What is the meaning of life?

by phil on Tuesday Feb 3, 2009 5:11 PM
mainfeed, passion and purpose, principles

Viktor Frankl's, Man's Search for Meaning, is one of the most intriguing books I've read. The book basically revolves around the idea that humans have an innate, core desire for meaning. In the book, he introduces the concept of the "Sunday neurosis." When people finally pause at the end of the weekend, and have nothing to do, they may experience a sudden sense of meaninglessness. This is a phenomenon that I can relate to.

But what is meaning? That book doesn't go into detail on how exactly one can find meaning in life. And the elephant-in-the-room question is, "What is Viktor Frankl's meaning?" Turns out Viktor Frankl's meaning in life is to help other people find meaning. How convenient.

But I figured out a simple tool that can help approximate a meaningful life. You simply ask your heart, "is this meaningful?" I found it easy to get reliable answers from my heart.

And so I took an inventory of all possible directions I could take my career, and I put a check-mark next to each one that I found, in my heart, seemed meaningful. Afterward, I then started stacking my work-flow with meaningful projects.

So far so good.

But then, there were further questions. There was something lacking in my calculation. What makes something meaningful? All I had was a feeling I could tap internally that evaluated a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on meaning. When is something more meaningful than others? And what if my internal judging mechanism is off a little bit?

These problems came to fore when I had two projects that were both meaningful. I found myself naturally favoring one over the other, but I couldn't tell why. Somehow my meaningfulness-measure lacked predictive power.

But now, I think I figured out the extra sauce that makes meaningfulness more... well... meaningful. The extra sauce is "purpose."

If there's anything I got from The Purpose Driven Life, it's this principle:

There can be no meaning without purpose.

Using Sartre's thought experiment in Existentialism Is a Humanism, let's look at the case of the knife. If you were an alien and discovered a knife floating across the universe, what would you think? You'd notice the ridges, you'd notice that it was sharp, and you'd notice that it was connected to a blunt cylindrical portion. But without knowing what the purpose of the knife is, you wouldn't know the meaning of those features. If you knew the knife's purpose—that it's for cutting—then you'd understand that that the ridges are meant for something. Everything about the knife suddenly makes sense. The handle is meant for gripping. The sharp edge is meant for slicing and dicing.

Likewise, if you know what your purpose is, then you'll know the meaning of all of your features. Everything you do finally gets a context. You'll be able to answer the question, "Why was I born talented in this one area, but not so good at this other thing?"

Focusing on the purpose of what you do re-balances and centers your motivations. Every opportunity we encounter will have a completely different composition. One project may pay better, but doesn't use your motivated talents. Or another project may pay less, have less pleasant co-workers, but is related to some life-long dreams you've had. When the number of dimensions start piling up, you need a device to unify the decision-making process. If you know the "why?" of what you're doing, then it puts everything into context. Why do you need money? Why do you need more money? Why do you need to work in such-and-such field? It all depends on purpose.


MoirSolace said on February 4, 2009 1:08 AM:

(longtime reader)

ok, look...

i know sometimes people just get online and say alot of stuff... and sometimes they just say things just to say them.

but i want you to hear me, i want you to really listen. i could talk forever about this subject, but i won't bore you... i'm just trusting you (anyone reading this) to believe what i am about to say, to the fullest.

Viktor Frankl, and his books (specifically "man's search for meaning") saved my life. my life has been saved twice by books... once by this book, that was given to me by my therapist...
and the other time, it was a combination of two books; "man's search for meaning" (again) and sheldon kopp's "if you meet the buddha in the road, kill him!" (also given to me by my therapist)

i hope you heard me for what it is, and let it sink in... i was done. and i mean DONE with life. i am schizophrenic, and at the time, i was going GOING to kill myself. these books saved my life.

phil, i have been a long time reader.. i don't know how long... i want to say 2 years? and i think i may have posted a comment a year ago or something.. and im sorry i have not thanked you for all the wonderful posts... keep it up.

i am so happy that you would mention this wonderful book. if one person who read this, buys and reads this book, i promise it will change you.

Andrew said on February 9, 2009 5:15 PM:

I'm not convinced that human beings have a core desire for meaning. I think we have a desire for understanding and when that fails we look for meaning as a substitute.

I am perfectly happy that things just are. I do what I must and then I do what I want. One day I will stop doing both.

Philip Dhingra said on February 9, 2009 5:19 PM:

That's very interesting, I wonder what would it take to unhinge oneself from the need for meaning.

the meaning of life said on April 1, 2009 9:51 AM:

I didn't know that book even if I'm really interested by this topic.. Looks nice. Thanks for the suggestion!


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