What is the meaning of life and how did we get here?
This is a question that humans have grappled with for ages and one whose answer never seems to come forth. It appears that the harder we search for the meaning of life, the more elusive it gets.
Both religion and science agree that life has a specific beginning and some meaning. But they differ significantly in how life came into existence and what its meaning is.
Atheists and non-conformists believe that the search for the meaning of life is all but an act in futility. According to famous atheist Richard Dawkins, human beings are simply ‘throwaway survival machines’ with the sole purpose of surviving and replicating their genes.
But regardless of your scientific and religious inclinations (or the lack of them), there’s definitely a reason behind our existence. This article delves deeper into what life is, from where it possibly started to all the possible meanings of life.
The Beginning of Life From Religious and Scientific Viewpoints
Religion and science have played a significant role in trying to unravel the mystery of life.
Religious books like the Bible and Quran cite a supernatural being called God as the creator of the universe and everything therein, including man. However, these books haven’t been very helpful in pointing us to the possible origin of God. If God is indeed a living being, he must have come from somewhere, right?
The scientific explanation of the origin and meaning of life is just as fuzzy as the religious one.
The Big Bang Theory is the most widely accepted scientific theory that explains the beginning of the universe. According to the theory, all the current and past matter (including life forms) came into existence at the same time, around 13.8 billion years ago. Before the universe came into being, all matter was compacted into a tiny ball with intense heat and infinite density, known as a singularity.
The Big Bang Theory also states that the universe didn’t occur into a pre-existing space. Instead, the singularity initiated the space by expanding and cooling itself.
The most glaring limitation to The Big Bang Theory is that it doesn’t explain the beginning of the singularity itself. Plus, we’ve not witnessed any noticeable expansion of the universe since the theory was developed in the 1920s.
Charles Darwin‘s theory of evolution is another popular scientific theory that attempts to explain the origin of life. The theory, which was first formulated in Darwin’s book titled “On the Origin of Species,” states that all species of organisms developed by natural selection. According to the theory, the individuals within a species that are most adaptable to changing environmental conditions survive, consequently giving rise to even more resilient offspring.
The biggest limitation to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is that it doesn’t address the meaning and purpose of life. At least not conclusively. It’s undeniably true that adaptable species are generally more disease-resistant and can survive in different climatic conditions. But life has more meaning besides the mere fact of being disease-free.
The Meaning of Life
Now that we understand the origin of life, or at least how life possibly came into being, the next logical thing is to know the meaning of life.
To understand the meaning of life, we should begin by familiarizing ourselves with the meaning of the word ‘meaning.’ As in, what does it mean to mean something?
The best way to explain the word ‘meaning’ is to invoke real-life events.
A hug from a parent mostly means that they love you. Similarly, a compliment from your boss likely implies that your work is outstanding.
Based on these examples, it’s safe to conclude that ‘meaning’ is basically the association or relationship that we draw between two events or experiences. However, it’s worth noting that that relationship happens in our minds. Which implies that our understanding of what an experience or event means is largely subjective and open to interpretation.
In other words, your mom could still give you a passionate hug right before beating the hell out of you for absconding your house duties. And your boss could also compliment your work when their real intention is to solicit favors from you.
That also explains why two eyewitnesses can give conflicting accounts of the same event. Or why children brought up in the same manner can develop entirely different opinions about their parents.
The fact that our brains can invent different meanings for the same event or experience explains why humans have come up with numerous possible explanations of the meanings of life. However, most philosophers agree that the most appropriate definition of the meaning of life is ‘the purpose for which you’re alive.’ In other words, the meaning of life is the reason for your existence.
So, why are we here and not in a different dimension?
The Religious Meaning of Life
Christianity identifies three principal reasons for existence – to care for God’s creation, to procreate and subdue the earth, and to have personal communion with God. Christians believe that the main purpose of life is to seek continual renewal from sin by following the teachings of Jesus Christ as highlighted in the four gospel books – Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John. According to John 5:24, those who abide by the teachings of Jesus Christ are assured eternal life in heaven, while those who deviate from those teachings risk eternal condemnation in hell.
