What is the Meaning of Life?
Reading Time: 8 minutes
Me: “Nothing matters.”
Girlfriend: “Come on, Cal. This again?”
Me: “Can’t you see? It’s all a big joke.”
Girlfriend: “Cal, it’s 5am…go back to sleep.”
Every morning after graduating from college, I faced my girlfriend and expressed the idea that had taken over my mind: nothing matters.
That may sound dramatic, but it’s true.
Working as an investment banker in New York, I spent 15 hours a day in a cubicle. While I was promised “tangible skills” and “meaningful transactions,” I was given 100 hour work weeks and an endless supply of grunt work.
The Wall Street dream of my youth turned out to be a nightmare.
My cubicle-driven existence really bummed me out, and I began to feel that life was pointless. While I had suffered from bouts of nihilism previously, this one hit me hard. I felt paralyzed, empty, and hopeless.
Was this all that life had to offer?
Tired of feeling shitty, I decided to confront my creeping nihilism head-on. I started with the big question: What is the meaning of life?
What is the meaning of life?
I’ve been weirdly concerned with the purpose of my existence since my youth. I’m the guy who asks “why” about everything until you get tired of me and say, “It doesn’t matter Cal. It’s just the way it is.”
Unfortunately, I’ve never been into the whole “just the way it is” movement. I want to understand why things are the way they are.
Why do so many marriages fail? Why are so many people miserable? Why do we exist?
I love thinking about life and how we can get the most of it. So when the “nothing matters” bug began eating my soul, I wanted answers. I channeled my existential distress into exploring the meaning of life.
“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” – Albert Camus
But no matter how much I thought, read, or talked about the topic, I found no concrete answers. I always ended up where I started:
Life is meaningless. Nothing matters.
Instead of looking for a different conclusion, I changed my approach. I decided that the only rational answer to the meaning of life is that there is no inherent meaning.
Instead of being angsty and unsettled by this conclusion, I accepted it wholeheartedly. And from that point of acceptance, I asked a better question, “now what?” If our lives are meaningless, what does that mean for how we choose to live?
The beauty of a pointless existence
“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.” – Joseph Campbell
We are specks of dust on a spinning rock. Nothing about what we do has any cosmic significance. No matter how successful you are, it’s unlikely people will remember anything you did 200 years from now.
Oh, and you’re going to die.
You might find this line of reasoning depressing, but it’s actually quite exciting!
Because if nothing matters – if nothing truly matters – you get to choose whatever path you find most exciting and meaningful.
In a pointless world, it’s your responsibility to create your own meaning. And when you get to choose what’s meaningful, you can move beyond the limiting beliefs and expectations imposed by others.
If nothing matters, it doesn’t matter what your friends or parents think about your meandering career.
If nothing matters, it doesn’t matter that you have kinky fetishes that you like to play out on Saturday night.
If nothing matters, you don’t have to be so existentially angsty about making the “wrong” choice or not fulfilling your potential.
Fully accepting that nothing matters is empowering. It gives you a blank canvas to begin painting the story of your life. And that story can be what you’ve always wanted it to be.
Unfortunately, most of us never get to enjoy the fruits of the blank canvas because of one big problem: fear.
Starting from a place of no meaning is a daunting task. It requires you to take full responsibility for creating meaning in your life. So if the path you choose leaves you filled with regret when you’re 80 and being pumped with morphine on your deathbed, it’s all on you. You can’t blame your parents, society, or anyone else.
This level of responsibility can be paralyzing, especially in the context of having infinite paths to choose from. You can be an angry hedonist who destroys shit, or you can be a kind and generous philanthropist. You can be anything, so how do you choose how to live and avoid descending into a chaotic, purposeless life?
Instead of confronting and overcoming these fears, most of us stay in comfortable, mediocre lives that fulfill the expectations of other people. It’s easier that way.
Fortunately, for those of us who choose to take the more difficult, but rewarding path, we don’t have to figure it out on our own. We can leverage a simple framework for creating meaning that will make the road less scary and uncertain.
A framework for creating meaning
In 2016, I stumbled across the work of Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who spent years suffering from hunger and brutality in Nazi concentration camps. His wife, mother, father, and brother died in the camps.
Despite this tragic and dehumanizing experience, Frankl emerged as an optimist. He went on to found logotherapy, a school of psychotherapy contending that humans are motivated by the search for meaning.
According to logotherapy, we find meaning in three distinct ways:
- Work: By creating a work or doing a deed.
- Love: By experiencing something or encountering someone.
- Attitude: By turning personal tragedy into triumph.
Meaning is found in work, love, and the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. Using this framework as a starting point, let’s break down how we can find meaning across three areas: Work, Love, and Attitude.
Work consists of achievement, solving problems, and helping others.
