What is the Meaning of Life? – Philosophy & Psychology

“Man cannot stand a meaningless life.”

Carl Jung, BBC “Face To Face” (1959)

The world is a terrifying place and suffering is inevitable. We need a meaning to survive, to live properly – and we are ready to suffer and undergo sacrifice in order to preserve this meaning.

“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Maxims and Arrows, §12.

Man who has a meaning can overcome and confront life’s troubles, man without a meaning is bound to descend into the void.  

Jung, however, believes that we must look in the darkest places, because in the darkest places you can find what shines and if something shines in the darkness, you know it’s a real light. He writes:

“Filling the conscious mind with ideal conceptions is a characteristic feature of Western theosophy, but not the confrontation with the shadow and the world of darkness. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.”

Carl Jung, Collected Works 13: Alchemical Studies

In Western theosophy (the way in which the West imitated Eastern traditions), there is too much focus on only seeing figures of light. In order to find meaning in life, Jung tells us to make our darkness conscious, that is the real work of individuation. To integrate our shadow is what gives man wholeness of personality. To achieve a profound meaning in life means that we must go through the dark places and walk to the light at the end.

”No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”

Carl Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, Chapter 5

The West and the East have different views on the meaning of life, Jung writes:

“To Western man, the meaninglessness of a merely static universe is unbearable. He must assume that it has meaning. The Oriental does not make this assumption; rather, he himself embodies it. Whereas the Occidental feels the need to complete the meaning of the world, the Oriental strives for the fulfilment of the meaning in man, stripping the world and existence from himself (Buddha). I would say that both are right. Western man seems predominantly extroverted, Eastern man predominantly introverted. The former projects the meaning and considers that it exists in objects; the latter feels the meaning in himself. But the meaning is both within and without.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Chapter XI: On Life after Death

What is the Meaning of Life?

So, what is the meaning of life? This question can be quite deceptive. We mustn’t think of it as a static relation to be realised with a simpler answer.

It is hard to think of a single proposition that can make your life meaningful in an instant. One can, however, orient oneself more meaningfully towards one’s goals. To find meaning is a dynamic process that constantly shapes yourself, immerses yourself in reality and has reality immersed in you.

Although the term “meaningful life” is commonly used, it has no clear definition. We can, however, reframe the question as: “what are the conditions under which an individual will experience his life as meaningful?”

When an individual states that he seeks meaning in his life, he is positively committed to some concept of the meaning of life. This concept of the meaning of life provides him with some framework or goal from which to view his life – and he is determined to fulfil this concept of life – this fulfilment is experienced as a feeling of integration, relatedness or significance.

A meaningful life can be defined according to a positive life regard, referring to an individual’s belief that he is fulfilling a life-framework or life-goal that provides him with a highly valued understanding of his life.

We’ll be exploring different approaches to the development of positive life regard.

Development of Positive Life Regard (Meaningful Life)

The first approach is the philosophical model, where positive life regard develops only from the commitment to and fulfilment of the intrinsic meaning of life. This meaning can be derived from God (religious models), from Being (existential models), from man (humanistic models), or from life (self-transcendent models). They all assume that there is only one true meaning of life.

However, it isn’t quite clear that this is true. There can well be several meanings of life, this is the second approach: the relativistic model, which states that commitment to any system of beliefs can serve as a life-framework for the development of positive life regard. Thus, this model shifts emphasis away from the nature of an individual’s belief system and emphasises his commitment to it.

Philosophical models propose that the content of belief is a determinant of positive life regard, while the relativistic model proposes only that the process of believing itself is a determinant of positive life regard. Although most philosophers would probably deny that there is a single meaning of life if confronted, they nevertheless approach the problem of meaning by trying to explicate some single conceptual framework from which to understand the meaning of life.

Therefore, the relativistic perspective has several advantages over the philosophical one. The wide variety of belief systems under which individuals have developed meaning in life  (Taoism, Christianity, Existentialism, etc.) do not appear reducible to one fundamental system. It promotes tolerance towards all systems of belief and is thus inclusive of all of the philosophical models, it discourages abstract philosophical discussion over which system of beliefs is “ultimately” better, and emphasises the responsibility of each individual to find his own beliefs.

