Mistakes About the Meaning of Life

Iddo Landau explains how to avoid them

To my surprise, most of the people with whom I have talked about the meaning of life have told me that they did not think that their lives were meaningful enough. Many even presented their lives as outright meaningless. But I have often found the reasons my interlocutors gave for their views problematic. Many, I thought, did not pose relevant questions that might have changed their views, or take the actions that might have improved their condition. (Some of them, after our discussions, agreed with me.) Most of the people who complained about life's meaninglessness even found it difficult to explain what they took the notion to mean.

I will begin by briefly clarifying the notion of the meaning of life, and then point at a few of the many mistakes that, in my experience, people who take their lives to be insufficiently meaningful often make. This, I hope, may help some people realise how to make their lives more meaningful, and others to stop believing with no good reason that their lives are meaningless.

In common speech, “meaning” is used in two main ways. One has to do with notions such as interpretation, clarification, and comprehension, as in “the meaning of a red light is ‘stop’”. The other has to do with notions such as value, worth, or importance, as in “the conversation we had yesterday was very meaningful to me”. Following contemporary discussions by, among others, John Cottingham, Thaddeus Metz, and Susan Wolf, I think that in discussions of the meaning of life, “meaning” is used mostly in the second sense.

Consider some examples: the existentialist psychologist Viktor Frankl recounts in his Man in Search of Meaning how, while he was a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps in World War II, he noted that some of his fellow inmates kept their sense of meaning while others did not. Those who kept their sense of meaning did so by maintaining some areas of worth in their lives. Frankl himself, for instance, intended to write a book after he was freed, a book, informed by his experiences in the camps, about meaningfulness and how it can contribute to treating many seemingly unrelated psychological problems. This project was of value to him and helped him maintain meaning in his life, and survive, while he was in the camps. What gave meaning to the lives of some of the other inmates was the importance of the prospect of seeing their families again after the war and caring for them. Yet others maintained their sense of worth by helping other inmates. Those who did not retain their sense of meaning, on the other hand, were those for whom nothing remained of sufficient worth or value. Meaning of life, then, has to do with worth, or value.

Likewise, in his semi-autobiographical My Confession, Tolstoy recounts how, at a certain point in his life, he went through a crisis of meaninglessness. He tells how he found himself asking questions about hitherto valued, central aspects of his life, questions such as “so what?” or “what of it?”. For instance, he considered the fact that he was a great writer, perhaps the best Russian one and one of the greatest in the world. But then, he recounts, he asked himself: “so what?”. Likewise, he thought of his prosperous, thriving estate. But then the question crept in: “what of it?”. Similarly, he had a large, happy family whose members were healthy. But again the question arose: “so what?”. Before he started sensing his life as meaningless, the value in being a great writer, having a healthy family, etc. was quite clear to him. He would only come to see his life as meaningful again once he was able to return to seeing these, or other, aspects of his life as valuable. Again, meaning of life has to do with worth or value.

The examples above are taken from the writings of luminaries, but discussions I have had with laypersons who have told me that they stopped seeing life as meaningful also suggest that meaningfulness is based on value. For example, I talked with parents who told me that ever since they lost their child in a car accident, they had found it hard to see life as meaningful. There was something very valuable in their lives, and when this was gone, they experienced life as meaningless. They would see life as meaningful again only if they found other things that they took to be of sufficiently high value.

Another person told me that she found life meaningless because she had not succeeded in becoming a central figure in her academic field. Again, for her (at that time), the main or only issue of worth was excellence in her career. Since she was blind to other issues that could be of worth in her life, she felt that her life was meaningless when she did not achieve the only thing in life she considered at the time to be valuable. Sometimes people who think that their lives are meaningless describe them as empty, but find it hard to explain what their lives are empty of. The reply is that they take their lives to be empty of sufficient value.

We can also see the close relation between meaningfulness and value if we consider common pessimistic arguments for the meaninglessness of life. One frequently heard such argument (which also appears in the philosophical literature) points to our eventual death and annihilation. As Thomas Nagel, among others, notes (although he does not accept the argument), some years or centuries after we die, no one will remember us or what we did. In a million years, the world will be exactly as it would have been had we not done what we did; moreover, it will even be exactly as it would have been had we never existed at all. Some cite this as a reason for holding that life is meaningless. But the supposition behind this argument (a problematic supposition, in my view) is that what we do in life cannot be valuable enough unless it persists for eternity.

Another famous argument claims that when considered in the context of the whole universe, our life emerges as meaningless. Perhaps we do have some effect on our immediate environment, such as our family, friends, and workplace. But we have no effect on almost all other parts of the vast, gigantic universe. We live in a corner of a negligible solar system in a negligible galaxy. The ratio between our whole galaxy and the cosmos at large is smaller than the ratio between a speck of dust in this room and the whole country. Our insufficient effect on almost the whole of the universe, the argument goes, makes our life meaningless. But this argument, too (again, a problematic argument, in my view), suggests that our life is meaningless because, when seen in the right context, and whatever we do in life emerges as being of insufficient value.

