Today, I read the Wikipedia article on the subject of the meaning of life. I was very surprised by how lengthy it is. It turns out that just about every school of philosophy, perhaps not unsurprisingly, has had a view on what life is about, all the way back to good old Plato.
Of course, one possibility is that life is not about anything in particular. We are all here by chance and life therefore has no meaning at all. But it remains a fascinating question that has engaged the minds of the best thinkers to have ever lived and continues to intrigue most of us. Part of what it is to be human, it seems, is to grapple with this question at some time.
The idea that we somehow seem to be programmed to look for meaning in an apparently meaningless world has been described as ‘absurd’ and the dilemma, according to Kierkegaard and Camus, as quoted in the Wikipedia article, can be resolved in one of three ways:
• Suicide or “escaping existence”
• Religious belief in a transcendent realm or being
• Acceptance of the absurdity
The top reason for suicide, from what I can glean, is depression. So, it is not inconceivable that such thoughts as life having no meaning could be a contributory factor. However, given that the suicide rate hovers at around 11% in the USA, with males about three times more likely commit suicide than females, and that depression accounts for only about a third of that figure, it seems that most people manage to come to terms with the matter via one of the other options.
Clearly having some kind of religious belief is a source of comfort for many. About 56% of people in the USA say that religious belief is important, but an overwhelming 92% say they believe in God or a universal spirit. In the UK, it is about 78% that believe in God or a universal spirit. I must say I was surprised that the figure was so high; apparently 38% believe in God and a further 40% in a universal spirit or force (Eurobarometer Poll, 2005).
So, does that mean that the remainder of people are left just having to accept the absurdity of their lot in life? Personally I don’t think so. When I read what Kierkegaard and Camus had to say on the matter, I immediately thought to myself that those guys had definitely missed a fourth possibility. Even if it were true that life can have no intrinsic meaning, that does not necessarily mean that, as individuals, we cannot find personal meaning.
Here are some possibilities that I believe represent personal meaning for many people. The list is by no means exhaustive, but these are the kinds of things that give purpose and meaning to many people’s lives:
• To Realise Our True Potential
• To Have Children
• To Acquire Knowledge
• To Do Good
• To Form Loving Relationships
• To Enjoy Life
In my personal development workshops, I always suggest to people that whether or not they believe in God, they should not abandon the idea that life holds a particular purpose for them. It is not something I have always believed, by any means, but it is something that I do now firmly believe.
My own view is that we are here to leave our mark on the world, to make a difference and to leave the world a slightly better place for future generations.