Our accomplishments can bring us short- and long-term meaning. When we set goals – big and small – and do what it takes to achieve them, we feel good. Achievements that bring us an enduring sense of meaning are typically those that take years to accomplish. For example, mastering a craft, acquiring a PhD, or raising a high-functioning child can bring immense purpose to our lives. But even small achievements, like organizing a family dinner or writing an article, can be sources of meaning.
When you solve a problem, you make the world a slightly better place. You’re orienting the order of the world away from “bad” and toward “good. Like with achievement, solving bigger problems gives you more meaning.
“That’s what they were made for. By doing what they were designed to do, they’re performing their function. Whereas humans were made to help others. And when we do help others—or help them to do something—we’re doing what we were designed for. We perform our function.” – Marcus Aurelius
Helping others is the most important component of finding meaning through work. When we orient our goals and the problems we solve toward helping other people, we can find deep and enduring meaning in our efforts. The key to helping others is to do so in an authentic way that brings you joy.
So whether you’re the person who smiles every Monday morning or someone working on getting potable water to millions of people, you will find meaning in your efforts if they’re aligned with how you enjoy serving others in the world.
Love consistents of relationships and experiences.
Relationships are at the core of the human experience. Without a sense of belonging and a supportive community, life will feel meaningless, no matter how much you have accomplished through your work. So whether it’s family, friends, or a romantic partner, you can find great joy and meaning in deep and loving relationships.
The many experiences of life are an overlooked part of the meaning equation. When you find the little things that make you feel alive, incorporate these things into your life. For example, when I’m paddling on a surfboard in the ocean or basking in the sun and watching a tree sway, my soul feels at ease. These moments infuse meaning into my world.
Attitude consistents of personal growth, courage, and resilience.
“Life is growth. You grow or you die.” – Phil Knight
When we become better versions of ourselves, we find meaning in the journey of transformation. This can happen in infinite ways – learning a new skill, living by your values, developing a healthier attitude, and so on. The point is not to be a certain way, but rather to identify how you want to be and to embark on a journey of getting there.
Being courageous can bring us meaning. Whether it’s having the courage to leave a mediocre relationship or to ask for help when you’re in a dark place, finding the courage to do what we know is best will give us an increased sense of autonomy and purpose.
When things go wrong or our expectations are not met, we can find meaning in continuing to fight. This might include working harder, enduring pain, or undergoing difficult processes of change. Coming out on the other side of these efforts can be incredibly rewarding.
Creating a diversified meaning portfolio
While the different areas of work, love, and attitude can be sources of purpose, we don’t need to focus on all of these areas. How we find meaning often varies with the stage of life that we are in.
For instance, you might derive your meaning from achievement and personal growth in your twenties and shift the balance toward family and helping others as you age. There is no formula – you have to figure out what works for you.
While you don’t need to find meaning equally across every area, it’s extremely risky to have only one source of meaning.
For example, imagine that you dedicated your life to building a billion dollar company. You may get meaning from this pursuit for years, but if something goes awry and you lose this source of purpose, you’re screwed.
If you don’t have other areas of life that give you purpose, you might end up in a very dark place. This is what happened with my mom when I left for college.
Just like you shouldn’t put your net worth in a single stock, don’t find your meaning in only one area. Lasting meaning and fulfillment occur at the intersection of work, love, and attitude.
Finding strength and meaning in a mission
When you fully accept that nothing matters and begin creating an authentic bedrock of meaning, you’re embarking on a challenging, but rewarding journey.
On that journey, you can no longer rest on the laurels of the expectations others have placed on you.
You’re responsible for identifying and living a path that you have consciously chosen as meaningful. As you go through this process, orienting your life toward a mission can help tremendously.
A mission is your statement of purpose. It’s a framework of possibility that helps guide you in a life with infinite possibilities.
At the end of 2017, I set out on a mission to empower 10 million people to live a more conscious and fulfilling life.
This mission embodies all that I want to achieve through work, love, and attitude. Living by this mission requires me to live a principle-driven life of learning and contribution, two of my sources of my meaning.
Above all else, the mission is a guiding light that steers my ship when the inevitable chaos of day to day life blinds me.
At least for now, this mission allows me to feel the purpose I need to continue waking up every morning and being excited to tackle the day. It helps me from descending into the darkness of nihilism. It allows me to fulfill my responsibility to find meaning in this world.
While not everyone needs a mission, it can be an incredibly useful tool. It can be the lifeguard that tells you not to swim in the rip current and that saves you when you inevitably get lost at sea.
We may live in a world in which nothing matters, but that’s okay. It’s up to you to decide what is meaningful for you and to design your life so that it fulfills those needs.
Don’t fall into the trap of living a life that fulfills the expectations of others. Life’s way too short and pointless for that.
Make the most of life while you still can. Do it before the heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or other soldiers of death come to get you.