; not everyone thought that it was impossible, and it was not broken multiple times in succession by other athletes shortly afterward.
“The Roger Bannister Effect: The Myth of the Psychological Breakthrough.” Science of Running, 16 May 2017, www.scienceofrunning.com/2017/05/the-roger-bannister-effect-the-myth-of-the-psychological-breakthrough.html.
An example of the odds of winning the lottery being 1 in 292.2 million.
Dr. Dweck has conducted thorough research on people who have what she calls the “Fixed Mindset” and the “Growth Mindset” to see if their beliefs had an impact on their lives. The Fixed Mindset is the belief that intelligence, athleticism, and other abilities are innate, while the Growth Mindset is the belief that people can grow and improve. The belief that it is possible to grow and improve over time is one of the most significant factors in determining whether humans succeed in life—more than a multitude of other variables tested.
Self-fulfilling prophecy, for example, is a psychological effect where a person's belief regarding the outcome makes the outcome more likely to occur.
In research on the effect, teachers who believed that certain students in their class had great intellectual potential will treat them differently, leading to greater development.
The double-slit experiment, a study of wave-particle duality, demonstrates this effect in quantum mechanics. In the experiment, an observer can influence how light behaves—either as a wave or a particle—merely based on the act of observing it.
The effect is so pronounced that quantum physicists have theorized that the idea of an “observer-independent state” may need to be replaced with a model that factors in the relationship between physical systems.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
For example, research shows that weight loss benefits from public declarations of intent because the social support (i.e., encouragement) and pressure (i.e., risk of embarrassment) hold you accountable.
Turner-McGrievy, Gabrielle M, and Deborah F Tate. “Weight Loss Social Support in 140 Characters or Less: Use of an Online Social Network in a Remotely Delivered Weight Loss Intervention.” Translational Behavioral Medicine, vol. 3, no. 3, 2013, pp. 287–294.
However, sharing identity goals (e.g., becoming a good parent) with other people can make you feel like you have already attained them and lull you into premature complacency.
Defenseman Jack O’Callahan recalled coach Herb Brooks saying in his pre-game speech, “If we played 'em ten times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight. . . . Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world.”
To paraphrase the Chinese philosopher Laozi, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
(Note: literally translated as, “A journey of a thousand li starts beneath one's feet,” while commonly translated as, “The journey of a thousand li commenced with a single step.”)
“Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you.” — Roger Ebert
“Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
“I say [happiness] is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing or that but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.” — John Butler Yeats
(Note: This quotation is commonly attributed to W.B. Yeats but originates from his father)
An emotional response includes rapid bodily changes to prepare for action as well as activation of the brain’s rewards system to drive and incentivize behaviors.
When they attached electrodes to this part of the brain and enabled the rat to stimulate itself by pressing a lever, it would repeatedly press that lever up to several hundred times per hour.
Subsequent studies found that rats preferred the stimulation to the consumption of food or water, and many of them died from exhaustion.
In a 1972 experiment, researchers attached electrodes to a man's pleasure centers as part of a study on human sexuality. During each three-hour session, the subject was given the opportunity to stimulate his septal region. He did so up to 1,500 times per session. Robert Heath wrote of the experiment, “During these sessions, B-19 stimulated himself to a point that, both behaviorally and introspectively, he was experiencing an almost overwhelming euphoria and elation and had to be disconnected despite his vigorous protests.”
Moan, Charles E., and Robert G. Heath. “Septal Stimulation for the Initiation of Heterosexual Behavior in a Homosexual Male.” Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, vol. 3, no. 1, 1972, pp. 23–30.
If the point of life was to be happy as much as possible, everyone could just hook his or her septal regions up to electrodes and experience utter euphoria until dying like the rats in the experiment—this technology already exists.
Extensive research in psychology has found that happiness can be broken down into at least two types of emotional feedback: pleasure and fulfillment. While people need both for long-term happiness, the former is usually more temporary in its effects than the latter.
Psychologists call this happiness set point that a person eventually returns to regardless of life events and circumstances the hedonic treadmill.
A series of studies have found that while the happiness set point and a person’s circumstances have a significant impact on happiness, the rest is influenced by intentional activity.
Over time, a person’s focus on intentional activities that lead to fulfillment may help him or her achieve sustainable gains that shift his or her happiness set point.
