Have you ever just stopped and asked yourself, “Why am I doing this? Why am I here? What is my purpose?”
The answer might not come right away. In some cases, it might not come at all.
Some people live for years without knowing their purpose. This can lead to depression and unfulfillment – not knowing the reason why you are here, and believing that you might have no reason at all.
Without a reason, why should you put yourself through the struggles and pains that life has to offer?
In this article, we explore the age-old question: what is the point of life? From understanding why we ask these questions to what philosophers have to say, and what we can do about finding our own meaning to the life we want to live.
What is Life, and Why Do We Need Purpose?
Before we can discuss the purpose of life, it is important to establish our understanding of life itself, and from there, why we seek purpose in life.
So what is life? Without getting too much into the philosophy of it, life is everything that is alive.
Everyone you know is a carrier of life. Every person, every child, every man and woman.
Animals and plants and bugs and microbes and all biological organisms are examples of life, and for all we know, all the life that exists in the universe is contained on the planet we call home.
For billions of years, life has grown and evolved on earth. What began as simple single-celled organisms eventually evolved into the countless variations of life we have seen over our planet’s history.
Species sprouted forth and went extinct, individual organisms lived and died, and for as long as we can tell, life has always found a way to persevere.
Life and the Need to Persevere
And perhaps that is the single unifying characteristic of all life that we know – the inherent will to persevere, and the automatic struggle to keep going.
Our world has gone through five extinction events – we’re now on the sixth – with the worst one happening over 250 million years ago, leading to the death of 70% of land species and 96% of marine species.
It may have taken millions of years for such a range of biodiversity to return, but it came back, as it always seems to do.
But what makes life fight to stay alive, and what makes organisms desire life despite not having the ability to process what life even is? And why are we different?
Though it is impossible to be certain, we are the first examples of life that have evolved far beyond fulfilling the base instincts of food, reproduction, and shelter.
Our unusually large brains make us one of a kind in the animal kingdom, and make us the most unique life our world has ever seen.
We don’t just live to eat, to reproduce, and to stay safe, all of which even the simplest, tiniest organisms seem to inherently understand.
We live to speak, to interact, to love, to laugh. We live to find joy and to share joy, to create opportunity and to provide opportunity, and to discover meaning and to share meaning.
While other animals might spend their days resting and preserving energy after they have eaten, secured shelter, and mated with their chosen partners, we require more. We require meaning and purpose, satisfaction beyond the basic needs to stay alive.
And we have all asked ourselves, in those quiet moments of peace between one task and another: why?
Why do we need, want, and desire more? Why does satisfying our happiness and fulfillment seem almost as necessary as satisfying our hunger and arousal?
Why are we the only example of life that is not content with simply being alive?
Here are some of the most common reasons why we ask ourselves these questions:
1. We need our struggle to mean something.
So much of the life many of us live is filled with struggle, hardship, and pain. We bite through years of discomfort and unhappiness, celebrating whatever small milestones we get along the way.
Purpose acts as a light at the end of the tunnel, a reason to stay committed despite your mind and body telling you to stop.
2. We fear the finite nature of our lives. Unlike animals, we understand the limited nature of our lives.
We understand that the time we spend alive is just a drop in the ocean of human history, and ultimately the things we do, the people we love, and the acts we perform, will all mean nothing in the grand scheme of things.
Meaning helps us cope with that fear and smile for the limited time we can do it.
3. We require the validation of being more than an animal. We are man, not animal. We have thought, art, introspection, self-awareness.
We have the ability to create, dream, and envision in ways animals never could. But why? Why do we have these abilities and talents if not for a greater purpose?
If we were just put here to live and die like any other animal, then why were we granted the ability to think to this extent?
There must be a reason for the pain of our own self-awareness, and if not, then would we not be better off just being like any other animal?
The Four Main Ideologies of Identifying Meaning
To tackle meaning, we look towards the philosophies shaped around meaning over the course of human history, and what our greatest thinkers have had to say about purpose and point.