However, there are minor doctrinal differences in the purpose of life among various Christian denominations.
For instance, Catholicism mostly teaches that man was created to praise and serve God and in so doing, ransom his soul from condemnation. Mormonism teaches that the purpose of human existence is to gain knowledge and experience as well as pursue his full measure of happiness.
In Islam, the main reason for living is to worship God the creator (Allah) by observing his signs and expressing gratitude to him through abundant love and active devotion. To live up to this noble cause, all Muslims must follow the divine teachings revealed to humankind in the holy book of Qur’an, as well as live the lifestyle of the Prophet Mu?ammad.
These divine teachings are embodied in the Five Pillars of Islam, which include:
• Shahadah – Profession of faith
• Salat – Ritual prayer
• Zakah – Charity
• Sawm – Fasting during Ramadan
• Hajj – Pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca
Like Christianity, Islam mentions a reward or condemnation at the end of time. Those who live up to God’s will shall inherit paradise (Jannah) and those who stray from his statutes shall be cast in hell (Jahannam).
Judaism cites the purpose of life as a desire to elevate the physical world (‘Olam HaZeh’) in preparation for the world to come (Olam HaBa). The religion advocates strict adherence to the teachings of the God of Israel as enshrined in the Torah books and furthered by the Old Testament prophets.
Hinduism adopts a more holistic approach to the question of life. According to this religion, we’re alive for one or more of the following reasons:
• To love and enjoy sensual pleasure
• To acquire wealth and prosperity
• To remain righteous and morally upright
• To liberate our souls from possible reincarnation into undesirable life forms
The last major religion, Buddhism, doesn’t focus on the meaning but the potential of life. Buddhism emphasizes the importance of leveraging mindfulness to unearth the things that limit our potential.
For instance, the religion believes that one can achieve their full measure of sensual satisfaction by embracing as opposed to suppressing their sexual emotions.
The Scientific and Philosophical Meaning of Life
Science defines a living thing as something that has the following key attributes – metabolism, responsiveness, growth and development, reproduction, and energy transformation. However, scientific explanations haven’t been very helpful in identifying the purpose and meaning of life.
According to science, our existence is sustained by various physiological processes like heartbeat and respiration. But the fact of mere survival cannot be our sole reason for being alive.
Now, those who neither lean towards religion nor science can find the purpose of their life by consulting philosophers.
Plato, one of the most influential and revered philosophers, is best known for the Theory of Forms. The theory proposes that universals exist as heavenly forms and not as physical objects. Plato identifies the meaning of life as the fact of achieving the highest form of knowledge.
Aristotle breathed more life into Plato’s proposition of the meaning of life. The philosopher opined that life is the culmination of our actions towards the pursuit of a just cause. Aristotle added that if the cause is just, then you’ll most likely end up happier and more knowledgeable.
Another philosopher, Antisthenes, stated that a meaningful life is a life of virtue that conforms to nature. According to Antisthenes, true happiness depends on self-sufficiency and being in control of your mental attitude. He adds that much of human suffering results from placing too much premium on conventional desires for wealth, health, power, and fame.
Although the above-mentioned philosophers died hundreds of years ago, their teachings have remained alive to date. In fact, many modern philosophies about life pretty much corroborate the teachings of Aristotle, Plato, and other ancient philosophers.
How to Live a Meaningful Life
Here are some of the best pieces of advice we’ve received to help you discover your life’s meaning.
1. Define Your Goal
Everything starts with purpose. The reason why we go to school or work eight hours a day is necessity. After all, not everyone goes to school of their own volition, nor does everyone like their job. Many people pursue these paths simply because they feel required to do so. Finding a lack of meaning is a sure-fire way of hitting a dead-end.
One way to sway your life’s direction towards the right course is to actually define what you want to achieve. Set a goal for yourself. To do this, you may want to take another look at the bigger picture. What do you want to become in five, 10, or even 15 years?
It doesn’t have to be anything profound. It can be as simple as being happily married or having financial security. The reason why having a goal is important is that it gives you a reason to get out of bed every day. Your goal becomes your “why.”
