When talking about the meaning of life, you always have to start by defining your terms. Why? Because people almost always equivocate when you don’t. You can look up the definition of life in the dictionary, for example, and no one will claim that that’s what they meant. In addition to the literal definition of life, other meanings of “the meaning of life” are the goal, ethics, purpose (i.e., intention), and significance. Most likely, however, most people mean “goal”—in other words, “What is the point?”
It’s a natural question to ask, especially when someone has experienced a great trauma, loss, or pain. Here’s the thing: that’s the wrong question to ask externally. Goals are inherently subjective, meaning you set them. Others can set them for you if you let them, but in that case it’s up to you to accept the one they give you. So if you’re looking elsewhere for a goal, you’re effectively hoping that someone else will tell you what to do or give you the motivation to keep going. While you might need the motivation or a goal in the moment, such as when an authority figure instructs trauma victims to perform specific tasks to get them to take the first steps toward being treated and recovering, you need to find the goal and motivation within yourself if you want to keep going.
The real point of life is in the growth toward those goals that you set, not the end goal. As they famous saying says, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” It also happens to satisfy the objective definitions of “meaning” (the definition of life has to contain growth; all live has a built-in drive to grow and reproduce; all significant achievements require exceptional growth to attain them). So goals are what you set, ethics are rules you follow to attain them, and growth is what gives anything you do meaning, purpose, and significance. Growth, therefore, is the right answer to the meaning of life and not the goal.
“But,” you say, “there has to be an ultimate goal we’re all striving for. There has to be a point!” Well, having new experiences, being better, and doing things that have never been done before should make sense as being the point. However, let’s take one final thought exercise to prove that the question is a red herring at best and silly at worst.
There’s a video game, Civilization, where the objective of the game is to advance your civilization from the early days of humanity all the way to building a spaceship and flying to Alpha Centauri. If you are the first to achieve that objective, you win the game and the credits roll (and you even get a score!). So, let’s say that if you ask someone what the meaning of life was and they told you that we actually live in a real-world version of that game and as soon as we fly to Alpha Centauri, we’ll all “win” and life will end for us all as the credits to this game of life roll. First of all, that might be severely disappointing and depressing: “Life will end when we achieve a certain objective??? Who on Earth wants to achieve that, then???” Secondly, let’s assume it’s a version of the game where you can choose to continue playing to achieve the other winning conditions such as conquering all other civilizations: “Now what?” The people playing can choose to play for one of the other objectives, start again, or do something else.
And that’s exactly how life is: no matter what goal anyone would say to you was the final point of life, you can easily say, “And then what?” It’s an infinitely recursive thought exercise like the “turtles all the way down” argument (for those who don’t know, the “turtles all the way down” argument is a recursive one about what the Earth was sitting on top of—a turtle, which begged the question of what it was sitting on top of—before scientists discovered that the earth was a giant sphere floating in space). So the entire question of a “final” goal when the point of life is growth is misdirection. When the point of life is to grow and life is always growing and changing, there is no final end except death. And death is definitely not the “point” of life—that’s like saying the point of watching a movie is for the last 5 minutes when it wouldn’t be enjoyable or make any sense without watching the whole thing.
So if you think you’ve found the one goal that would make you happy forever, remember the question, “And then what?” If you ask yourself what the final point of life is and venture some guesses, then ask, “And then what?” You’ll never have a final answer because it doesn’t have a final answer. The point of life is to grow: to learn, to reproduce, to develop skills, to have new experiences, and to form new relationships. Life is always worth living, interesting, meaningful, and significant as long as you are growing in ways that matter to you.
So forget the “final goal” question. It’s the wrong one. Think about what you want out of the life you have and grow toward that instead. That’s the point. Finding some mythical ultimate goal is definitely not.