The idea that the meaning of life can be so simple and elegant is a tough one to digest; there’s a reason why people say, “What is the meaning of life?” as a joke when someone asks them to bring up a topic for light conversation. But if it’s that simple, then why do people ponder it so deeply and frequently? Well, the answer brings up many questions and some pushback that will help if it is addressed. Let’s go through a list of FAQs about growth-oriented meaning and what the answers are that will help to clarify things:
But people get old. How is growth the meaning of life if you stop growing physically around 20 years old and then begin to degenerate and die later in life?
This is a great question that has three misconceptions in it:
This is where many people get tripped up, which causes them to ask what it all means. People die. Life is just repeatedly waking, cleaning/maintaining, eating, drinking, working to live, having some leisure time, and sleeping. You do that around 25,000 times (give or take) and then you die. But life is much more than that if you focus on it. It’s about building relationships. It’s about experiences. It’s about learning new things and exploring the unknown. It’s about improving yourself and the world around you. And that whole is much more than the sum of its parts. Most importantly, though, while you need to be selfish to the point that you have what you need to live, after that point you are welcome to help others and work toward shared, mutually beneficial goals. And when you reproduce and raise the next generation, your life becomes dedicated to their growth. So growth is so much more beyond yourself—that’s where “greater meaning” is found.
As for forms of growth, your physical body is just a fraction of the number of forms of growth. You can grow your friendships, your relationships, your money, your assets, your knowledge, and even your spirituality. Anything you work on improving over time is a form of growth, and so there is so much more than just growing physically—though there is nothing wrong with people who dedicate their lives to bodybuilding or athletics, as it is fine to focus on one primary form of growth.
Finally, everything ends in life because the only thing constant in life is change. Things ending have no bearing on their meaning to you. If you are married, your wedding was a few hours and yet you cite it as a highlight of your life. You don’t try to have a wedding every day—in fact, that would make it less special. Similarly, vacations end, friendships and relationships can end, careers end, child rearing ends, and your life ends. The fact that things end doesn’t make them not worthwhile or meaningful; on the contrary, it can make them more valuable and special (i.e., scarcity often drives value).
What if you grow but don’t find meaning?
This is a fantastic question because growth is only one of the eight drivers of a sense of meaning—so while it is the point, it’s not the only element involved in feeling a sense of purpose. (Note: the other seven are experience, desire, belief, emotions, ethics, support, and choice) Therefore, you do need to keep a few things in mind when trying to find growth that is meaningful to you:
In short, growth is only one of the eight drivers of meaning and so, while it is the primary driver, you need to make sure that you focus on things that matter to you for the sense of significance to be there.
I’m exhausted. I keep working, working, and working but not seeing any results.
This misconception comes from the idea that growth comes solely through hard work and effort. But, as any experienced athlete knows, the actual growth comes during the rest. During the activity, you are actually breaking down your muscles or expending your mental and physical energy. Yes, you are forming muscle memory and wiring your brain to be better through practice and habit, but without rest, your performance will not get better. Growth comes from eating, sleeping, sex, and other activities in addition to work. So you don’t have to work 24/7 to maximize growth; in fact, optimal growth comes from more balance than that.
But why does everyone say that the meaning of life is to be happy?
This is a misconception of what people are actually saying when they say that. The correct advice is, “Do what makes you happy.” It is referring to how you should spend your time doing things that will lead to happiness as an outcome. But, as you might have heard, people who chase happiness often never find it. Because happiness is a result or outcome of doing the things that you want to do in life. It’s a result of doing meaningful, fulfilling activities. Also, happiness is something you can choose to be at any time. In both cases, though, happiness is an emotion providing feedback saying that your desires, beliefs, and experiences are aligned. If you do something that makes you happy—meaning fulfilled, not just pleasure like eating an ice cream cone—that means that you are partaking in growth-enabling experiences. So growth is the means in which you go from a current state to an improved future state and so you receive the positive feedback of being happy when that occurs. The misconception is that people think the point of life is the outcome or the destination when it is really the joy of the experience or the journey toward it.
How is this absolute? What about the meaning being to love, to learn, to live life, or to serve others?
Every universal meaning someone tries to apply to life has growth underlying it. Love? Relationship, social, and familial growth. Learning? Intellectual growth. Living? Having life experiences that grow your understanding of yourself and the world around you. Serving others? Enabling others’ growth. They are all forms of growth, so they are all technically correct—albeit incomplete—answers to what gives life meaning and significance to them. You may prefer a different form of growth, and the good news is that your preference is perfectly fine, too.
What about people who protect others? What about people who harm others?
The opposite of growth is harm, and so protection is meant to both prevent harm and foster growth. You both are safe from harm when your life is protected by military and police as well as able to live your life the way you want to by those forces keeping away people who would try to prevent you from doing that. Protection is what preserves the gains you have made (e.g., stops someone from bombing your community) and enables you to spend less time focused on self-preservation so you can focus on growing and thriving.
Hopefully, this provides some clarity against some of the areas that might be confusing to people who are new to the growth-centric view of meaning and purpose. Alas, many people over the last few decades under the happiness paradigm of meaning have been mislead into seeking highs like drugs, etc., whereas others under nihilistic or pessimistic views of life have been demoralized into a depressed or hopeless state under the guise of being “realistic”.
The ultimate way to feel more meaning, purpose, and significance in life is to seek growth opportunities for yourself and others. Learn, teach, volunteer, seek support for your dreams, and try new experiences. When you find things in your life that matter to you and that you are passionate about, pursue them. Behind your drive, your belief, and your choice to move forward will be a sense that you have found the direction that you were looking for in life.