A personal goal for the long-term doesn’t have to be completely specific. Even something as vague as “I want to be happy” is enough to give you something to strive for, but a vague long-term goal should always be accompanied by shorter and more realistic ones.
Having a set of goals to achieve can reduce mental clutter and provide more clarity in your life. Once you have a destination you want to reach, then you can start allocating your resources towards getting there.
2. Do What Makes You Happy
A life that’s encumbered by the burden of responsibility guarantees burnout. Sure, you may have goals to work for, but if you wake up feeling miserable every day, then can you still consider those goals to be worth achieving?
This is the reason why happiness is such an important factor when living your daily life. If goals give your life meaning, then it is happiness that gives you the motivation to achieve them.
Working an office job may let you pay the bills or put food on your table, but if you’re getting overworked and underpaid, then you may want to consider doing something else. Misery counters motivation, and without motivation, life won’t make much sense.
Life isn’t always about fame or money. Sometimes, the best course of action is to just go with what makes you happy.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should avoid your responsibilities. Try to strike a balance between doing what you love and doing what you must. Find a job that’s less stressful, invest in hobbies, pursue your passions.
You can create your ideal lifestyle by weighing your responsibilities and the things that make you happy. Not only will this state of balance give you purpose in life, but it will also make each day feel refreshing and worth getting up for.
3. Try New and Different Things
Sometimes, you may feel like you’re restricted to doing the same things over and over again. Having a boring or menial job then doing the same post-work routine that you’ve been doing every day for the past year can leave you feeling stagnant.
One way to fight stagnation is to try new things. Spice up your daily routine by doing something that you don’t normally do. Instead of heading straight home after work, you can try going out for a drink with your friends or co-workers, or instead of spending an entire weekend watching TV or playing video games, you can go to the gym or volunteer for some charity work.
You can open up a plethora of opportunities for growth by trying things you’ve never experienced before. It can be as simple as watching a different genre of film, listening to new kinds of music, or doing different kinds of work.
Not only will this save you from boredom, but it will also broaden your horizons. You’ll have more interests to fall back on when you’re feeling lost, and you’ll be able to pursue even more activities that you never knew made you happy in the first place.
4. Expand Your Comfort Zone
The phrase “break out of your comfort zone” is one that many people suggest to others who are struggling to find their purpose in life. While trying out new things is good for your mental health, doing things that you don’t find particularly enjoyable can make you anxious.
But this doesn’t mean that you should never step out of your comfort zone. Anxiety is a natural part of the process, after all. One good way of looking at this is that you’re not just stepping out of your comfort zone—you’re expanding it.
The anxiety you experience from doing what you don’t normally do is usually caused by fear: fear of the unknown, fear of failure, or the fear of not being good enough. You can work your way through this fear by slowly expanding your personal boundaries through constant practice and getting sufficient knowledge.
Expanding your comfort zone can open up many different avenues for self-improvement, which can lead you to a life that’s more engaging and fulfilling. If you feel like the path to a meaningful life is blocked by your inability to do certain things, then it’s time for you to consider improving yourself so you can chase after your personal goals.
5. Choose What’s Best for You
In the end, the only person who can decide on the best course of action to take for your life is you. If you find yourself struggling to find meaning, then you should probably give yourself some time to think. After all, searching for the meaning of life itself gives life meaning.
We are all free to decide how we live our lives. Whether it is to find purpose in existence or to simply accept the absurdity of life itself, our goals are defined by our own subjective desires.
We are the products of our own experiences, but at the same time, life is also what we make it to be. Your own needs and desires will always take precedence over that of others, and how you choose to live your life is a decision that relies solely on you.
No matter what you’ve read before, there’s definitely a reason for living.
Philosophically speaking, we all live to gain knowledge and happiness. To some people, happiness consists in fame and material possessions. To others, it’s all about accomplishing career and personal goals like graduating from college or traveling the world.
Those who incline towards religion view physical existence as an experience that should prepare us for the afterlife. To that end, we must diligently follow the teachings of a supernatural being – God, Allah, or whatever you conceive Him to be. And while religious doctrines vary, they primarily advocate for two fundamental things – devotion to the maker and love for fellow humans.