Few academic philosophers concern themselves anymore with “the meaning of life.” There are some notable exceptions, but for most the subject is just too muddled, too imprecise.
Still, some folks do think about the matter occasionally. Especially in early adulthood and old age.
Is there any point in thinking or writing about it? I believe so, perhaps now more than ever. The pace of social and technological change has accelerated so drastically over the last fifty years that a vague sense of groundlessness, of being somehow unmoored and drifting, is increasingly common. Coming to grips with some version of meaning in one’s life can be, at least partially, a kind of reconnection.
A useful strategy in this process of coming to grips is to consider how meaning in life has been approached by others, including the strengths and weaknesses of those prior views. That is the framework of the current essay.
Approaches to meaning, whether ancient or modern, seem to circle around three dimensions: purpose, significance, and engagement. Purpose refers of course to having a goal; it is a property of a conscious agent, intent on some outcome. Significance is a separate but closely related issue. It is a judgment, by oneself or others, of the goal’s importance, however that might be conceived. Finally, engagement refers to one’s psychological state while pursuing the goal. It concerns one’s affinity for the project, how much it absorbs or resonates with you.
Religions involving a creator deity established meaning by focusing on God as the conscious agent. God had goals for everything and, because they came from God, their significance was inarguable.
The dimension of personal engagement received less emphasis. Certainly believers were encouraged to take joy in God’s inscrutable plans, and perhaps even to search their hearts for a calling. But if this faltered, if life became only unremitting misery, it was still, by divine definition, meaningful.
Beginning especially in the later 19th century, supernatural belief systems came under siege. Newer approaches to meaning changed the focus to humans themselves as the conscious agents. The issue was not the meaning of life, but rather the meaning of my own life. The dimension of engagement became more central, and those of purpose and significance became more fluid.
Two examples will suffice. Perhaps most dramatic are the twentieth century existentialists, particularly Sartre, Camus, and those following them. They suggest we are all cast adrift in a world without pre-ordained meaning. It is incumbent on us, against all odds, to have the courage to choose our own purpose, regardless of how its significance might be viewed by others. And above all our commitment must never be in bad faith but rather authentic, reflecting what truly engages and resonates with us.
Among less dramatic and more research based approaches, the work of psychologist M. Csikszentmihalyi stands out. In his classic text Flow he focuses on a particular state of mind. It is the one that emerges from an engaging, goal-directed activity in which one’s skills are adequate to the task, and feedback about success is available. In the resulting state of “flow” there is typically intense concentration, reduced self-consciousness, an altered sense of time, and as a by-product, happiness.
He suggests that a sense of meaning in life springs from having one or more overarching or long term life goals, each of which is then approached through activities that engender the flow experience.
These modern approaches to meaning have the advantage of highlighting engagement and thus ensuring immediate personal relevance. However, the dimensions of purpose and significance tend to become floaters—less fixed, more questionable.
Without attempting to provide immediate answers, consider some of the questions that arise. How do we proceed when we have several important purposes and some of them are, at least partly, contradictory? What happens when major goals change and much of what went before seems invalidated?
And then there are potential conflicts between purpose and significance. To what extent must the wider culture accept one's goals as important, or at least worthy? To what extent must a purpose lead to a successful outcome as opposed to an engaging process?
A further complication is what might be called scope. For some the meaning of existence is not worth discussing until one’s scope is maximal; that is, until the discussion involves the entire expanse of time. For them some kind of permanence, something extending idefinitely into the future, is required for a true sense of meaning.
For theists, of course, this requirement presents no difficulty. But for atheists the insistence on maximal scope is problematic. The natural world is short on permanence. Nothing in the eventual cold extinction of the expanding universe would seem to qualify. Nothing in the entire cosmos, let alone the vanishingly brief flicker of our own tiny lives.
Now there are wisdom traditions that cut through all of these issues, but not without limitations. For example, some Eastern religions make reference to an underlying unity of all things. As you might imagine, actually experiencing a deep, visceral sense of such unity, rather than merely thinking about it, does temporarily silence the chatter about meaning. And usually the immediate impact of such an experience will persist, to a diminished degree at least, in later reflection.
But these profound experiences are not readily accessible, even to those with an affinity for them. By their own admission even meditation masters have these deep experiences only intermittently, and unpredictably. (See "Make Me One With Everything", another of my essays on this site.)
So where does this leave us? Probably the most sensible advice is simply an admonition--unfortunately rare today--to take the subject of meaning at least somewhat seriously, and to give it at least a little thought. Certainly an "examined life" would include this at a minimum.
And it may well be, as some have suggested, that the search for meaning is itself the most useful definition of meaning.