It was Friedrich Nietzsche who once mused that the question of whether life has meaning is a meaningless one, because whatever meaning it might have could never be understood by those who are living it.
In other words, if there is a greater meaning or program behind our lives – individually or as a collective – we would never be able to grasp the concept of that program because we are the program itself.
However, there are many schools of thought that have attempted to tackle the question of meaning. According to the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy by Thaddeus Metz, there are four main ideologies of identifying meaning. These are:
1. God-Centered: For those who seek meaning in God and religions. God-centered ideologies are perhaps the easiest to identify with, as they provide an easy template for followers to adopt and apply to their lives.
It requires believing in a God, thus believing in a Creator, and being the child to a Creator is a relationship we are all familiar with – child and parent, with most people experiencing both roles at some point in their lives.
2. Soul-Centered: For those who seek meaning in religiosity and spirituality, without the necessity of a named God. There are many who believe in a spiritual world without necessarily believing in any religion.
Through this, they believe that our existence continues beyond our physical life on earth, and they find meaning through this spiritual immortality.
3. Naturalist – Objectivist: There are two naturalist schools of thought, which argue over whether the conditions that make meaning are created by the individual and the human mind or are inherently absolute and universal.
Objectivists believe in absolute truths that exist across life, and by tapping into those absolute truths, anyone can find the meaning of life.
Some might believe that living a virtuous life universally leads to a meaningful life; others might believe that living a creative or artful life universally creates a meaningful life.
4. Naturalist – Subjectivist: The subjectivists argue that if meaning is not spiritual or God-centered, then it must arise from the mind, and if it arises from the mind, it must be an individual decision or preference that creates meaning.
It is the moment when a mind latches onto an idea or purpose that an individual finds meaning in their life.
This means that it doesn’t matter who or where you are or whatever activity you might be doing – if your mind believes it has discovered the meaning of life, then that is the meaning of life for you.
Other Answers of Meaning and Purpose
The four main ideologies listed above aren’t the only schools of thought you might find amongst philosophers and thinkers.
While these are the most general sets of ideas around, there are other ways of understanding meaning that you can explore, from the simplest to the most complex.
– “The meaning of life is not being dead.” – Professor Tim Bale, Queen Mary University of London
The quote above resonates with what a few other philosophers have mused over the years. In Good and Evil by philosopher Richard Taylor, he writes, “The day was sufficient to itself, and so was the life.”
In simpler terms, since we are alive, there is meaning to our life. While some might reject the simplicity of an answer to a seemingly overwhelming question, simplicity might just be the best we can come up with.
– “What makes a human life have meaning or significance is not the mere living of a life, but the reflecting on the living of a life.” – Professor Casey Woodling, Coastal Carolina University
While some might explain that the pursuit of a goal is the meaning of life, Woodling’s philosophy believes that this is only halfway towards true purpose.
To truly engage in purpose, one must pursue a goal and then reflect on the why of it.
A person must ask themselves, “Why do I value the goals I seek? Why are these the activities that I believe are worth my limited time on this earth?”
And once they have come to an answer they can accept – once they have examined their life honestly and truthfully – can they say they live a meaningful life.
– “One who persists is a person of purpose.” – 6th century Chinese sage Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Lao Tzu is similar to Woodling in arguing that the goals you choose to pursue are insignificant towards identifying the meaning of your life.
However, he disagrees that one must reflect on their pursuits to find purpose. Instead, one must simply live in awareness of their existence.
Lao Tzu believed in the mystery of existence. All of nature is part of “the way”, and “the way” can’t possibly be understood.
It is simply enough to be aware of it and our part in it, and to live in the acknowledgment that we are part of a greater whole.
Through this awareness, we come to understand that life is inherently meaningful – it matters because our existence is a single unit part of a greater whole of universal existence.
By being alive, we breathe as part of the universe, and that is enough to give our life meaning.
5 Mistakes to Avoid When Discovering the Purpose of Your Life
1. Following Someone’s Path
When you find yourself inspired by someone’s life, it’s tempting to copy everything they’ve done to try and replicate the results. Maybe you see yourself in an inspiring figure because you share the same background, face the same challenges, and aspire for the same goals.
