Creating Meaning in Life

Humans have a short physical existence on a planet that will eventually cease to support life at all. In this context, what strategies should humans use to impart meaning to their own lives? Some possibilities are listed. Which of these have you used, and how effective have they been? Are different approaches appropriate to different stages of life?

A. Compete with other humans (e.g. for status)
B. Care for other humans (e.g. as a humanitarian)
C. Maximize close connections with other humans (e.g. with a love partner)
D. Maximize positive subjective experiences (e.g. “be happy”)
E. Align yourself with what you believe to be a higher purpose (e.g. politics)
F. Adhere to a set of rules/standards (e.g. moral precepts)
G. Attempt to create something that will outlive you (e.g. art)
H. Invest in the next generation of humans (e.g. your biological offspring)
I. Other approaches?



meetup group: Gentle Thinkers

comments: Thor May -; ;

discussion topics blog (list of topics):

topic suggestions: a) site; or b)

topics already discussed:






This is an initial starter list for discussing the ‘Creating Meaning Life’ topic. The list makes no special claim to quality, and additions are welcome.


- Thor








See some notes from participants after the References



Summary: 18th Gentle Thinkers Debate, by Yena @

Note: This summary is based and interpreted from notes taken during the debate and may contain errors. If you wish to correct, be attributed to or contribute content, please contact me or post a comment.

- Finding and creating meaning in life is a different pursuit to the question of “what is the meaning of life”.

- The group agreed that the individual is responsible for determining what makes their life meaningful as this varies from person to person.

- Humans may need to justify their actions (lives) to themselves to feel complete satisfaction.

- We may be more likely to seek justification for our lives when we are at emotional lows and facing challenging situations.

- We may also re-evaluate our choices and priorities depending on what circumstances we find ourselves in.

- People can learn from various life experiences; stemming from contemplation, suffering, bushes with death, a change in routine, new environments and the spiritual.

- Some members of the group believe that living in/for the present moment is a good strategy for creating a meaningful existence.

- With this strategy, one would be focusing on the positives and appreciation of the simple pleasures as you can’t change the past and the future is unknown.

- One member commented that the “correct” attitude towards life is a state of awe. This was described as perceiving life without the bias of memory and outside influences.

- We are fortunate that we are able to direct our own lives but most of humanity are unable to do so as they are in circumstances beyond their own control, lack agency and are in environments that require internal or external political, social and economical interventions (perhaps more).

- Ideally as fellow humans, we’d be able to find ways to help them fight the various forms of oppression and stupidity they are faced with.

- There is no universal (one size fits all) meaning to life but there may be ones that are common to the human experience.

- We are able to share our experiences despite the differences in language and culture through various means like the creative arts.

- Although humans are finite and the universe will keep growing without, impermanence is not a fatal flaw.

- Temporary improvements will still be valuable experiences to the people who received the benefits.

- Routine and habits are important on a basic level for some people. The need for structure may be innate but it is taught and enforced by culture.

- Complex rituals (imagination) may be necessary for those who live very simplistic lives. Eg. tribal cultures, the stereotypical bored housewife.

- While some of us are content with our lives and others still have several centuries worth of things to do, personal growth was a common aspiration amongst the group.

Interesting questions posed by the group:

a) If today was your last day, would you be satisfied with the outcomes (for you and others) achieved in that life?

b) Is a happy life a different thing from a meaningful existence?

c) Can we be completely happy?

d) Would we have more meaningful lives if competing to make the lives of others better was a cultural norm?

Additional content covered by the debate:

1. The poetry of Omar Khayyám [Wikipedia]  || 2. Euthanasia

Extra comments byThor May on the debate:

Even as in inveterate social outsider, I was struck by the overall focus on self in this particular meetup. Note that there is a moral expectation in some cultures that the self will be subsumed by the greater interests of the group.

