The Purpose of The Meaning of Life Blog
The Meaning of Life Blog has a clear mission:
To help individuals understand the primary drivers of humans' sense of meaning in life so that they can foster a greater sense of purpose in their own lives.
Why is this so important, and what is different about how I help people with meaning and purpose compared to people who have been writing or speaking on this topic for thousands of years?
Well, it's important to note that the majority of advice is based on debatable premises. Here are a few that had particularly bothered me in my decades of research on this topic:
- Conflating the goal, origin of life, ethics, and explanations of how things work – My biggest issue with philosophies on life is that they have a set of recommendations for how to live your life that make so many assumptions about how things work that aren't necessarily true...and you generally have to accept all of them to accept one of them. For example, if you wish to subscribe to a religion, most religions tell you how life began (e.g., God), tell you what your goal should be (e.g., service to Him), ethics (e.g., Thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain), and explanations (e.g., God made woman from Adam's rib). My running joke of this is, "God exists...so don't eat meat on Fridays during Lent." What??? (note: I know that it's a symbolic sacrifice representing Jesus's sacrifice, but it's kind of ironic now that seafood costs more than mammal meat in modern times)
- Imparting one's personal ethics onto others through an unquestionable authority – Leaders can't help but think that their morals or ethics are best, so all of their teachings are going to have those ethics built into them. But people who succeed at an area that you want to succeed at, such as a sport, trade, or business, have only proven to you that they are qualified to impart how to be good at what they are good at. It doesn't make them infallible ethical experts.
- Assuming that what gives them meaning in life will give others – "To serve others", "to learn", "to love", "to be happy", etc. are all examples of how people explain what the meaning of life is. And, no doubt, those are all important factors. But everyone's meaning is different. Telling people to dedicate their lives to a specific thing that made them feel happy or fulfilled is helpful to those who share those values but possibly might lead others astray.
- The counter-argument of nihilism is objectively false – To counter the above points, many people will shout, "Life has no meaning...so make it mean whatever you want." I get the intent to free people of the above constraints, but I don't find it particularly helpful...and, in one sense of their being literally no meaning to life, it is objectively false (since all life grows and that is its inherent purpose). So while it's a nice sentiment to tell people that their goal and purpose in life is completely up to them to determine (and that is the correct part of this argument), it's open to misuse and misinterpretation like all the other explanations.
- Goals are subjective, origins are usually irrelevant, and ethics evolve – When people are asking the question, "What is the meaning of life?", they are usually asking what their purpose should be. Goals are subjective, so there's no right answer to that. They might be asking for the intent of the being who created them, but no one asks Tom Brady whether he plays the game in line with what the inventor of football's purpose was for it. No doubt, Viagra has a very different use case today than what its original intent was for. (if you didn't know, they were testing a new heart medication) Finally, what is ethical today is different than what was ethical 500 years ago because ethics evolve. Sure, you might look back with today's ethics and assume that everyone before them was a monster, but there are different technologies, governments, rules and laws, etc. and so people behaved differently and had different ethics as a result. So to try to have some absolute explanation for goals, the origin of life, and ethics when we are learning or choosing new things every day seems not only impossible but also a fool's errand.
So where did we land? Goals are subjective, ethics evolve, and the origin of life might not affect how you should live now...so what's left? How life works. How life works can be tested via science and is, therefore, generally provable. A science-based philosophy has been tried before in humanist and atheist philosophies, but they often start almost on a counter-premise to religions in that the person is at the center of them and they kind of do the same thing by prescribing an origin of life (e.g., "Big Bang" plus the "primordial soup"), a goal in life (e.g., "better humanity"), and ethics (e.g., harm-based ethics). I didn't want to corrupt my explanation of how the world and life work with my personal beliefs nor try to explain everything when covering the meaning of life...I just wanted to explain how a person finds meaning in their lives. With that goal, The Meaning of Life was written and this blog started around the time of its publication.
So if you eliminate the above problems (i.e., no injecting one's goals or ethics into their recommendations), what do you have left? Well, the book covers the following eight drivers of humans' sense of meaning and purpose in life, which have been cited by scientific studies, philosophers, and famous leaders alike as being essential components in one's search:
- Growth – Growth is one of the primary attributes of life that makes it life. You can go back to Darwin who found that life carries on its genes by simply living long enough to reproduce...but he wasn't a philosopher so didn't invert his conclusion: if life/genes survives by not dying...then it does so to continue growing (note: reproduction is a fundamental form of growth). No doubt, growth is at the center of every claim of what makes life meaningful: "to serve others" means to foster their growth; "to learn" means to grow intellectually; "to love" means to grow socially, romantically, or familially. "To be happy" can only be achieved if one is growing and thriving (note: drugs and other pleasures are temporary "highs" and not the fulfillment type of happiness).
