What Is a Meaningful Life?

Many consider life not meaningful enough. Their reasons are often problematic.

Posted Aug 03, 2017 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan

Many people have told me that that they consider their lives, or life in general, to be meaningless or not meaningful enough.

Many of their explanations appear weak, and, at times, based on mistakes. I think many lives that are claimed to be meaningless are, in fact, meaningful, and many others that are not meaningful could be improved into meaningfulness.

This blog discusses what I take to be mistakes about the meaning of life that lead some people—unnecessarily, in my view—to see their lives as meaningless. It also discusses ways of making insufficiently meaningful lives more meaningful. To show this, however, I should start out, as philosophers often do, by clarifying the term "meaning of life." This clarification occupies most of the present post. (Forthcoming posts will engage with mistakes many people make about the meaning of their lives.)

In everyday speech, the term "meaning" has two principal senses. One has to do with clarification, indication or interpretation. For example, when someone says "the meaning of eau in French is water in English" they are using "meaning" in this first sense. The same is true of the sentence "this road sign means that they are repairing the highway."

Another principal sense of "meaning," however, has to do with notions such as worth, value or importance. For example, when someone says "meeting him was a very meaningful event for me," or "in the context of such a huge economic transaction these twenty dollars are meaningless" they are using "meaning" in this second sense.

Following other philosophers who write on the meaning of life, I maintain that in discussions of the meaning of life, "meaning" is mostly used in the second sense—that is, that of worth or value. Consider some examples: A very successful colleague told me that he does not consider his life meaningful anymore. When I pointed out that his career was exceptional, he replied: "Yes, but that's not important to me." When I mentioned that his life is economically secure he retorted, "So what?" As we continued to talk, it became clear that although he used to consider these aspects of his life to be valuable, he did not see them (or, for that matter, any other aspect of his life) as valuable anymore. He agreed that had he returned to seeing some aspects of his life as valuable he would again see his life as meaningful.

Another person told me that he considered his life to be meaningless because he failed to write fiction of as high a quality as he hoped he would. Once again the discussion showed that he took his life to be meaningless because—in his view—there was nothing of sufficient worth in it. As in other discussions of the meaning of life, here, too, the issue at hand was sufficient value.

image 269141/pexels
Source: image 269141/pexels

People who, following the loss of someone they love dearly, feel that their life is meaningless are going through a similar process: There was something valuable in their life, and now it is gone. They return to seeing life as meaningful when they recognize someone or something else in their life as of sufficiently high value.

We can see that meaning of life has to do with value also when considering philosophical arguments for the meaninglessness of life. (Non-philosophers who take their lives to be meaningless also often present these sorts of arguments.) For example, philosopher Thomas Nagel considers the argument from our cosmic insignificance: We have no impact on most of the universe. We affect only our immediate environment, and are completely inconsequential for what happens on, say, planet Saturn, a fortiori for anything that happens in another galaxy. I will not respond to the argument from our cosmic insignificance in this post (although I do think that there is a good reply for it), since here I restrict my discussion to the clarification of the term "meaning of life." I just want to point out that the argument that our life is meaningless because we do not affect Saturn is easily translatable to the claim that our life is not worthy or valuable enough because we do not affect Saturn.

The same is true of another famous (but, again, in my view unsuccessful) argument for the meaninglessness of life, which concerns time. It starts by observing that in a million years no one will remember us. The argument suggests that, because of this, our life is not valuable enough.

This holds also for other arguments for the meaninglessness of life. The "name of the game," I suggest, is worth or value: A meaningful life is a life that we consider to contain a sufficient number of aspects of sufficient value. It has passed some threshold of sufficiently high value, and hence we now consider it meaningful. A meaningless life is a life that has not passed this threshold of value. Sometimes people who hold their lives to be meaningless describe them as "empty," yet find it hard to explain what their lives are empty of. The reply is that they are empty of sufficient worth.

Realizing that the meaning of life is based on value is important, since it allows us to correct many mistakes people make about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of their lives. I will begin discussing these mistakes in the next post. 

References

Thomas Nagel, "The Absurd," Journal of Philosophy 68 (1971): 216-27.

Thomas Nagel, "Birth, Death, and the Meaning of Life," The View from Nowhere (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 208-31.