By the mores of many cultures I have encountered, the following values would be expected (however well or poorly met in practice) :

Life is meaningless without –

- Contributing to the welfare of contemporary others
- Providing for future generations, either through having children or some other enduring activity / creation
- Participating as a loyal member of a family, culture, nation, humanity in general






Brown, Arthur A. (1996) “Storytelling, the Meaning of Life, and The Epic of Gilgamesh”. Essays on the Ancient Near East, online @ (n.d) “Does Human Life Have Meaning?” Online debate at, @


Dragon 5616 (June 2, 2013) “The Meaning of Life: What Gives Meaning to Your Life?” New Day blog, Daily Kos website @


Fight Aging (3 July 2013) Arguing Once More Against "Death Gives Life Meaning". Fight Aging blog, online @


Heyne, Alexander (2012) “What To Do When Your Life Feels Meaningless”. Milk the Pigeon blog, online @


Hitchens, Christopher (22 October 2008)“Hitchens: the purpose of life (!)”. Youtube video, online @ ; comment also at


Moeller, Philip (October 22, 2009) “What Gives Your Life Meaning and Purpose? The Best Life blog, online @


Newsome, Melba (2011) “How Work Gives Meaning to Life”. chapter from Coming of Age e-book, online @


Rifkin, Lawrence (March 24, 2013) ”Is the Meaning of Your Life to Make Babies?” Scientific American, online @


Trunk, Penelope (6 March, 2006 ) “A Job Does Not Give Life Meaning”. blog online @


Wilson, Nicole et al (n.d) “How to find meaning in life”. Wikihow website, online @


Wikipedia (2013) "The Meaning of Life". online @


Wikipedia (2013) "Teleology". online @


Zwartz, Barney (November 27, 2013) “Pope Francis lays down his blueprint for reformed church”. Brisbane Times, online @



1. Notes from Thor May


Giving meaning to life:


1. Prelude: Imagine you are walking along a narrow path high in the mountains in the early morning. There is a heavy mist, clouds in fact, so you can’t see far, but it is quite peaceful. Suddenly the clouds clear and you notice that you are on a ridge, no wider than the path, with 1000 metre drop on each side. Your steps, relaxed and contented only a moment before, are suddenly terrified. Will you overbalance? You sink to your knees and crawl …. This little story is a metaphor for the coming of consciousness, the sudden awareness that life is fragile and death in a short while is certain. For some, this story has no impact until they have a brush or two with mortality themselves, maybe later in life, yet eventually we all come to understand it. “Giving meaning to life” has a somewhat different edge for individuals on each side of that bleak awakening. For the happy young immortals, giving meaning to life might be all about tonight’s party. For sadder survivors with an acute knowledge of how quickly loss and pain can overwhelm our wellbeing, very often “giving meaning to life” has a lot to do with the private stratagems we deploy to avoid looking directly at that 1000 metre drop on each side of the path.

2. Most published opinion on ‘giving meaning to life’ is conflated with the question ‘what is the meaning of life?’. They imply rather different propositions.

3. Some answers to the second proposition, “what is the meaning of life?”, may be biological, or idealistic or cynical.

a) The biological view: there is an elemental argument that we are gene taxis. Lawrence Rifkin (2013) has taken this apart rather nicely:

“Even if our genes get perpetuated, our genes are not us. After a few generations of genetic mixing and shuffling, there’s unlikely to be anything unique or identifying about us in our offspring …. Reproduction and genetic survival may be the meaning of Life, but it is not inescapably the meaning of your life.”

b) Ideology: Ideological approaches always bring with them much talk of “should”, and always imply some kind of teleology (final purpose). These arguments can be very motivating (meaningful) to particular groups of people. For example, the Hitlerian eugenic ideal of breeding an Aryan master race was extremely attractive to certain people. At a different political pole, there is a strong implied suggestion in much environmental ideology that we humans have been placed here as the wardens of a small planet, to care for all life upon it. This too is very meaningful to a great many people, regardless of whether the teleology can be defended in a scientific way. Religions are a sub-set of ideologies, and displace the big questions about a final meaning to the unanswerable assertion of God’s purpose. Again, for such people, their claim to interpret God’s purpose and will carries great personal meaning (regardless of its logic to others), and may sustain them under conditions of extreme stress.

c) Cynicism: Faced with what seems to be an impossible teleological question, “what is the final meaning of life?” a great many people conclude that “life has no ultimate meaning”. Responses to such a conclusion vary widely, but a fairly large segment of every human group seems to decide that cynicism is the smartest answer to a “meaningless” world. There are important consequences from that decision. In such a mindset, it may make a kind of sense to just grab for power, sex, get wasted, find instant gratification, and so on, regardless of consequences. This is also the song of the psychopath, the torturer, the merchant banker (‘greed is good’), and perhaps the fashionista.