The same is true of the other arguments for the meaninglessness of life. The argument from the paradox of the end, for example, points out that after attaining a goal for which we have worked hard, we often feel, surprisingly, that the goal is not of much worth. Paradoxically, being on the way towards the goal was better than attaining it. But if the goal is actually unworthy, the means to achieve it, that is, the way towards it, also becomes unworthy. Again, meaningfulness has to do with worth or value.

This also holds true for other arguments for the meaninglessness of life. I believe that there are good replies to all of them, but wish to focus in the present context only on the point that the meaning of life is based on worth or value. Indeed, I suggest that when people complain that their lives are meaningless, they are complaining that there is not sufficient value in their lives. People who ask what the meaning of life is are asking what can be of sufficient value in life. A meaningful life is one in which there is a sufficient number of aspects of sufficient value, and a meaningless life is one in which there is not a sufficient number of aspects of sufficient value.

Noting this close relationship between meaningfulness and value is important, since it allows us to draw many implications that can be helpful for people who consider their lives insufficiently meaningful.

One implication is that people's views about the meaninglessness of their lives – even when they are strongly held – may be mistaken. We know that in other aspects of value, people often do make mistakes. Some wrongly take themselves to be bad parents, and others wrongly take themselves to be good ones. Some take themselves to be worse spouses, or better spouses, than they really are. Some people unjustifiably believe that the art they produce is not so good, and others unjustifiably believe that their art is excellent. Many, likewise, underrate or overrate their sense of humour, knowledge, or ability to play the violin. We also see this in all other spheres of value. And if this is so for all spheres of value, it is likely to be so as well for the meaning of life.

Surprisingly, many people who take their lives to be insufficiently meaningful are absolutely certain that this is the case; they are convinced that their impressions about the meaning of their life must be precise and reliable. However, seeing that meaningfulness is based on value suggests that in this sphere of value, just as in the others, we cannot just “know” for certain that our life is or is not meaningful. As in other spheres of value, so in this one, we need to inquire and learn about the issue, double-check our standards, examine implicit suppositions that might affect our views, consider arguments for and against our opinions, learn from the experience of others, and consult with people. People who take their lives to be meaningless (just like people who take their lives to be meaningful) may well be wrong.

Another implication is that the degree of meaning in life can be increased or decreased. Some people who, for good or bad reasons, take their lives to be insufficiently meaningful treat this condition as a constant, as if it were a given that could not be changed. But we see in other spheres of value that degrees of value can and often do change. Sometimes, with time, they even just change by themselves. But very often we can also alter them. For example, by opting for various actions, I can become a more moral or a less moral person than I am now. I can also affect the degree to which I am exposed to, and thus am affected by, natural or artistic beauty. I can ruin or build friendships, upgrade or downgrade my health, and practice or neglect my German. It would be surprising if in this particular sphere of value, the meaning of life, things were different from how they are in all the other spheres.

Noting that meaning in life is based on value also directs us to what we should do in order to increase meaningfulness in our lives: we should enhance what we take to be valuable in our lives. We can either import new aspects of value into our lives; augment already existing aspects of value; or de-trivialise and re-sensitise ourselves to existing value that, through familiarity and habit, we have stopped noticing. Many people, including those who take their lives to be insufficiently meaningful, dedicate more time and effort in one evening to considering which film to go to than they do in their whole lifetime to considering what would make their lives more meaningful.

The last implication I have the space to discuss here relates to uniqueness. Many people believe that in order to be meaningful, their life has to be unique. However, in most spheres of value, uniqueness is not important. Admittedly, it is important in a few spheres: for example, in creative art, value depends (among other things) on originality; just repeating what other artists have already created is not considered to be of value. Originality, in turn, presupposes uniqueness, at least at the time the artwork is presented. Similarly, scientific and scholarly achievement is valued (among other things) for its originality and innovation. Just repeating someone else's findings does not carry much worth. And that too means, of course, that at the time the scientific findings are first presented, they have to be unique.

However, in many other spheres of value – indeed, in most of them – uniqueness is not important. A person I know volunteered for several months in an immunisation project in Africa. What he did was not unique; it was quite similar to what other volunteers did. The value in his activity did not have to do with its uniqueness but, rather, with his help in preventing disability and death and alleviating suffering. Likewise, what makes the love between a parent and a baby valuable is not its difference from all other love between other parents and babies; the value is in the warmth and emotional closeness. This value is not decreased if other people, too, enjoy a very similar connection. This holds true also of aesthetic or mystical experiences. What one goes through in such experiences may well be quite similar to what others go through when they have their own such experiences. It is not the specific differences between one's own and others' aesthetic or mystical experiences that make these experiences valuable. Uniqueness is not important here. This is also true of the worth of honesty, joy, responsibility, health, curiosity, and most other spheres of value. The insistence on uniqueness, then, is yet another mistake about the meaning of life. This mistake, like the earlier ones mentioned above and many others which I do not have here the space to discuss, leads some people to unnecessarily see their lives as insufficiently meaningful and to miss ways of enhancing meaning in life.

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Iddo Landau teaches philosophy at the University of Haifa, Israel. This essay is adapted from his new book, Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World, just published by Oxford University Press.