- Experience – The only way that life can grow is through experience. We're talking about an organisms' existence and behavior over time within its environment. Growth cannot occur without the concept of time because growth happens over time, and growth cannot occur without some sort of activity because to make more of yourself, you have to do something. The first self-replicating organisms might've been on accident as hypothesized, but since then those organisms are reproducing via actions they're taking. All life has to have experiences to grow, so (because they need growth to feel fulfilled) they need experiences to attain fulfillment.
- Desire – Everyone wants something. If you exist in a current state and need something to happen for you to exist in a better future state, the only way to get yourself to do that is to want (to do) it. So life must desire things. Wanting a better future and, therefore, taking action to get it is critical to growth and critical to having meaning in life.
- Belief – Life faces obstacles and setbacks. It also faces the limits of the physical universe. Therefore, it makes decisions and takes actions based on what it knows will deliver the outcome it intends (i.e., desires). However, life is not omniscient, so it has to make assumptions about the world to fill in its knowledge gaps. Those are beliefs. If you hold a false belief about what's possible, you could die. If you hold a false belief about what is impossible, you could stunt your growth. Belief is necessary to continue toward a goal when success is uncertain; it is also the primary means to quell desire, as you will stop pursuing a goal no matter how much you want it if you think it's impossible. To achieve your full potential, therefore, you have to believe you can attain your goal.
- Emotions – Life reacts to the world around it by sensing stimuli and responding to them. The processing mechanism whereby an advanced organism takes that information and translates it into a rapid, survival-rate-improving response is known as emotions. In advanced organisms, emotions are the result of one's desires, beliefs, and experiences. For example, you might be happy to get braces for your teeth even if the experience is painful because you want a straighter, more attractive smile. Alternatively, you might be sad at a wedding because you secretly had a crush on the bride. Emotions indicate your relationship toward growth and are necessary to understand since your goal is to feel a sense of meaning and purpose in life.
- Ethics – If your goal in life is to go from a current state to a better future state, there has to be a "best" way for you to approach it: one that maximizes/optimizes your growth without harming other people. The rules you follow to accomplish that are called ethics. If you don't live ethically, you can't live cooperatively with other people and, therefore, may not reach your full potential.
- Support – Clearly, living without harming/being harmed by others is necessary but insufficient to maximize your growth. Optimally, others will help you. The Pyramids, Stonehenge, self-driving cars, etc. all are examples of accomplishments that, for a single person, are all but impossible...but for people cooperating, are practically inevitable. So if you want to maximize your growth and, therefore, maximize your sense of purpose, help others and be part of something bigger than yourself. That's what "greater meaning" is all about. No one ever legitimately had a "higher purpose" of serving themselves at the expense of others.
- Choice – To humans, life without the ability to make decisions or take actions that will affect outcomes is one that's not worth living. It's why people who feel helpless and powerless commit suicide, and it's why people who get through years of suffering will talk about their choices every day to continue on, to better themselves in the ways that they could, and to find meaning in everything they do. Life without agency is boring at best and depressing and miserable at worst. It's the ability to choose your thoughts, attention, decisions, and actions that make life meaningful and significant to you. In essence, every organism chooses how it grows and, as a result, chooses its own destiny.
It's those eight concepts on which The Meaning of Life Blog is based. I won't tell you what to do; I won't tell you what goal to have; I won't tell you how life began and use it to justify why you should live a certain way. I just have the answers to the factors that drive your sense of meaning and purpose in life. You have to grow. You have to have growth-enabling experiences. You have to be pursuing something better. You have to believe in your ability to succeed. You have to feel a sense of fulfillment that comes from growing and thriving. You have to behave in ways that make you feel good about yourself. You have to help others and get help. You have to make the choice to find meaning in what you're doing (among other choices).
That I know for sure...and all of those have been proven to be critical to people finding meaning in life through countless studies. They are also the backbone of pretty much every philosophy that has ever existed, as if you have a philosophy, you have to have an opinion on these eight things since they determine whether someone will find their lives to be meaningful.
So I will keep writing about different ideas in life, different events, and different questions that people run into...but all you need to understand to inject your life with more meaning and purpose are these eight things. I wish you the best of luck incorporating your understanding of these concepts into your life, and I'll keep writing the blog as I see more misunderstandings or misapplications of these ideas in the real world to help guide people on the right path to finding meaning and purpose in their lives. I hope I've helped in some way as you seek to continue making your life and the lives of the people you care about better, as that is the reason that I write. Best of luck to you, and I guarantee you that if you sharpen your ability to hone these eight areas in your life, you'll find meaning and purpose.
Note: For those of you coming directly from a search for "meaning of life blog", "the meaning of life blog", "the meaning of life.com", or "themeaningoflife.com" (which are top searches that lead to this post), please feel free to check out the rest of the site for more answers, for information on the book, or for an assessment to check your current sense of purpose in life. Welcome, and I hope this guidance helps you because science, philosophy, and religion all support these eight drivers of meaning and purpose—and they can change your life.