4. “Giving meaning to life”, the first proposition, might or might not include teleology as one layer of meaning. However it is focused on the personal inner organization of people’s lives, even the least reflective people, and how they get by from day to day. That is, it is a factual (as opposed to ideological) inquiry about how people do actually attempt to give meaning to their lives. Any objective look at the human family makes it clear that people attempt to give meaning to their lives in a myriad of ways. However, these myriad ways also have their patterns, so I will briefly reflect on some of those patterns here.

5. My own observation is that most people have layers of meaning in their lives. A useful metaphor is to think of this is as a series of concentric circles or onion skins. I prefer navigate these layers of meaning by using an analogy of atomic structures with rings of electrons whose valencies may change sometimes under pressure, causing them to move to a different orbit, or even break free.

6. One way to begin peeling back the layers of meaning in people’s lives to examine those situations and events when many of them, at least for a time, seem to feel that “life has lost its meaning”. The most searing sense of lost meaning might be the loss of somebody close, through death, or separation or relationship failure or lost comradeship. In other words, relationships with other people can sustain the feeling that life is worth living. The intensity of this feeling varies with individuals. Underlying the poignant association between having meaning in life and having close human relationships may be the knowledge or the fear that in the end – at the end of life itself – we are all alone. The flip side of suffering loss in human relationships is those situations where people decide (or are persuaded) that the most meaningful thing that they can do with their life is to risk losing it for the sake of others, or even for an abstract idea. That choice may be genuine heroism, or it may be a failure to fully think through major causes and effects (a common failure before the age of about 25, which makes armies possible).

7. In the paragraphs above I equated meaning with purpose. You could argue that not all purposeful activity has ‘meaning’, especially if you don’t believe in your job of selling vacuum cleaners. (In that case, the spread of vacuum cleaners may have meaning for company shareholders, but not the salesman, unless he accepts his commission as a meaningful substitute). You might also question whether all meaningful activity has a purpose, though it seems to me that at some level it must.

8. Even more basic than human relationships to a sense of having a meaningful life may be habit or routine. This is related to paragraph 6. It may sound trivial on the surface, but it is surely no accident that every major religion pays great attention to the daily behaviours of believers. Islam, for example, even specifies proper ways to do personal ablutions, and believers are expected to follow these. Why? For exactly the same reason that life in prisons and the military is governed by strict routines in what would otherwise be a largely aimless existence for their personnel. The same kind of routines are applied in most schools, and those who have much “ordinary worker” experience in factories and offices will know that routine is king. Stultifying routine is death to adventurous and curious minds, yet if the industrial revolution of the last three centuries has been about anything in human terms, it has been defined by fitting behaviour into ever more complex layers of organized routines to achieve outcomes which no single individual could ever achieve. Those amongst us who abhor a closely controlled existence (I am one) often pay a high price for our insouciance. Those who like control, and to be controlled, are miserably insecure on an open playing field, and upon retirement are vulnerable to dissolution and an early death from “having no reason to live”. Of course, the extremes of total control and total freedom from routine are the ends of a continuum. We all find some comfort zone of meaningful life somewhere within that continuum.

9. Human beings, as far as we know, have more complex minds than other animals. The simple routines which seem to be a joy to a kelpie dog rounding up cattle might soon drive a man of imagination to drink. The levels of complexity which are satisfying (meaningful) to individuals also vary. For example, it is a cliché amongst personnel managers that a truck driver who is too stupid will be overwhelmed by the task and dangerous, whereas one who is too smart will be distracted by boredom and also dangerous. The trick is to find the sweet spot, the occupation, lifestyle, security and mix of relationships which gives you in particular sufficient challenge without crippling worry, which gives you a sense of meaningful achievement. The human world is made for average people, so the more average you are perhaps the greater the chance you have (natural catastrophes and wars apart) of a self-evaluated “meaningful life”. A coda on the need for complexity is that while traditional hunter-gatherer and peasant societies generally had lives of very simple routine, they compensated for the complexity need by inventing intricate rituals, religions, belief patterns and story cycles. It may be no accident that as our material lives have multiplied in complexity, we have mostly stripped those old rituals and stories down to mere shadows.