Identifying and Defining Human Emotional Indicators
The idea that emotions are indicators of how you are progressing in life is influenced by the Emotional Guidance Scale created by Jerry and Esther Hicks in the book, Ask and It Is Given. However, the emotions used in this list are different, growth-focused, and devoid of unprovable spirituality elements (e.g., “connection to source energy”).
Flow (i.e., complete immersion and focus, being “in the zone”) – State associated with an immersive experience that is optimal for improving in a desired growth area
Holding on to the negative emotions can trigger a stress response that suppresses the immune system or even prevents people from living their lives. Over time, that chronic stress can lead to poor mental and physical health.
While any method that works for you to keep you in touch with your feelings is constructive, scientific studies support the emotional and psychological benefits of mindfulness meditation and similar relaxation or deep focus activities such as yoga on emotional stability.
Teper, Rimma, et al. “Inside the Mindful Mind: How Mindfulness Enhances Emotion Regulation Through Improvements in Executive Control.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 22, no. 6, 2013, pp. 449–454.
Streeter, Chris C., et al. “Effects of Yoga Versus Walking on Mood, Anxiety, and Brain GABA Levels: A Randomized Controlled MRS Study.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, vol. 16, no. 11, 2010, pp. 1145–1152.
The direct cause of an emotional response may not be readily apparent; psychiatrists and psychologists have found that many behavioral disorders are due to childhood trauma.
Heim, Christine, and Charles B Nemeroff. “The Role of Childhood Trauma in the Neurobiology of Mood and Anxiety Disorders: Preclinical and Clinical Studies.” Biological Psychiatry, vol. 49, no. 12, 2001, pp. 1023–1039.
The Ironic Process Theory states that when you tell people not to think about something, it makes them think about that thing (and makes it difficult not to think about it).
Another approach that has proven effects is classical conditioning, a concept in psychology where one stimulus that naturally triggers a response can be associated with a second stimulus so that the latter triggers a similar response. For example, a dog naturally salivates when it is hungry and perceives food. If it hears a bell ring right before it receives food, it will become conditioned after several instances of the concurrent stimuli to salivate when it hears the bell.
You are more likely to record events with an emotional response into long-term memory and recall them when in a similar environment or situation.
You cannot rid the world of all jerks, and over-the-top revenge stories like The Count of Monte Cristo, where a wronged person dedicates his whole existence to revenge, make for great entertainment but do not serve as a blueprint for finding constructive meaning in your life.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” — The Golden Rule
Gensler, Harry J. Ethics and the Golden Rule. New York, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2013.
(Note: The Golden Rule comes in many forms; this source lists many versions of it used throughout history and quotes this version as the most common form in use in 2013)
“Let me give you a definition of ethics: It is good to maintain and further life; it is bad to damage and destroy life.” — Albert Schweitzer
For example, female mantises will bite their partners’ heads off after copulating when food is scarce, and male lions will kill the cubs of a competing pride and copulate with the females.
Brown, William D., and Katherine L. Barry. “Sexual Cannibalism Increases Male Material Investment in Offspring: Quantifying Terminal Reproductive Effort in a Praying Mantis.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 283, no. 1833, 2016.
Animals then have to be able to determine which individuals are in the group or outside the group to apply the proper ethical standards.
Studies in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics, for example, have shown that humans have an innate sense of fairness and a natural tendency to reciprocate.
Additionally, scientists believe that the evolutionary advantage of cooperating as a group is what led to social emotions such as shame, embarrassment, and guilt.
A well-known example of considering the actions and consequences of multiple parties is the Prisoner's Dilemma.
The model behind the Prisoner’s Dilemma was originally designed by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher in 1950, while the exact name and scenario was formalized by Albert W. Tucker.
An example is the Tragedy of the Commons, where individuals overexploit community resources for personal benefit without considering how their behavior at scale would harm the group.
(Note: The name comes from a story told in Two Lectures on the Checks to the Population by William Forster Lloyd)
According to research, the elderly cite, “I would have spent more quality time with my family,” as one of their biggest regrets.
In the Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures, people administered what they thought were potentially dangerous electrical shocks to another person because an experimenter asked them to continue and said that he was responsible for any harm done.
In the Stanford Prison Experiment, participants who were asked by experimenters to play the roles of tough prison officers escalated how they exercised their authority to psychologically abusive levels within days of the start of the experiment.
For example, On the Origin of Species identifies many organisms, such as peafowls, that have developed extensive rituals to prove that they are worthy mates.