However, you should keep in mind that, no matter how similar your lives may be, there are little nuances that can drastically change how two people’s lives unfold. Following this person’s exact same path won’t guarantee that you will end up in the same place.
Take inspiration from someone’s success, but don’t treat it as a guidebook on how to live out your life from start to finish.
2. Focusing On Personal Success
Finding your life’s purpose is a personal journey. However, it doesn’t mean that it’s solitary. When we’re talking about finding one’s purpose, it’s really a juxtaposition between you and other people.
There is no better way to understand your true essence than by understanding your impact on the people and the world around you.
The skills you develop and the achievements you have are all your own, but what really transforms these into a clear-cut purpose is how they translate in real life.
Can you use your resources, unique skills, and advantages to make the world a better place? Do you have a positive impact on the world around you?
Your personal success is limited to the confines of your personal, private life. It’s when you are able to relate this to things outside of yourself that you start to define your life’s purpose.
3. Living Through Your Career
Building a successful business or reaching new heights in your career are both great life goals, but they only engage a certain part of you, leaving a whole other range of your personality in the dark.
Workaholic people who hit a roadblock often feel lost because the ultimate source of their pride – their work – no longer provides the same amount of satisfaction.
In creating a purposeful life, it’s crucial to cultivate other aspects of yourself that have nothing to do with your work.
You need to invest your time and effort in activities that allow your innermost self to come out- the one that’s creative, compassionate, kind, or forgiving.
Even if you’re the ambitious type, there are many different avenues where you can still excel and reach your highest potential, without having to rope work into it.
Passion projects, hobbies, and other pursuits can provide the same amount of challenge as your work, while still allowing you to bring something to the world that’s completely yours.
4. Expecting A Straightforward Process
Some people seem to discover their life’s purpose the minute they are born, while others take years to find exactly what it is. In some cases, it’s recognizable in an instant; other times it will take episodes of trial and error before finding the “right thing”.
The search for life’s meaning is complicated enough without basing your life’s existence on finding your “it”. Don’t put so much pressure on the process of getting there.
If you still haven’t found what you’re meant to do after years of searching, take a step back and just relax.
The answer might have been in front of you all along, or it might be a couple of paces away – it doesn’t really matter. In the end, what’s important is to treat this “process” as a learning opportunity and you’ll find it before you know it.
5. Ignoring The Obvious
Finding your life purpose may be a process but at the end of the day it will still be organic. Your purpose will seamlessly align with who you are.
When it happens, you might not even recognize it because you’re not paying attention or you’re actively trying to create an image of yourself that isn’t authentic.
Either way, you will organically fall into positions, meet the right people, or engage in experiences that will be instrumental in shaping your life’s purpose.
You might not always consciously participate in it (or enjoy it), but it will evolve little by little, one sign after the other.
5 Strange Questions That Can Help You Discover Your Meaning In Life
1. How do you want to be remembered when you die?
No one likes to think about dying. It’s the point of no return – the end of potential and all possibilities. But it’s exactly what it connotes that forces us to consider our living days with more intent.
With 365 days in a year, it’s easy to take one for granted. In fact, it’s so easy that an entire year can slip by without you ever noticing it. This changes when you start thinking of your life in relation to your death.
So, when your story ends, how would people summarize it?
What would your tombstone say? Is there anything noteworthy to say in the first place? Asking yourself how you want to be remembered encapsulates what you aspire to be, and defines the legacy you want to leave behind.
2. If a gunman forced you to play Russian roulette, how would you live your life as if it were normal?
If you were given one day to live knowing that you would die at the end of it, the majority of us would choose something that makes us happy.
After all, it’s your last day on Earth; you’d want to do something that will make the 24 hours worth it.
However, the original phrasing of this question doesn’t take into account the difference between indulgence and purpose.
Anyone who had 24 hours to live would probably spend all day doing things they normally wouldn’t be doing (binge eating and drinking, spending to the point of debt) to fulfill a life’s worth of hedonistic pleasure.
