5 Incorrect Conclusions About the Meaning of Life
Because the meaning of life has been asked by billions of people, dozens and dozens of conclusions have been drawn about what it is for them and for society. While meaning is personal and unique to each individual, many people have come to conclusions about what the meaning of life is for all humans or all life on Earth. The Meaning of Life: A guide to finding your life’s purpose analyzes the question to show that we can objectively, logically, and scientifically conclude that the meaning of life—i.e., its definition, purpose, and significance—is to grow. That said, there are several incorrect conclusions that people seem to be able to logically derive but have a few flaws in the thinking.
Below are five of the most popular conclusions and why they do not hold up under scrutiny:
To Die (i.e., There Is No Meaning) – This conclusion is popular with nihilists and can be objectively disproven. The logic seems simple, as humans love stories, and the best stories have a climax at the end that the whole plot was building toward. Naturally, it would seem that you simply look at what happens at the end to see what it was all building up toward. But life isn’t like a story—the biggest accomplishments or notable events for the “protagonist” generally occur across the whole story, not just at the end. Even stories would not have emotional impact if you just read the end; you have to go through the journey to feel the impact of the climax. Similarly, dying is simply the end of life but not the ultimate point. In a sense, it’s more like a vacation where you go there for the experiences you’ll have while you’re there instead of for the flight back at the end. In any case, you do not live just to die—if so, you could do that right now and achieve that goal. Instead, you live to grow, thrive, and have unique experiences that lead to personal fulfillment.
To Be Happy – This conclusion is due to a minor misunderstanding of what emotions are. Emotions are life’s feedback mechanism—they indicate the direction and degree to which you are growing or being harmed (or anticipating growth or harm). Therefore, happiness is not the point but rather the indicator. Once you have an indicator, though, people often aim to maximize the indicator vs. achieving the goal—like if you measure learning through an A-F scale and people do whatever they can do get an A whether or not they actually learn anything in the process. The same thing happens with happiness. Since happiness can mean either pleasure or fulfillment, you may erroneously conclude that the meaning of life is to maximize pleasure. Many people go years looking for the next high without realizing that their entire premise is wrong. You should seek to feel happy and fulfilled, but you do that through growth, not drugs, gambling, nymphomania, gluttony, or other attempts to maximize pleasure.
To Live “The Good Life” – Many Greek philosophers were looking for the “best way to live life” in terms of the ethics and behaviors that would lead to the best outcome consistently across humans. The problem is that ethics are different for every person based on the goal that they have. For example, a strong work ethic might be good for someone who finds meaning in their labor, but a balanced 40-hour workweek might be better for someone who values reading or a hobby more than their job. Ethics mainly help you follow rules to maximize your own growth without harming others in the process. So this idea that there is an optimal set of ethics that will work for everyone—let alone the fact that living ethically is the meaning of life—is not accurate. The one part of this that is true is that you do need to grow ethically to find the most meaning in it. We see this in competitions where people who cheat to win may seem to enjoy winning but will often find that the lack of ethics will take away the feeling of fulfillment from the achievement. So it is important to finding meaning in life, but it is not the meaning of life.
To Serve Others – This one requires some explanation. You can definitely find meaning in life by helping others grow. Teachers, advisors, mentors, coaches, and parents all know what it is like to find meaning in others’ growth. However, if you serve others at your own expense, you are actually hurting the overall growth of the community. Many people believe that you have to live a life of poverty and help others full time to find real meaning, and that is just not true. The inventors of technologies such as vaccines and computers have helped billions of people live better lives. So this isn’t exactly incorrect as much as it is misinterpreted. You don’t have to live a life of self-sacrifice to help others—you can live a wonderful, happy life while helping others live wonderful, happy lives, too. So don’t think of life as a zero-sum game where you have to lose for others to gain. Instead, realize how everyone can be better off and find opportunities for mutual benefit vs. self-sacrifice. Both you and the people you help will be better off when you make yourself the best you can be and they make themselves the best that they can be while you’re helping each other.
To Suffer – This is possibly the most depressing conclusion of the list (worse than just “death” since this is more like, “life sucks and then you die”). The most famous example of this idea is in the four noble truths where “dukkha” (loosely translated as “suffering”) is an innate characteristic of existence. Many conclude, therefore, that the point of life is to suffer. Usually, they are concluding that in the midst of feeling intense pain and suffering, so they’re not necessarily the most objective parties at the time of that conclusion. While you can find meaning in suffering by seeing how it led you to personal growth, suffering in and of itself is neither necessary to find/have meaning nor is the meaning itself. It can only have the meaning that you give it if you can find the “good” (i.e., the growth) that came out of it. If you cannot find any good from it, you will be depressed and believe that life is meaningless (leading you to the first bullet’s conclusion). So, ultimately, the point of life is growth, and suffering might be a part of your life as you seek it. Suffering is simply wanting something (desire) plus not having it (experience) and/or not believing you can have it (belief). You can reduce (or even eliminate) suffering by changing your desire, belief, or experience. Once it’s gone, you can still have meaning, so suffering is not the meaning nor even required to have it necessarily. The only way that this is partially true is that growth requires you to exist in a current state and want to exist in an improved future state—if you feel “suffering” every time you look at that future state, then it’s understandable that you’d think you had to suffer to get there. But suffering in that case is a state of mind that you can change, so it’s not required for meaning.
As you can see, it is pretty clear why these five conclusions are so common—depending on how you’re looking at life, they could be logical conclusions. They do not hold up under scrutiny, however, as they are all either supporting components of a growth-centric theory of meaning or incorrect conclusions that people might come to if they misconstrue a point from a famous philosophy.
Find the growth areas that matter to you, pursue experiences that will get you there, and master your desires, beliefs, emotions, ethics, ability to leverage/provide support, and decision making to optimize your growth in life. You will die, you will be happy, you will follow ethics, you will help others, and you may suffer, but those are not the point of life. Live to grow (and help others grow), and you will find your meaning in life.