Meaning of Meaning of Life

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?”

  1. God has a plan for my life, so if I follow it my life has meaning.
  2. I am King George’s personal assistant; my life is to serve him.
  3. I am the custodian of this forrest, and will protect and nurture it.
  4. My children are my life; all I want is for them to thrive.
  5. I am a native american, and fight to regain what has been taken from us.
  6. In the historical battle between tyrants and freedom-lovers, I fight for freedom.
  7. I do scientific research, to push back our frontiers of knowledge.
  8. 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.

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  • I generally see the phrase as a poorly articulated cliché. It’s a hard question to answer, but not because it is a “deep” question, but rather because it’s difficult to tell what the questioner is actually asking. Essentially, when the question is asked, both the words “meaning” and “life” are ambiguous and thus the question is hard to answer. Adding the possessive pronoun before life, as you did, clears up some of the ambiguity of the second term and creates a context for the first term, making the question much more answerable (though still pretty vague).

    Here’s a quick list of possible interpretations that one could have for the archetypal “What is the meaning of life?”:

    What is the definition of “life”?
    What is the purpose of life’s existence?
    What is to be pursued in the course of one’s life?
    What value is to be had in living?
    What is the most valuable aspect of life?
    What truths are to be sought in life?

    There’s some overlap and this is not an exhaustive set, but obviously the first question is very different from the fourth question. If you’re confronted with the question and no hint is given as to what is actually meant by the question, it’s difficult to approach it, much less answer it.

    I think that because of that difficulty, the question is mistaken as a profound one rather than simply a poorly articulated one. And as the prime example of a profound question, people hold the phrase “meaning of life” to be more significant than it actually is.

    It’s kind of like asking what a double rainbow means. Obviously, a literal interpretation would yield the answer, “It means that the Sun is behind you and you’re probably facing some water droplets suspended in air.”, but that’s hardly an answer that would satisfy some questioners. And that may be the issue. Such questions may arise out of a vague feeling of dissatisfaction or incomprehension, but they aren’t aimed at finding a satisfactory answer. In the end, it seems that they serve more to articulate that feeling than to seek an answer.

  • rukn al-dawla

    I agree that it’s hard to get a handle on what people mean by this question, and in large part that’s due to the fact that people don’t really know what they mean by it. It’s mostly just a hollow cliche that people have tagged as a “meaningful” and “deep” question, and they ask it to indicate some kind of existential unease they are feeling, despite having never actually thought about defining the question.

    I would disagree with Robin, though, that we should parse the question as “what does my life mean”. As I said, most people likely don’t really mean anything by it, but for those who do have a vague idea of what they’re getting at, it strikes me that “what is the meaning of the existence life/the universe/consciousness?” is closer to what people are groping for.

  • Will Newsome

    Awesome! I’m glad to see that others were also confused by the silly ambiguity of this question. I’ve pondered it before, and after a little empiricism involving asking a few non-rationalist yet not-very-religious folk (say, your typical smart college kids) I determined that people were really trying to ask “To what purpose does the Universe indicate I should devote my life?”. The standard answers I’ve encountered are Happiness, Enlightenment, nothing, having lots of kids, the betterment of Humanity, and the fulfillment of egoistic desires. Half of the time they saw the ‘meaning of life’ as something outside themselves that could be righteously rejected or even directly opposed, often in an edgy and angsty way. It was rare that people would regard purpose as something that could be subjectively and consciously determined.

    Funnily enough, in most cases additional questioning like ‘Where does this meaning come from?’ led to people retreating from whatever their original position was into reluctantly admitting that life actually had no real purpose, or alternatively naming an academic discipline that proved their Meaning was a fundamental law, like evolutionary biology, Economics, or Philosophy. Those who believed Happiness was the Meaning of Life were usually the most convincing, citing that so many people seemed to be at least nominally chasing after it more than anything else, and thus it probably has some special status as an attractor.

    My favorite answer was ‘I think that at least for now, the meaning of life is to figure out what the real meaning of life is.’ I think one may need a superintelligence of the philosophical variety to really answer the question, though, insofar as it makes sense. Unfortunately, as Wei Dai indicates here, superintelligence doesn’t necessarily imply superphilosophy.

    • mjgeddes

      Superintelligence won’t deliver the meaning of life, but super-reflection will. I am in absolutely no doubt: The creation of beauty is the meaning of life and it’s locked in by universal (platonic, timeless) complexity priors. Anyone with strong reflective abilities should be able see this intuitively. Unfortunately, it appears I’m the only one here with such abilities…;)

  • Robin, I think this is one of my favorite insights of yours in a long time. It’s a simple post, but wow there’s a lot of powerful wisdom here. This is the killer phrase for me:

    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.

