Meaning of life revealed: It’s about others

Posted on March 9 2012 by frank

Ok, let’s have a take on this age-old mystery. The answer is in fact quite simple. The meaning of life is to make oneself meaningful to other people. It’s about making a positive contribution in the lives of those people one holds dear. Why? I’ll tell you why.

To start with, we need to focus on the one asking the question. Because most of us never ask such a question in all its seriousness. For most of us the question is a joke, something to make fun of when we want to mock too deep-going thinking. On the other hand, there are those artists who have taken this enigma so seriously that they have been driven to suicide by this haunting question. So, who asks the question?

Only those people who have for some reason distanced themselves from the framework for life given to them by their upbringing. Most people never seriously question the worldview provided by the society around them or their religion – be it Christianity, Buddhism, Islam or the modern alternative: Consumerism. The question opens itself up in all its seriousness to only those of us who for one reason or another have started to question the given, the values and purposes that they were brought up to believe in.

Next, we need to look at the question itself. What do we really ask, when we ask about the meaningfulness of our lives?

Question of meaningfulness is in the end a question about making our lives have meaning in some framework bigger than ourselves. As long as we are asking how to make ourselves happy or how to maximize our own outcomes in life we are not asking about the meaning of our life. These are perfectly legitimate questions and some people are able to live their lives without asking anything else. But only when they ask what bigger meaning their lives might have, do they start to care about making their lives meaningful. Thus we need to find something bigger than ourselves that we can believe in and that we feel we can contribute to in order to feel that our life has a meaning.

Where to then look for something bigger than ourselves? As said, those asking the question are the people who no longer believe to an answer external to them. They have distanced themselves from modern consumerism and ancient religions. There is then only one direction from which they can look for an answer: Inside of them. And what do we find inside of us? We find that we are creatures that are deeply dependent on others. We are creatures that want to belong. We are creatures that build our sense of value through sensing how others value us. It is extremely hard to uphold a high regard of ourselves if others don’t care about us at all. As creatures who need to feel connected, we want that others care about us.

Given our psychological build-up the most solid base for purpose we can genuinely believe in is found in other people. When we believe that we contribute positively to lives of others, then we feel that our life has value and meaning. That’s how simple it is. What group of others is most important to one is then a matter of preference. Some find meaning through their own kids, others through their work and still others through some voluntary work: Orphans in Africa, homeless in your home town, breast cancer victims, whatever is your cup of tea.

Meaning of life is to make oneself meaningful to others. It is up to you to decide to whom you want to be meaningful.


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5 responses to “Meaning of life revealed: It’s about others”

  1. Risto says:

    I think your analysis is correct, I like especially this sentence:

    “When we believe that we contribute positively to lives of others, then we feel that our life has value and meaning”

    This can be observed in many people these days.

    However, I’d like to add that while this is what people believe, the experienced reality is far different. People dependent on approval of others end up deeply unhappy and can even alianate others. Not being in charge of one’s own happiness is a terrible thing that leaves people running after goals they’ll never reach.

    Another thing worth pointing out is that people who adopt this mentality have distanced themselves from social molds yes, but in a bad way that has left them unhappy, vulnerable and seeking answers to their unhappiness. Looking inside of themselves they find nothing of worth (in their misguided opinion) and they turn outwards hoping for approval of others’ to fill the bottomless pit of insecurity inside of them.

    Eg: The sad story about a year ago about a bus driver who went to fight two youth’s that were standing in his bus’s way. In his mind he was right and doing his passangers a great favor by being on schedule, but ended up hospitalized, because he didn’t want to follow proper procedure and call the police to handle the troublemakers. In his quest for finding meaning for his life, he almost died.

    Ok, these is a pretty extreme situations and I’m not saying that people who take pleasure spending time with their kids are insecure and craving for approval. It is also true what you said that people are social creatures and biologically programmed to enjoy company of others.

    My point was that I think you have a great positive analysis, but a normative one would encourage to seek meaning in yourself. To do your own thing, be yourself and NOT care what others think of you.
    When one is truly independent of what others think of one, then one has reached a healthy and sustainable happiness.

    PS: And no, this does not mean selfish, as you said yourself, that people gain pleasure from a feeling of connection, so naturally a healthy individual would gain pleasure just for seeing others do well.

  2. frank says:

    Thanks Risto for your comment. I think it is very much to the point. And actually the question you raise is what I was going to address in my next post. To put it shortly, I agree with you that being too dependent on others is not a path to personal happiness, moral integrity or good life choices. So it is good to encourage people to be more themselves, do their own thing and find their own meaning in life.