The third way to develop positive life regard is through the psychological approach. Most contemporary psychological theories explain individual development as a function of the resolution of inherent needs or stages of development through the interaction of the individual with his social environment, such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – in which certain needs must be satisfied before an individual can accept “growth” needs and experience “life validation” and “peak experiences” through the development of “self-actualisation”.

Self-esteem, man’s experience of his self as valuable, is a subjective belief which is necessary for a positive life regard. It is linked to one’s self-image (the way we see ourselves physically, our social roles and personality traits) and seeing oneself progressing towards one’s ideal self. All of this makes up one’s self-concept, the knowledge of who one is.

As infants we are concerned with our self-image (which develops from the relationship with our parents), and as we grow older into adolescence we also start becoming concerned with our self-esteem. Therefore, meaning in life appears to be a later development – caricatured as the perennial concern of college students, emphasised as an important issue of mid and later life.

An individual must successfully resolve the stage concerned with self-concept by developing self-esteem before he can develop positive life regard. Self-esteem is seen as a necessary but an insufficient prerequisite of positive life regard.

Positive life regard, however, does not appear to be socially introjected, but is much more intimately involved with a person’s own idiosyncratic evaluation of his life goals.

Therefore, there is a high correlation between self-esteem and social phenomena (which includes comfort with people, finding a partner, sexual performance, etc.), while positive life regard is highly correlated with life-goal oriented phenomena (satisfaction with career choice, career performance, etc.).

The fourth way to find meaning is the transactional model which sees the individual in terms of a set of needs or goals that he attempts to fulfil through social roles (the patterns of behaviour expected of people who occupy a certain social position).

The development of positive life regard should be related to the fit between the values, goals, needs and roles of the individual and the values, goals, needs and roles of the social structure which he lives in, including subcultures or broader social movements.

The fifth and final way is the phenomenological approach. Phenomenology is the study of the nature and structure of consciousness. While the previous models elucidated the determinants of an individual’s goals and rate of progress toward his goals, the phenomenological model is viewed as a description of the structure by which this rate of progress is evaluated.

A person can compare his current goal position relative to his ultimate life goal and the degree of positive life regard will be experienced as the rate of progress that he’s making and by the comparison of his present goal position with his past goal position.

In this sense, there is no “true” or “ultimate” meaning of life. To have a positive life regard, we have seen that:

The relativistic model emphasises the search for meaning as the individual’s believing rather than the content of his beliefs and  allows us to compare several philosophical points of view instead of assuming one true meaning of life. The psychological perspective emphasises self-esteem as a necessary pre-requisite, the transactional model suggests the need for harmony between the individual and society’s values, goals, needs and roles, and the phenomenological approach allows us to describe the structure by which the rate of progress is evaluated towards a meaningful life.

To help navigate and orient yourself towards a more meaningful life, you can rate the following statements taken from the Life Regard Index: from 1 to 5 (1 being the lowest and 5 the highest):

Framework Items (Positive)

  • I have some aims and goals that would personally give me a great deal of satisfaction if I could accomplish them.
  • I have a philosophy of life that really gives my living significance.

Framework Items (Negative)

  • I just don’t know what I really want to do with my life.
  • I really don’t have much of a purpose for living, even for myself.

Fulfilment Items (Positive)

  • I feel that I am living fully.
  • I feel that I’m really going to attain what I want in life.

Fulfilment Items (Negative)

  • I spend most of my time doing things that really aren’t very important to me.
  • I don’t really value what I’m doing.

Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World

In Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World, Iddo Landau found out that many who didn’t find meaning in their lives were too perfectionist. They take only great people and great achievements as things that make life meaningful.