10. I have worked in dictatorships where democracy is the yearning of many, equated with meaningful existence, but expected by few. Yet in Australia, a great paradox of political life is that ‘democracy’ is an incoherent idea in any absolute sense. Politics is always about swaying enough of the people enough of the time, and keeping them out of the mix most of the time. Australians “have democracy”, but having never lost it, many express a joking preference for “benign dictatorship”, meaning an ordered and predictable life without responsibility (and without wondering how likely they are to be gifted a benign dictator rather than brutish mafia control). In practice, an overwhelming majority of people relate a “meaningful life” to their daily existence in the narrowest sense. Their zone of concern and comfort may extend to family, a few friends, perhaps the local school, and perhaps the fortunes of some mass spectator sports teams. In addition to this narrow circle, they will share a vicarious existence with some favourite media personalities. If the garbage is collected, they will know and care nothing about local government. In Australia they may have a few vociferous opinions about State and Commonwealth political actions, but lack detailed interest in policy and generally feel powerless exercise informed influence. Their knowledge of “the world” is generally a construction of caricatures, easily influenced by the agendas of “authority figures”. None of this is likely to change. There are only 24 hours in a day and life is brief.

11. What is a meaningful life for Thor May? My mother says that as a 2 year old I would stand on the beach staring out to sea, instead of playing with other children. At 68 I am still wondering, but have found enough temporary solutions in a temporary life to achieve some modest satisfaction. Eventually one stares into the abyss, that 1000 metre drop on each side of the mountain path, often enough to regain a bit of nerve and even joke about it. The life of a teacher, at its best, is about bringing others to their best potentials. There is nothing more satisfying. The average world, through its laws and occasional benefits, has declared that I am now unfit by age to teach but may be granted a survival pension. This is damned stupid for someone who still runs 8km a day, but the average world is too big and slow witted to get out of the way. The challenge for me, as for everyone, is to find that sweet spot (different for us all) of a life, while it lasts, sufficiently complex to remain interesting, and sufficiently rewarding, in terms of my values, to remain satisfying. The journey so far has taught me a few things, and some of them were unexpected. For example, at 20 we take our bodies for granted. By 50 I had learned that a sense of life being meaningful was difficult to sustain when sickness threatened that life itself. Managing one’s body and one’s mind with skill is integral to having a meaningful life. The big, teleological questions seem less important to me now than they seemed at 20. I’ve written my share of bad poetry about this sort of thing, which was cathartic at the time, but has solved no riddles of the universe. See "Adrift" and "Anemone". One irony about soliloquy, even for an atheist, is that God makes a useful discussion partner. Maybe, like the zero in mathematics, she is needed to play with impossible riddles.


2. Notes from Annette Faith Dexter



Having suggested this topic, I thought it might be worthwhile for me to expand a bit on my thinking ahead of the meeting.

My starting point--which may not be shared by all--is that there are no non-physical sentient beings (gods, angels, goblins, nymphs, demons etc) and that our short and unpredictable physical lifespan is all we have. In addition, I accept the conclusions of cosmology that our planet and universe have a limited period in which they will be able to support life.

Within this framework, there are particular approaches to attributing meaning to human existence that are not viable, for example the religious concept of eternal life in its various forms (paradise, reincarnation, etc). Ruling out this possibility, my question would be: what are the alternatives?

It is my view that when the context of an individual life is taken into account, the only meaning that can be attributed to that life is that attributed to it by the owner of the life, plus a relatively small number of other people close enough to observe it. But the act of "attributing meaning" is itself a subjective/psychological/neurochemical event, so in a non-trivial sense, out of the possibilities I suggested, the answer reduces to D: maximize positive subjective experiences, more specifically, the positive subjective experience of attributing meaning to one's own life.

What isn't addressed by this is, of course, how to attain D, or alternately, how not to conclude that one is deceiving oneself in considering one's own life to have meaning. My belief is that humans achieve D by an eclectic and changing mixture of categories A-H (of course the list is incomplete and the categories overlap to some extent), with preferences influenced by culture, temperament and circumstances. However, even taking individual differences into account, it is likely that some strategies are more effective than others. Some brief comments on the individual categories.

Compete with others

I view competition as an essential element of mastery, one of the means by which humans assess themselves as being worthy members of their group/civilization/species (Did I run faster than my friend Johnny today? Did I get the best mark in the spelling test? Am I a good engineer?). At the same time, it is a strategy that becomes less effective later in life with the weakening of physical and mental capacity. If not tempered with other elements, or if an individual is not able to identify a suitable area and degree of mastery for themselves, it can take on negative aspects.