    But I see that this is not in contradiction with the fact that one wants to help the others. Because when one looks inside of oneself and is able to choose what one wants, many times one wants to engage in some project that benefits the others. Not always, but quite often, I believe.

    So one can help the others for two different reasons: for feeling insecure and seeking the acceptance of others. Or because one is strong enough oneself to know that one wants to help those who have been blessed with less. What I concentrate in this post is the second type.

    More of this in the next post…

  3. Bua says:

    I like your post. But I’m not sure if I understood it in the way you want. Here is some of my ideas after red your post.

    Once I fishined your.. “Question of meaningfulness is in the end a question about making our lives have meaning in some framework bigger than ourselves. As long as we are asking how to make ourselves happy or how to maximize our own outcomes in life we are not asking about the meaning of our life. These are perfectly legitimate questions and some people are able to live their lives without asking anything else. But only when they ask what bigger meaning their lives might have, do they start to care about making their lives meaningful. Thus we need to find something bigger than ourselves that we can believe in and that we feel we can contribute to in order to feel that our life has a meaning.” .. the concept of unconditional love or Metta pop up in my head. Something that is biger than ourselves and contribute to us so as to make our life has a meaning, personally I think of being a giver not a taker. In order to be a giver I suppose that we have to have a sense of unconditional love. We can give things to others around us without any expectation of getting something back. Just give and let go, if we expect anything back, we might be suffered. Also while we give, we should give with a good feeling, happy to give not just give because we have to give. It sound easy. But in the practice, it’s not easy like that.

    As now I’m asking myself often, whether I’m spoiling my Master students about their research projects. Do I teach them too much? Why I have to be picking with them in order to work and give me back their finding on time aiming to graduate on times? While other advisors don’t do that. They just let their students work on their own and don’t care if they can graduate on times or have to take another and another semsters to finish their just 6 credits research with the reason as its their business and benefit to graduate and get master degree. In other hands, for my part, if I give all the neccessary suggest and advice to my student including appropriate timeline, but they don’t follow and don’t move on their work. I just let them be like that. And don’t care if they spend all thier years without any sucess. Am I kind or mean?
    I know only, it is important as an advisor to help the students to graduate on times. But sometimes it doesn’t mean that after graduate the students will appreciates us as they are unhappy with the adivsory, but they follow because they gain their interest. I don’t care much about it. I know only I end my task.
    This is just an example that is also controversial when we say of how to contribute positively to lives of others.

    Another question come up here too. I was asked by some colleagues that why I’m so attetive and nice with them. Just one reason, I’m always headache when I have someone who sit next to me frustrated and upset all the time. I can’t work in that kind of environment. I can do anything to make green enviroment in my office. And I don’t think that it’s bad to be nice to friends and colleauges. I can show some attention and care for them to make them cool down or happy. It’s just the way I am. And it’s not something that difficult or I have to invest just ask are you ok? Any problem? do you want to complian something, hey man I have some cakes I give you some, etc just that.

    But that question make me feel something. A person who ask me and doubt in my gernerosity make me feel that some people are not use to with giving person. People are not use to with kindness, but selfishness. They wonder if I want anything in return from them . I ‘m nice with them becasue of some purpose. I think it become like that becuase recently people are not teach to do good with other (the real good from the heart). Consummerism teach people to feel something else. Consumerism teach people to calculate every unit of interest they will gain or lose in their life, in every kind of relationship and every single action. The meaning of live shift from heart and soul to be merchandise.

    Write for many sentence, I hope you can get my point. 😛 Or I got your point.

  4. frank says:

    Metta, or being able to love others unconditionally, I see as a capacity that we should strengthen. And through strengthening it we most probably come to experience more meaning in our lives. Of course, in practice it is always not so easy to know how we can best help others. Still, we have to try our best.

    And I agree with you that our modern culture means that some people don’t believe in any other than selfish motives. Therefore they can’t understand unconditional kindness that is offered to them. They have completely adopted the ideology of selfishness and consumerism that is strongly propagated nowadays. The people who suffer most from this are they themselves. Because with that attitude they miss out so much opportunities to be good to others and feel gratitude for other’s good deeds. And both giving and receiving unconditional acts of kindness makes us happy.

    • Bua says:

      Umm.. I want to give you 10 Likes for your reply. However, there are three other concepts accompany the concept of unconditional love. I’ll discuss about this later.

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