As discussed in The Meaning of Life: A guide to finding your life’s purpose, growth underlies humans’ sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. Whether it’s helping others grow, growing themselves, or developing relationships through fun and excitement, growth is key to meaning.
Yet many people have questions about this, as it seems like it might not be the correct answer since there are so many philosophies, theories, and beliefs about why we’re here. So let’s go through the most common pushback and talk about how the growth-centric view of meaning is either in line with any/all philosophy out there or accounts for the big questions that people have about their lives and how the world works.
“Growth Can’t Be the Meaning of Life Because not Everyone Has the Same Growth Potential”
This seems like legitimate pushback because the logic behind it would be that if the point was growth that everyone would have an equal chance to grow in life and equal growth potential. But the point of growth is to be better through experience, not to be the best.
There are many flawed premises in this question, including:
So equal potential and outcomes is not necessary for growth to be the point.
“What If People Grow and Don’t Find Meaning?”
This is a good one because you want to test an idea by finding the exceptions. And it’s true that if you do 1,000 finger curls one day and 1,001 the next, you’ll have grown but maybe not in a way that you care about. So how is that possible? Well, there are actually eight drivers of meaning: growth, experience, desire, belief, emotions, ethics, support, and choice. Growth is the main one. But for that growth to be meaningful to you, it has to be growth that you want, that you believe in, that you feel meaning in, that you attain in an ethical way, that is maximized when you have help, and that you choose to pursue. So in the 1,000 vs. 1,001 finger curls example, you might not care because you don’t want to get better at that. But it’s possible that someone who wants to be a professional arm wrestler does a dozen hand and arm exercises like finger curls to maximize their performance in an arm-wrestling match. In that case, that 1,001 finger curls might be hugely significant to them. So you have to want and believe in the growth, but it has to be growth-related (note: harm-preventing actions count) for it to be meaningful.
In short, people who are growing and don’t find meaning aren’t growing in areas that they want or believe are significant/valuable. That’s usually because they’re growing in areas they think would make them happy but are not (so they should change them), they are listening to others’ opinions of what they should do (and it’s not working, so they should change them), or they used to find it meaningful but now something has changed in their lives (so they should change their growth areas in response).
“What About Love, Service to Others, Service to God, and Other So-Called Meanings of Life?”
These are all growth-related goals, so they are all technically correct but not the only forms of growth possible. Let’s go through the most common ones:
There are more, but you get the point with these five. You can tie any theory of meaning to growth because everyone wants to achieve a better outcome, and the act of going from the current state to a better future state is growth.
“There Is No Meaning to Life. It’s Meaningless.”
This is the only one that is objectively false. If the point of the statement is that you get to create your own meaning in your life because it requires a conscious human to assign meaning to things, then it is correct that there is no intrinsic meaning to life or a meaning bestowed upon you by an external party. However, the idea that there is no meaning is false because every organism that has ever existed has the inner drive to grow and reproduce. It’s literally built into our DNA. That is the objective of all living organisms, and that is indisputable. The three definitions of meaning: definition, purpose, and significance all have “growth” as the answer: you can look up the dictionary definition of life, which contains “the capacity for growth”; we just established how it’s the purpose of all life; and every achievement award (sorry, participation trophies) ever given was awarded for someone’s growth to deliver an amazing outcome (case in point: you give the person the Oscar/Emmy/Award for the achievement). So meaning is subjective and up to you to create, absolutely, but life is objectively not purposeless.
“No, There HAS to Be a Universal Goal for Everyone to Achieve and Ethics for Everyone to Follow”
Note that with the above three definitions of “meaning” in life, I excluded the definitions of “goals” and “ethics”. After all, when people are looking for their purpose, they’re really looking for the right goal for them or right rules to follow to live their best life. Well, the reality is that goals are subjective, and ethics are dependent on the goal. So you pick your own goals and follow rules to optimally attain them. The only part of that process that is universal is that every goal will be something that doesn’t exist today, and so you’ll have to grow to get there. So, while goals will be different for everyone, growth is the unifying “meaning of life” that you’re looking for. So find goals that you want to grow toward and stop looking for the optimal goal or ethics that will apply to everyone so that you can pick them. To be honest, for every person unsure of what they want to do with their lives and so are searching for a goal that gives them meaning, there is probably at least another person looking for the “right” answer to earn approval, status, a “leg up” on others, etc. If you’re in the latter camp, stop. You’ll never find the perfect answer for your life that will please everyone and make them all like you. That is not the point of life, either.
I’m sure there are many more, but those are the top five that I thought would cover in this post today to help people who are new to the growth-centric view of meaning get past the questions that usually leave them skeptical. If you have additional questions, feel free to ask them to me via social media and I can address them in the future.