They look up to people they admire which helps form their ideal self, used to assist the real self in developing its potential. However, many do not believe they have an ideal self or think that they may never achieve it, so their real self turns into a despised self, and one becomes mired in his own negative emotions, one thinks of oneself as a good-for-nothing. This stagnation makes progress towards any goal become an impossible and ludicrous task.

People have too high standards. A writer may think that he is not Shakespeare and so he despairs that his life is meaningless because he cannot achieve those artistic heights. Landau emphasises non-perfectionism.

In order to have a meaningful life, he writes that:

“One must have a sufficient number of aspects of sufficient value.”

Iddo Landau, Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World

The meaning of life is mostly about value. There can, however, also be negative value – such as causing pain to others, breaking the law, being manipulative, etc. While one might find value in this, it does not, however, contribute to a meaningful life, but rather an unmeaningful life.

We can find meaning in countless ways, through seeking pleasure, relationships, work and so on. However, many times there is an incongruence between the things that we like and the things that are meaningful. We might like to party, to play, to become wealthier and so on, and achieve happiness thereby. But as one gets used to this lifestyle, one eventually tires of it and is bored by the repetition. We may like to do many things, but still end up with a feeling of emptiness in our lives.

This is because many of the things that we do and think have meaning do not actually give us value in order to grow but rather short-term ephemeral pleasure.

We see wealthy and famous people commit suicide, even though they have covered their basic needs of monetary value and having social prestige. However, they too have psychological and growth needs, such as love and self-realisation. A lack of these may cause them to feel existential despair, as they are fundamental in order to grow and progress as a human being.

In “A Confession”, Leo Tolstoy wrote about his struggle with a mid-life existential crisis. Tolstoy was one of the most acclaimed writers of his time, but he felt that this wasn’t something that gave him sufficient value, he writes:

“If God does not exist, since death is inevitable, what is the meaning of life?”

Leo Tolstoy, A Confession

To focus on the things that give us meaning and value in life usually challenges our very being, gaining profundity. But this requires sacrifice and is painful.

Nietzsche writes:

“Only great pain is the ultimate liberator of the spirit… I doubt that such pain makes us ‘better’; but I know that it makes us more profound.”

Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Preface, §3

Nietzsche argues that human greatness is what makes our life meaningful, it is more desirable than human happiness. And what makes a man great is the ability to overcome the inherent suffering we experience.

We may find profound meaning from work, creativity, accomplishment, relationships, generosity and so on. The more things we can derive meaning from, the better.

A Meaningless Life: Dangers of Nihilism

If one cannot find a meaning in life, there is a risk of falling into existential nihilism, the belief that everything we do has no value whatsoever, that we are insignificant and unlikely to change in our life, that we have no higher purpose to strive towards. Since one cannot find any meaning, one gives up and calls life meaningless.

But anyone who believes life can be meaningless also assumes the importance of value. Therefore, when people say that “life is meaningless”, they really want to refer to their miserable condition of not having a profound meaning in their lives.

A more appropriate statement would be: “I am struggling to find meaning in my life” or “what was meaningful for me is now meaningless, how can I find a new meaning in my life?”. These are real problems that people deeply struggle with. Many so-called nihilists are really in despair to find a profound meaning in their lives.

Meaninglessness also occurs when we experience an existential crisis. We start to re-examine our life in the context of our death and reflect on the meaning, purpose or value of what we have done so far in our life, and ask ourselves if there’s any point to all of it.

Some even believe that life is meaningless upon reflecting on the cosmos-at-large and seeing the insignificance of humanity and its doings. Things are important to us on the human scale, but we simply don’t matter in the cosmos.

However, expecting to be at the centre of the cosmos is exceedingly unrealistic – it is a human, all-too-human need for anthropocentrism. We can, however, have a relationship with a higher being through self-transcendence, giving us “cosmic significance”.  

Others believe that life is meaningless because we are in constant threat from random celestial events which can result in mass extinction, that the earth will eventually be engulfed by the Sun, that the current use of technology or the effects of climate change pose a big threat to our extinction, and that everything that was ever created by humanity would come to an end: history, religion, philosophy, language – it would disappear into the void, assuming that mankind hadn’t developed a multiplanetary species by that time.

