While it might not seem like the most interesting topic to define terms, but anyone looking for the meaning of life or more meaning in life needs to define what that means to them. As simple as it might seem, there are many things that you might mean with that question. As a result, you might get advice that you don't find useful because you are looking for something else, and you also might argue with people about what the meaning of life is and talk past each other because you're referring to completely different concepts.
So, let's break down what meaning are possible when someone says, "What is the meaning of life?":
- What is the origin or cause of life (or the universe)?
- What is the ultimate goal of life?
- What is the intent/purpose of life?
- What makes life significant?
- What are life's defining characteristics? (i.e., what defines life or makes life what it is)
- How should I live my life? (i.e., ethics and behaviors)
- How does life work? (i.e., so someone can succeed at it or master it)
- How can I make my life meaningful (i.e., bring more meaning into my life)?
There are likely others, but this list is a good representation of the most common meanings.
Because of how varied this list is, one could ask the exact same question, receive many different answers, and then disagree or not be satisfied because they were not using the same definition. For example, someone might mean, "What is the goal?" and be disappointed when someone says, "To live a good life," referencing ethics. Someone else might mean, "What caused us to be here?" and be upset when the response is, "You are here to serve others," referencing how you should live or what your purpose should be.
Therefore, if you are going to debate or discuss this topic with someone, you should definitely agree on which of the above meanings you are referring to before engaging. It will address a lot of unnecessary arguments around your answers when the root cause of the issue was that you didn't even agree on what the question meant.
What's interesting is that you can narrow down possibilities and reason the most likely options once you have a definition, making the process much easier to discuss. Here's how you can narrow down options pretty quickly:
- What is the origin or cause of life (or the universe)? – There are two possibilities: there is a physical cause or a non-physical one (and, similar to the intent/purpose one below, this cause was either random/unintentional or deliberate/intentional).
- What is the ultimate goal of life? – There is either a universal goal for all people, or goals are subjective and, therefore, there's no "ultimate" or universal goal.
- What is the intent/purpose of life? – All living organisms have built-in drives to survive, grow, and reproduce (which is a form of growth, but it's the form most referred to in evolutionary biology and psychology). Social animals have built-in mechanisms to ensure the growth of others to ensure the welfare of the group. There is also the philosophical question about whether there is a specific, higher purpose or intention for an organism within their lifetime.
- What makes life significant? – Significance is subjective, so the question is about what makes life special/important/different/unique. Note that some people might mean value, but psychology generally shows that people assign significance to the extraordinary, specifically the achievements of people that require significant effort and growth to attain. For example, a baby's first steps are significant because the child had to grow to achieve that, while landing on the moon was a significant human achievement because of the massive effort, learning, and development necessary to get there. The common theme, then, is that humans see the attainment of an outcome and the growth required to attain it as significant, and it is reasonable to conclude that it's the capacity to do that that makes life significant to them. It is possible that people might ponder the existence of a non-physical, spiritual component that differentiates life from non-life.
- What are life's defining characteristics? (i.e., what defines life or makes life what it is) – Life is defined by its ability to grow and reproduce, including the mechanisms that enable that such as energy consumption and processing and interacting with the environment. There might also be the question about whether there are non-physical aspects, such as the question about whether humans have a spiritual side or soul.
- How should I live my life? (i.e., ethics and behaviors) – Since all living organisms seek growth and avoid harm, the foundational principles for all behavior define how to act to maximize personal growth and happiness while minimizing harm to other people. There are things you can't/shouldn't do that will cause harm, and things you should do because they will benefit. This question is quickly tied to what the goal of life is because any situational ethic (e.g., how often you should exercise) would depend on what you were trying to do in life (e.g, be healthy, run a marathon, lift 300 pounds). When discussing non-physical possibilities, the conversation will go toward what rules you should be following to be in line with the will of a creator or deity.
- How does life work? (i.e., so someone can succeed at it or master it) – In practice, this heavily overlaps with the previous bullets since people also answer how you should live and what the goal is when discussing this point. However, three conversations for this topic that are distinct include the physical laws of the universe, biological and psychological functions, and the rules and norms of society. As always, there is room for a theological argument here about whether there are any non-physical influences affecting how your life unfolds. Usually, though, discussions about how things work have to be brief and quickly translate into what you can conclude about how you should act to succeed or they will feel tangential.
How can I make my life meaningful (i.e., bring more meaning into my life)? – This meaning overlaps with the previous two in the sense that the discussion is focused on behaviors and their biological and psychological impact. However, it is more specific in trying to achieve a specific goal of feeling fulfilled and believing that you have a purpose in life. That desired understanding is slightly different than how to act to live a moral or successful life. Like the others, there is a scientific discussion to be had around what you can physically do to foster a sense of purpose and a non-physical discussion of what spiritual elements might lead to greater meaning and fulfillment.
Hopefully, the above summaries can help you frame conversations and consider the possible options in a structured fashion so you can derive conclusions that resonate with you. A benefit to the above list and framing is that you can have a scientific discussion about how life works and what you can conclude from the evidence as well as a philosophical conversation and what you might believe but not necessarily be able to prove scientifically because subjective and non-physical answers are outside the realm of science. As long as you are defining your terms and framing the conversation in a way that focuses on what you care about while being open to different possibilities, you are fostering a good intellectual conversation on the meaning of life.