Some people seem to spend their whole lives dissatisfied, in search of a purpose. But philosopher Iddo Landau suggests that all of us have everything we need for a meaningful existence.
According to Landau, a philosophy professor at Haifa University in Israel and author of the 2017 book Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World, people are mistaken when they feel their lives are meaningless. The error is based on their failure to recognize what does matter, instead becoming overly focused on what they believe is missing from their existence. He writes in The Philosopher’s Magazine:
To my surprise, most of the people with whom I have talked about the meaning of life have told me that they did not think that their lives were meaningful enough. Many even presented their lives as outright meaningless. But I have often found the reasons my interlocutors gave for their views problematic. Many, I thought, did not pose relevant questions that might have changed their views, or take the actions that might have improved their condition. (Some of them, after our discussions, agreed with me.) Most of the people who complained about life’s meaninglessness even found it difficult to explain what they took the notion to mean.
In other words, Landau thinks that people who feel purposeless actually misunderstand what meaning is. He is among many thinkers over the ages who’ve wrestled with the difficult question, “What is a meaningful life?”
Philosophers’ answers to this question are numerous and varied, and practical to different degrees. The 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, said the question itself was meaningless because in the midst of living, we’re in no position to discern whether our lives matter, and stepping outside of the process of existence to answer is impossible.
Those who do think meaning can be discerned, however, fall into four groups, according to Thaddeus Metz, writing in the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy. Some are god-centered and believe only a deity can provide purpose. Others ascribe to a soul-centered view, thinking something of us must continue beyond our lives, an essence after physical existence, which gives life meaning. Then there are two camps of “naturalists” seeking meaning in a purely physical world as known by science, who fall into “subjectivist” and “objectivist” categories.
The two naturalist camps are split over whether the human mind makes meaning or these conditions are absolute and universal. Objectivists argue that there are absolute truths which have value, though they may not agree on what they are. For example, some say that creativity offers purpose, while others believe that virtue, or a moral life, confers meaning.
Subjectivists—Landau among them—think that those views are too narrow. If meaning happens through cognition, then it could come from any number of sources. “It seems to most in the field not only that creativity and morality are independent sources of meaning, but also that there are sources in addition to these two. For just a few examples, consider making an intellectual discovery, rearing children with love, playing music, and developing superior athletic ability,” Metz proposes.
For subjectivists, depending on who and where we are at any given point, the value of any given activity varies. Life is meaningful, they say, but its value is made by us in our minds, and subject to change over time. Landau argues that meaning is essentially a sense of worth which we may all derive in a different way—from relationships, creativity, accomplishment in a given field, or generosity, among other possibilities.
For those who feel purposeless, Landau suggests a reframing is in order. He writes, “A meaningful life is one in which there is a sufficient number of aspects of sufficient value, and a meaningless life is one in which there is not a sufficient number of aspects of sufficient value.”
Basically, he’s saying meaning is like an equation—add or subtract value variables, and you get more or less meaning. So, say you feel purposeless because you’re not as accomplished in your profession as you dreamed of being. You could theoretically derive meaning from other endeavors, like relationships, volunteer work, travel, or creative activities, to name just a few. It may also be that the things you already do really are meaningful, and that you’re not valuing them sufficiently because you’re focused on a single factor for value.
He points to the example of existentialist psychologist Viktor Frankl, who survived imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps in World War II and went on to write a book, Man in Search of Meaning. Frankl’s purpose, his will to live despite imprisonment in the harshest conditions, came from his desire to write about the experience afterward. Frankl noted, too, that others who survived the camps had a specific purpose—they were determined to see their families after the war or to help other prisoners live, maintaining a sense of humanity.
Landau argues that anyone who believes life can be meaningless also assumes the importance of value. In other words, if you think life can be meaningless, then you believe that there is such a thing as value. You’re not neutral on the topic. As such, we can also increase or decrease the value of our lives with practice, effort, action, and thought. “I can ruin or build friendships, upgrade or downgrade my health, and practice or neglect my German. It would be surprising if in this particular sphere of value, the meaning of life, things were different from how they are in all the other spheres,” he writes.
For a life to be valuable, or meaningful, it needn’t be unique. Believing that specialness is tied to meaning is another mistake many people make, in Landau’s view. This misconception, he believes, “leads some people to unnecessarily see their lives as insufficiently meaningful and to miss ways of enhancing meaning in life.”
He notes too that things change all the time: We move, meet new people, have fresh experiences, encounter new ideas, and age. As we change, our values transform, and so does our sense of purpose, which we must continually work on.
Some might protest that Landau’s being simplistic. Surely there must be more to existence than simply assigning a value to what we already have and thinking differently if we fail to recognize purpose in our lives.
In fact, there are even less complex approaches to meaningfulness. In Philosophy Now, Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London in the UK, provides an extremely simple answer: “The meaning of life is not being dead.”
While that may sound coy, many philosophers offer similar responses, although few as pithy. Philosopher Richard Taylor proposes that efforts and accomplishments aren’t what make life matter, writing in the 1970 book Good and Evil, “the day was sufficient to itself, and so was the life.” In other words, because we live, life matters.
It can be disconcerting, perhaps, to have such an easy answer. And detractors might argue that nothing can matter, given the immensity of the universe and the brevity of our lives. But this assumes our purpose is fixed, rigid and assigned externally, and not flexible or a product of the mind.
There are other approaches, too. Casey Woodling, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina, proposes in Philosophy Now that the question of meaningfulness itself offers an answer. “What makes a human life have meaning or significance is not the mere living of a life, but reflecting on the living of a life,” he writes.
Pursuing ends and goals—fitness, family, financial success, academic accomplishment—is all fine and good, yet that’s not really meaningful, in Woodling’s view. Reflecting on why we pursue those goals is significant, however. By taking a reflective perspective, significance itself accrues. “This comes close to Socrates’ famous saying that the unexamined life is not worth living,” Woodling writes, “I would venture to say that the unexamined life has no meaning.”
In the Eastern philosophical tradition, there’s yet another simple answer to the difficult question of life’s meaning—a response that can’t be articulated exactly, but is sensed through deep observation of nature. The sixth-century Chinese sage Lao Tzu—who is said to have dictated the Tao Te Ching before escaping civilization for solitude in the mountains—believed the universe supplies our value.
Like Woodling, he would argue that goals are insignificant, and that accomplishments are not what makes our lives matter. But unlike Woodling, he suggests meaning comes from being a product of the world itself. No effort is necessary.
Instead of reflection, Lao Tzu proposes a deep understanding of the essence of existence, which is mysterious. We, like rivers and trees, are part of “the way,” which is made of everything and makes everything and cannot ever truly be known or spoken of. From this perspective, life isn’t comprehensible, but it is inherently meaningful—whatever position we occupy in society, however little or much we may do.
Life matters because we exist within and among living things, as part of an enduring and incomprehensible chain of existence. Sometimes life is brutal, he writes, but meaning is derived from perseverance. The Tao says, “One who persists is a person of purpose.”