    Meaning of life as a signalling/social status device… wow, man. Damn. The rabbit hole goes pretty deep, huh?

  • William Ium

    I think that Eyes Wide Shut constitutes a reasonably successful attempt by a great artist to address just this subject matter.

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  • I can’t remember any musing on the “meaning of life” bringing up enemies. This is Robin excessively bringing up the coalitional frame. I imagine that in cultures where conflict is more endemic there is less discussion of “meaning of life”. As you once said, when death is cheap, life is cheap.

  • Sorry for the long answer – everyone wants a short answer, but no one wants a short life.

    Here’s what a recent survey found:
    • a third of people think the meaning of life is to lovingly help others and make the world better
    • 23% think it is to reproduce and continue your genes and the human race
    • 15% say it is to seek truth and create meaning for yourself
    • 8% believe it is to learn how to serve and worship God
    • 8% say it is to find happiness, while
    • 8% cite there is no meaning
    Source: ongoing survey at

    While it seems there are several purposes to life, science is beginning to reveal there is one fundamental purpose to all life.

    It shows that at its most fundamental level, everything – yes absolutely everything you see and experience – is made of energy. Everything, including life, is the result of this energy, its flow and interaction. Scientists have even shown how the flow of energy created life and how life helps the energy of the universe, planet and you flow and balance.

    Energy is integral to life, to your life. Every moment of your existence your body works to keep energy flowing. Every second you breathe air, you add food and water to replace the energy you use. Everything you sense or do is connected to the flow of energy in one form or another. You are so used to this energy flow that you hardly notice it. It is the ultimate process of your life. If your energy stops flowing you die: flowing energy differentiates living creatures from dead ones.

    While the purpose of all life might be to help energy flow, the same laws of energy indicate that a meaning of your own life is to find how your energy flows best. Is this science echoing those scriptures that suggest you have your own unique ‘gift’ that you should use?

    A large part of you is energy. While the 25 chemicals that comprise you are the same as those in everyone else, the way energy is mixed with them is different in each of us. We all have bodies with similar brains with a similar number of nerves in each, but the way those nerves are connected is different in each of us. The experiences, learnings and resulting nerve connections are unique and are what makes you whom you are – makes your character and personality. Science can’t precisely tell you how your character and personality works, but you know you have one that stares at you from the mirror each day, you know it exists.

    As such, a major part of you is energy, in particular how your energy flows and balances – as well as how it interacts with the world around you.

    What does your energy enable you to do best? This can be as simple as determining what you are truly passionate about or what you do better than anyone else.

    Unfortunately, many of us are not aware of what this is. As such, the individual meaning of your life is for you to discover what makes your energy flow best and then how to do that.

    How you use energy best varies for everyone – therefore, everyone has a slightly different meaning to someone else. Ignoring this means your energy will be all mixed up and your life will be chaotic. This is what most scriptures and spiritual writings are trying to tell us, but just didn’t understand energy well enough. If you look at ancient scriptures and spiritual writings in terms of energy you start to realise that they, and modern science, are all saying something similar.

    In short, while the purpose of all life is about helping energy flow, spread and balance, your individual meaning is about determining how you do this best, what you do that helps your energies flow best.

    Find out more – and vote on what you think the meaning of life is – at

  • Monty Typhon

    Why ask why we’re here, what’s that all about?
    Is it a symptom of nihilistic doubt?
    Well tonight we’re going to sort it all out
    For tonight is the meaning of “meaning of life”

    What’s the point of such a phrase?
    Is it logically sound, or just a maze?
    Or is it somehow about status and praise
    C’est la sense de la “meaning of life”

    Is “the meaning of life” a question spécifique
    Just to one contingent episteme
    Or is it a cognitive need that would even emerge
    In a PC programmed by IBM,M,M,M,M,M,M

    “Meaning of life”. Was it the bomb?
    Is that where the question came from?
    Now we can look in urbandictionary-dot-com
    To find the meaning of “meaning of life”

    Yes, that is the meaning of meaning of life

  • I don’t buy your analysis. Instead I’d offer the following.

    There is a particular emotional state/feeling that is described as ‘thinking life is meaningless.’ What people want when they ask “what is the meaning of life” is a story/frame that stops them from feeling (or at least minimizes) that life is meaningless.

    So what is the feeling that life is meaningless? It’s not finding any of your big picture (far mode?) goals compelling/motivating/important. In other words it’s an abscence of excitement about accomplishing any long range plans because none of the achievments they offer seem particularly appealing. Basically you no longer experience the same neurochemical rewards when you imagine far off future successes.