In his book, After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre said that the loss of a language of virtue, grounded in a particular tradition, makes it difficult for us to find meaning, coherence, and purpose in life.
For example, psychological studies have shown that people with children are less happy due to the added stress, but they also derive an added sense of meaning from parenthood.
The ten commandments are an example of ten simple rules for living. “Thou shalt not kill.” “Thou shalt not steal.” “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.”
Behavioral economics research has shown that the majority of people cheat a little bit, rationalizing it to themselves in various ways to maintain their moral self-image.
“Alone we can do so little. Together, we can do so much.” — Helen Keller
“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” — Isaac Newton
“No man is an island,” wrote John Donne.
Donne, John. Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and Severall Steps in My Sicknes: Digested into, 1. Meditations upon Our Human Conditions, 2. Expostulations, and Debatement with God, 3. Prayers, upon the Severall Occasions, to Him. Printed for Thomas Jones, 1624.
In modern times, studies have shown that microorganisms can communicate and cooperate to perform many multicellular activities. These activities include the ability to acquire or produce resources for the group, the ability to gather around those resources (e.g., biofilm formation), and the ability to signal other group members to coordinate behavior (e.g., quorum sensing).
As Richard Dawkins explains in his book, The Selfish Gene, organisms developed selfish, cooperative, and altruistic behaviors based on how they affect the probability of gene survival. While altruism may seem to reduce an organism’s own survivability, this self-sacrifice for others’ benefit increases the survivability of the group as a whole by preserving its shared genes.
For example, human babies need constant care and protection because the size and metabolic requirements of their brains require them to be born before they are capable of autonomous movement.
Plunkett, Jevon, et al. “An Evolutionary Genomic Approach to Identify Genes Involved in Human Birth Timing.” PLOS Genetics, Public Library of Science, 14 Apr. 2011, journals.plos.org/plosgenetics/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pgen.1001365.
Dunswortha, Holly M., et al. “Metabolic Hypothesis for Human Altriciality.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Sciences, 16 Apr. 2012, www.pnas.org/content/109/38/15212.full.
For example, scientists have found that adult couples develop a strong romantic love for between 18 months and three years, and that duration helps the father partner with the mother to protect and provide for the child through its fragile infancy.
The feeling of fulfillment through support has its roots in biology, as both the giver and receiver of help experience positive emotions and receive neurochemical rewards from the interaction.
Friends and family may go to great lengths to help you through trauma, but even support as simple as a hug can release chemicals in the brain that can relieve stress and help you cope.
Holt-Lunstad, Julianne, et al. “Influence of a ‘Warm Touch’ Support Enhancement Intervention Among Married Couples on Ambulatory Blood Pressure, Oxytocin, Alpha Amylase, and Cortisol.” Psychosomatic Medicine, vol. 70, no. 9, 2008, pp. 976–985.
Gratitude strengthens the bond between the giver and receiver and increases the positive feelings they have toward each other.
Given how critical support is to human survival, the species evolved so that generous acts, such as donating to charity or volunteering, trigger the brain's reward system.
In addition, these altruistic acts have a positive long-term effect on well-being when people are intrinsically motivated to perform them.
In the in-group/out-group model, individuals readily cooperate with members of their identified group and oppose, shun, or cautiously trade with non-members.
In the communal/exchange relationship model, psychologists find that the type of relationship that one person has with another will determine whether he or she will help without expectation of immediate reciprocity.
Clark, Margaret S., and Judson R. Mills. “A Theory of Communal (and Exchange) Relationships.” Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology: Volume 2, Paul A. Van Lange, Arie W. Kruglanski, and E. T. Higgins, vol. 2, London, SAGE Publications, Ltd., 2012, pp. 232–250.
Turning a charitable act into a paid transaction may decrease the volunteers’ intrinsic motivation and reduce the positive feelings they receive from performing a good deed for its own sake.
Synopsis of It's a Wonderful Life.
Synopsis of Groundhog Day.
“Every man builds his world in his own image. He has the power to choose, but no power to escape the necessity of choice.” — Dr. Hugh Akston in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” — Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”
“If then whereas we wish for our end, the means to our end are matters of deliberation and choice, it follows that actions dealing with these means are done by choice.” — Aristotle
In the prevailing model, the Big Bang theory, an explosive reaction of a subatomic particle resulted in an incredibly large universe that continues to expand.