Instead, put this question in the context of a Russian roulette: you’re still going to die at the end of it, you just don’t know when.
When time becomes an unknown factor, you’re motivated to think beyond the 24 hours and spend your limited time on something that matters.
Why waste 24 hours shopping when you might have 3 days pitching your magical business plan to strangers?
The limited-time drives urgency and makes each and every hour more valuable than the last.
3. Which world problem would you solve first?
The modern world is plagued with too many anxiety-inducing problems, some of which are even past the point of repair.
But if you could: which world problem would you solve first?
It’s less about how you’re going to solve the problem and more about the problem that you do pick.
Whatever you choose will reveal your priorities and highlight your core values.
In other words, you’re asking yourself the question: out of all the many evils, which one bothers you so much you have to fix it first?
4. What were you doing the last time you forgot to eat?
Every now and then, we find ourselves so immersed in some activity that we forget to eat. Hours go by and before you know it, it’s already 10 PM and you still haven’t had lunch.
Chances are, that one thing is going to lead you closer to your life’s purpose. Passion is all about complete and total obsessiveness.
When you’re painting or learning a new language or cooking or helping other people, the biological part of yourself seems to disappear. You just become the very thing you are doing.
Naturally, scrolling on your phone and procrastinating on work are not viable answers. You have to find something that you can do attentively for hours on end.
5. If you could be instantly successful but have to endure one crappy thing in exchange for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Pursuing the meaning of life comes with many sacrifices. Knowing what you’re willing to endure to achieve your goals and fulfill your purpose is what ultimately sets you apart from others.
Two different people can bring the exact same personality and skillsets to the table; what distinguishes the two are the things they are willing to endure to make something work.
So, what’s the one thing you can deal with better than anybody else? Maybe you’re a website developer and you’re willing to sleep less than 6 hours every day for the rest of your life.
Maybe you’re a professional athlete and you’re willing to train under extreme temperatures forever. Knowing what will keep you pushing despite the situation is your clear life advantage.
5 Ways to Find Meaning In Your Life
No matter how profound it seems, the meaning of life manifests itself in the ordinariness of everyday life. There are certain behaviors you can adopt today that will bring you closer to enlightenment:
- Listen To What Bothers You: In order to understand who you are, you must understand who you are not. Knowing the injustices in life that you stand against will solidify your principles and help define who you are as a person.
- Spend More Time Alone: Separate the signals from the noise by taking the time to spend more time on your own. Give yourself the environment to properly interpret your life decisions and make plans on how to move forward.
- Go For The Consequences: You’re never going to know the point of life if you’re never going to step out of your comfort zone. Remember that things worth doing are risky and not always conventional. Go for it anyway.
- Welcome Feedback Openly: Other people’s perception of us will always provide a more accurate reflection of who we are. Ask different people in your life about their opinion of you to get a holistic understanding of who you are and your impact on the world.
- Follow Your Intuition: Remember that your purpose in life is inherently tied to who you are. When faced with life-defining moments, go with your gut.
Finding Your Purpose: What It Means To Live
If you find yourself wondering what your purpose is, know that you’re not alone.
As a living, breathing person, you, like many others, recognize that your placement on the planet must mean something.
Out of the many different possible cell combinations, a specific one formed and it turned out to be you.
At the same time, the search for the meaning of life doesn’t have to be because you feel lucky to exist. You don’t have to be indebted to anyone or anything to feel the perseverance to live.
What you’re feeling is an inherent, almost biological instinct in human beings.
You understand that life extends beyond waking up, working, eating, and doing the same thing all over again. It’s more than just numbers, events, and random occurrences.
Ultimately, you understand that life is a way of living. How you spend your hours in a day, what you choose to believe in, the things that anger you and compel you all contribute to your life’s purpose.
You don’t have to have all the answers now. What’s important is that you’re asking all these questions.
Because at the end of the day, that’s what living is all about: the never-ending search for the “whats”, “whys”, and “hows”.
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