Rewatching Monty Python’s Meaning of Life led me to wonder: what exactly do most people mean by “the meaning of life?” Now first, it seems to me people mainly want to know the meaning of their life; they consider life in general mostly for hints on that. So consider some sample answers to “what is the meaning of my life?”
- God has a plan for my life, so if I follow it my life has meaning.
- I am King George’s personal assistant; my life is to serve him.
- I am the custodian of this forrest, and will protect and nurture it.
- My children are my life; all I want is for them to thrive.
- I am a native american, and fight to regain what has been taken from us.
- In the historical battle between tyrants and freedom-lovers, I fight for freedom.
- I do scientific research, to push back our frontiers of knowledge.
- I am a good musician and love music.
It seems what people want is a satisfying story about their place in the universe. Since characters are the most important elements of a story, the main “place” that matters to people is their social place – who they relate to and how. People feel they understand their place when they have a story saying how they can relate well to important social entities.
Central to any social relation is whether the related person supports or opposes you in your conflicts. In fact, it seems enough to give your life meaning to just know who are your main natural allies and enemies among the important actors around, and what you can do to keep your allies supporting you, to give you high enough status.
For example, if there is a great powerful God, it seems enough to know what he wants you to do to keep him on your side. If you are a lowly servant but have the King for an ally, little else matters but pleasing him. (Unless you had higher status ambitions.) If you have committed yourself to certain strong relations, like a spouse or kids, then it may be enough to know how to keep them on your side. If your relations shift more often, you might instead focus on general features of your natural allies, such as gender, personality, ethnicity, or some grand shared far value. For example, knowing you are good at and love music may ensure the support of music lovers, “your people,” wherever you go.
People think their life has less meaning when enough aspects of it are determined by “impersonal” forces that refuse to take social sides. For example, a death caused by an enemy’s plan, or an allies failure to help, or by the dead person’s trying to help his allies, has far more meaning that a death caused by simple physics.