    People say that something claim gives life meaning when they take the claim to be true and find that it restores their excitement in long term goals. For instance a jaded business mogul might have his excitement restored by a religious conversion and he would then say that god’s existence gives life meaning because that belief inspired him to care about future goals again (like helping the poor or whatever).

    One might object that this analysis merely describes how people behave with respect to the question “What is the meaning of life” rather than explaining what the question means. This is inevitable since the question is ultimately incoherent. Implicit in the question is the idea that not only do certain stories inspire excitement and caring but that there is an objective normative fact about which stories should. In other words the question presupposes that it’s objectively wrong to think that say amassing the largest paperclip chain gives life meaning. Indeed it further supposes that there is a single encompassing answer which is the only ‘valid’ motivating story. Since both these assumptions are outright incoherent in my view technically speaking the question itself is like asking “What does red taste like?”

  • It’s impossible to ask questions like this [very stimulating post] without prompting a dozen alternative views and opinions. OB is my personal clearinghouse of cool ideas packaged with a bunch of vibrant responses from those who agree, disagree, and hold alternative views.

    I recognize this post as a reflection; it’s not a philosophical treatise. Whether or not the question is cognitively meaningless or not, we all ask it or dismiss it. I accept that we all tell stories about ourselves. We ground ourselves in a state of mind that obviates the need to embrace nihilism and off ourselves.

    So the stories matter. As some commenters have noted, they’re also one hand on the elephant. Still, thanks for the stimulating read… [all of you].

  • MPS

    Nice. A strong connection between how we assess and value our lives and how we see ourselves in relation to society I think helps explain why we cling so desperately — and against reason — to religious and political beliefs.

    In the past I have read you to underscore the relevance to “status” via affiliation, but I think the issue of “status” via “who’s side am I on” has a slightly different nuance. A poor person might vote Republican because he wants to be on the side of the rich successful businessman, a well-to-do academic might vote Democrat because she wants to be on the side of social tolerance and inclusiveness.

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  • Philo

    “God has a plan for my life, so if I follow it my life has meaning.” But, even if I *don’t* follow it, doesn’t my life also have meaning–namely, that I blew it?

    Let’s accept your view, that “what people want is a satisfying story about their place in the universe.” In one respect a theist will be *satisfied* with the story that God has a plan in which his role is X (specified in some detail, but not too much!). But in another respect he may be *dissatisfied*, if it turns out that he has failed to fulfill his role (and it is too late to fix this).

    So my question is: Do people consider *having a role to play* sufficient to give their lives meaning, or they also have to believe that they have fulfilled or are fulfilling this role?

  • mjgeddes

    How about this story:

    The entire fate of the observable universe hinges on just two mighty warriors: one a super-genius trying to build what he calls an ‘RPOP’ based on the idea that a ‘Bayesian force’ is all-powerful, the other a heroic hacker/rebel who thinks that imagination is more powerful than intelligence and that ‘a secret technique of categorization’ beats the ‘Bayesian force’.

    The meaning of life comes down to the final dramatic show-down (and yes it will an exciting impressive display in ‘bullet-time’) between these two folks, a mighty clash of powers that will reshape the matrix (i.e. ‘the internet’) and realign the very stars themselves!

    “All of our lives, we have fought this war. Tonight I believe we can end it. Tonight is not an accident. There are no accidents. We have not come here by chance. I do not believe in chance. When I see three objectives, three captains, three ships. I do not see coincidence, I see providence. I see purpose. I believe it our fate to be here. It is our destiny. I believe this night holds for each and every one of us, the very meaning of our lives”
    -Morpheus, ‘The Matrix’

    “It ends tonight’
    Neo, ‘The Matrix’

      • mjgeddes

        I will use my own blog from now on. The trouble with transhumanism at the moment is that its all far too theoretical. Intellect is not the human strength, our real strength is creative hacking. Besides, someone has to promote the virtues of ‘dirty play’ – bad ass Slytherin virtues of cunning and rebelliousness, a willingness to bend the rules.

        My new blog is here:

        Hacker’s Maxim #1:

        “Trust what works; never trust egg-head theories until they deliver the goods”

  • Matt

    As many others have said, the question is open to many interpretations. Often people run together several of them in asking it, or aren’t entirely sure what they mean. But I think the core of what most people mean is what Kilgore Trout (aka Philip Jose Farmer) asks in Venus on the Half Shell: “Why are we born to suffer and die?” If you’re an atheist, like most here, you’ll find the question to be meaningless. No one designed the universe to investment your existence with intrinsic significance. If you’re religious and believe in an afterlife, like billions of others, you’ll answer that question differently. Life is a test; if you pass it, you won’t really die after all.

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