While these may be facts or possibilities, if one considered all the worst case scenarios one would go mad – as they are endless. They do not contribute to our well-being either, but rather give us a gloomy view of existence.

Life-affirmation & Meaning as Embedded in Life

The Stoics would give us the following advice: stop for a moment and focus on what you can control and not on what you can’t control. If things are outside of our control, we shouldn’t beat our heads against the wall. Instead of seeking everything to happen as you wish it would, you should wish that everything happens as it actually will – then your life will flow well. This is amor fati, to love one’s fate.

Nietzsche shares the same idea:

“I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: someday I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”

Nietzsche, The Gay Science, §276

We should then not speculate of what is unforeseeable and beyond our control, but rather focus on how to make our lives as meaningful as possible.

Martin Heidegger takes a different view on the meaning of life. He tells us that beings are only intelligible as meaningful, where meaning is spawned according to our average everyday existence. We are thrown into the world at a given time period, culture, family, and we comport ourselves as being-in-the-world. We are always initially engaged with the world.

Meaning is not an add-on to existence, we are embedded in meaning, and there is no exit from having a life populated by meaningful beings. We are always pointing towards some being and  constantly engaged in doing tasks which we care about, the essence of the being of humans, or what he calls Dasein (“being-there”) is its existence. We are initially and for the most part turned into the structures of average everydayness which defines our background meaning and intelligibility.

Viktor Frankl: Will to Meaning

Viktor Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in 1946 after being released from the concentration camps in which he spent three years. The success and attention of his book symbolised the “mass neurosis of modern times”. He called it the “unheard cry for meaning”.

The prisoners who were oriented towards a meaning in life were more likely to live – they were oriented towards the future, waiting to see their families or help other prisoners live. Even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical distress, many preserved a vestige of spiritual freedom.

He writes:

“The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day, and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?”

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Frankl founded the school of logotherapy, in which a search for meaning in life is the most fundamental and basic concern for man.

An example that explains the basic tenets of logotherapy is Frankl meeting with an elderly general practitioner who was struggling to overcome severe depression after the loss of his wife. Frankl helped the elderly man to see that his purpose had been to spare his wife the pain of losing him first.

“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

To be mentally sound, man must constantly be struggling and striving for a worthwhile goal. People who have a feeling of meaninglessness exist in what he calls an “existential vacuum.”

Frankl names three experiences which often lead to an existential crisis, known as the tragic triad: guilt, suffering or death. He believes that all human beings at one point in their lives with encounter the tragic triad.

In his time, however, many thought that this was a mental disease and the doctors buried their patients’ existential despair under a heap of tranquilising drugs. Frankl emphasised, however, that a man’s concern over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress, which differs from mental illness.

A person who has a terrible and meaningless life is unlikely to improve with medication, on the other hand, a person with a seemingly good life who is miserable, might benefit from medication.

Contrary to animals, man does not just follow his instincts – he can sacrifice hunger for other purposes such as social reform. In contrast to man in former times, today he is not told by traditions and universal values what he should do. The result is that many people do not know what to do with their lives, so they fall into conformism (doing what others do) or totalitarianism (doing what others tell them to do).

Frankl gives us three ways to find meaning in life: by creating a work or doing a deed (which gives us a sense of achievement), by experiencing something (such as art, music or culture) and encountering someone (mainly through love, which not only includes sex but also experiencing someone in his very uniqueness) and by the attitude that we take toward unavoidable suffering.

Man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognise that it is he who is asked. Responsibility is the very essence of human existence:

“Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning


The Meaning of Life – Philosophy & Psychology

Man cannot stand a meaningless life. What is the meaning of life? It is hard to think of a single proposition that can make your life meaningful in an instant. One can, however, orient oneself more meaningfully towards one’s goals. To find meaning is a dynamic process that constantly shapes yourself, immerses yourself in reality and has reality immersed in you.

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In Pursuit of Meaning (philosophy & psychology)

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