For example, when an amoeba is faced with multiple sources of nutrition, it selects an optimal 2:1 ratio of protein to sugar. If it comes into contact with those nutrients in a different ratio, it will adjust itself to capture its ideal diet.
Psychology research has found self-control to be twice as important as intelligence in predicting academic achievement in children. This advantage is why humans feel a strong need to have personal control or to have a choice.
Studies have shown that the elderly live longer and are much more satisfied with life when placed in a care facility in which they still have a degree of autonomy over their lives. Even in environments that do not grant them much autonomy, the tenants who exercise control over their lives have lower rates of depression, report a higher level of personal fulfillment, and live longer than their peers who surrender their autonomy.
Langer, Ellen J., and Judith Rodin. “The Effects of Choice and Enhanced Personal Responsibility for the Aged: A Field Experiment in an Institutional Setting.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 34, no. 2, 1976, pp. 191–198.
Psychologists call the attribution of outcomes to one’s own actions (i.e., what he or she can influence) instead of environmental factors (i.e., luck) as having an internal locus of control.
Individuals with an internal locus of control are also likely to have a sense of purpose in life and an ability to handle life's setbacks.
Jackson, Laurence E., and Robert D. Coursey. “The Relationship of God Control and Internal Locus of Control to Intrinsic Religious Motivation, Coping and Purpose in Life.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 27, no. 3, 1988, pp. 399–410.
Despite it sometimes going awry, the feeling of control and choice motivates people to a self-determined path in life.
These early humans had developed the intelligence to understand cause-and-effect relationships...
Combined with their instinct to see patterns (even in randomness), people likely started associating certain actions with uncontrollable events occurring.
Scientists have found that humans can sometimes encounter the “Paradox of Choice” where they become less likely to make a decision and less satisfied with their choices when they have more options.
Some scientists have found, though, that it is not the number of options that causes the problem.
Alternatively, they can “become extinct by instinct” when they make rash decisions without using the information available.
A peculiar example of this effect is that people with the first letter H are more likely to own a hardware store or how people named Lawrence are more likely to be lawyers than other professions.
Humans or animals that experience so many negative effects from uncontrollable external factors may exhibit learned helplessness and give up trying to exercise their autonomy.
In one psychological study by Dan Gilbert and Jane Ebert, people who were given a choice between several posters of famous paintings and then given the option to change their minds later were less happy than people who were not given that option.
Even research on tragedy and loss from accidents or bad decisions found that people were able to find meaning in these events, learn from them, and be grateful for them.
As the Serenity Prayer goes, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Imagine being strapped into a chair with your eyes peeled while you stare at images that you cannot control. This situation was depicted in the film, A Clockwork Orange. The goal was to expose the main character, an imprisoned gang leader, to experiences that would recondition him to be able to live in normal society. In that situation, he is completely at the mercy of others in how he directs his attention and experience.
They can even point to research that shows that human brains fire neurons that will lead to actions before the actors consciously perceive them.
People with damage to their prefrontal cortex, for example, show impaired cognitive control and decision-making abilities.
Glascher, J., et al. “Lesion Mapping of Cognitive Control and Value-Based Decision Making in the Prefrontal Cortex.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 109, no. 36, 2012, pp. 14681–14684.
To address the emotional discomfort (known as cognitive dissonance in psychology) resulting from a conflict between competing experiences, desires, and beliefs, your brain has a defense mechanism to change how you interpret the situation.
A famous example of this effect is the Aesop fable about sour grapes. In the story, the fox in the fable changed its belief in the desirability of the grapes it was trying to obtain because it could not reach them.
Valeen Schnurr, a victim of the Columbine High School massacre, replied, “Yes,” when Dylan Klebold asked her if she believed in God after she had been shot nine times.
"Three things are necessary to man for salvation, that is to say: 1. a knowledge of what he must believe; 2. a knowledge of what he must desire; 3. a knowledge of what he must do.” — St. Thomas Aquinas
Thomas, and H. A. Rawes. St. Thomas Aquinas on the Two Commandments of Charity: and the Ten Commandments of the Law. Translated, with Prayers Added, by Father Rawes, D.D. London, Burns and Oates, 1879.
“Well, life for none of us has been a crystal stair, but we must keep moving. We must keep going. And so, if you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl, but, by all means, keep moving.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
The correlation between dissatisfaction with life and pleasure-seeking addictions such as drugs, alcohol, sex, or gambling shows that manipulating your neurochemicals for short-term pleasure is a losing strategy for long-term fulfillment.