B. Care for others

I would point out that this is a less selfless approach to life than it may appear on the surface. At a minimum, the carer is most likely pursuing the positive subjective experience, "I can believe I am a good person because I care for others". Not that there is anything wrong with this, but it is good to be aware of it. However, a "carer" may also be seeking other kinds of reward, in which case they run the risk of frustration if those rewards do not materialize (e.g. gratitude from persons cared for, recognition from outside parties or positive concrete outcomes--patients cured, poverty reduced, students learning new skills, etc).

C. Pursue relationships with others

I view this as one of the really valuable things we can do, within the context of a life balanced for other sources of meaning, not solely or necessarily at all in love relationships, but in friendships, work relationships, and maybe even discussion groups. I think the perspectives that other minds bring to bear on our problems and decisions are invaluable. More than that, it is only people close enough to know us well who can add a second layer of meaning to our lives, in being capable of mourning our deaths when we die. Not that this, of course, benefits us after our death, but it can benefit us to know that this is a likely future event.

D. Pursue positive subjective experiences

Of course, there are other aspects to this category than solely the positive experience of attributing meaning to one's own life. Enjoying music, books, physical activity, experiences of nature, etc, are all examples in this class. So is the use of mind-altering drugs, but it seems probable that beyond a certain level, the use of drugs is going interfere too much with other life strategies to give an overall satisfactory result. (Nick Cave on giving up heroin: "At some point I had to decide whether I was going to be a drug addict, or a musician.")


E. Pursue a higher purpose

While there is no reason why this strategy cannot allow an individual to find meaning in their life, within the framework of a finite material universe, it runs up against the same absolute limit as G and H--human life, along with all life in the universe, is going to end, and the purpose will founder for that reason.

F. Adhere to a set of rules or standards

I view this strategy as being again an essential element in early development of a human life, but dangerous when pursued too far or too long (there are pathologies that fall into this category). In the broader context of a solely material universe, it is also difficult to know how a particular set of rules can be validated as a worthwhile standard by which an individual can measure themself.

G. Attempt to create something that will outlive you

Realistically, most of us have little chance of creating something that will persist much after our death, or affect many more than our inner circle. I would argue that even in cases where a human life appears to have affected large numbers of people (Mohammed, Mahatma Gandhi, John F Kennedy, etc), the actual impact has had less to do with the life actually lived, and more to do with other pre-existing trends and/or how the iconography of that life has been developed and used by other individuals or organizations for their own purposes. Even if you view the impact as properly belonging to that one life, in 1,000,000 or 10,000 years, there will remain no trace of it. It has been estimated that if humans became extinct today, in 100 million years time the only physical trace of our existence would be an otherwise unexplained episode of climate change, recorded in the rocks (Alan Weisman, The World Without Us). Even on a shorter time scale, there is always Ozymandias to keep in mind (

H. Invest in the next generation

In terms of ultimate meaning, this clearly runs into the same limitations of a time-finite universe. Or if one wishes to live through one's biological offspring, it is important to remember that beyond a statistical number of generations, they will no longer carry one's own DNA, the genes having been diluted out and lost under recombination and the contributions of an exponentially growing number of other ancestors. Certainly we can take pleasure in raising and caring for our children, but they are in the same boat as us--mortality is their lot as well.

I. Other?

I am really looking forward to hearing other people's perspectives on this.



3. Notes from Dominicus Tornqvist


For those who have not yet seen The Meaning of Life, the answer is provided at the end of the film (Spoiler Warning):


The thing that I find interesting about the answer they provide is that it interprets the question as a direct request for instructions. Which is I expect reasonably common among people asking the question. Instructions are easier to act upon than an overarching goal for which you must formulate intermediate strategies dependent on circumstances.


But instructions have the fundamental flaw that they tell people what to do but not why to do it. This prevents adaptation. For example, when you instruct the operator of a machine to push this button every time the light flashes, then what happens when there is a system malfunction? They will continue mindlessly following the instruction because they don't know why they are doing it. Maybe following standard procedure during the malfunction actually makes things worse.


This is why I regard goals as generally superior to instructions. Although goals can be augmented by also providing people with heuristics, strategies and rules of thumb that have been developed (provided their limitations are made clear so that people know in what circumstances particular heuristics fail).


People may also be interested in Alain de Botton's series, "Philosophy: A Guide To Happiness".

This is the first episode:
Just follow the links to the other 5 episodes in the series if you are interested.









Creating Meaning in Life (c) Thor May 2013


discussion topics index   || return to homepage



WebSTAT - Free Web Statistics