Here are 10 answers to the familiar question.
Not all of them can be true.
I. Happiness / Pleasure / Selfishness
What do we pursue in each decision apart from pleasure? What is it that we avoid apart from suffering? Nothing.
Lives are short. What else could make a life meaningful apart from what drives your actions every day?
Pause and ask why art, tranquility, friendship, success, and love are valuable. In every case, pleasure grounds our desire.
Sure, some pleasures are more complex or sophisticated than others. Some prefer high, others low, and most would like a hybrid of the two. Regardless, it’s positive mental states that make life meaningful.
Life is about having fun, feeling good, and being happy.
II. Realism / Nihilism / Meaninglessness
Life has no grand meaning.
When we ask for a meaning behind all this, we want to know why we exist, what our ultimate purpose is, and what all this amounts to.
Parts of life can have meaning. Our friendships, joys, projects, pleasures – each of these are meaningful.
But the whole cannot.
In billions of years, everything will end. And for what?
The only response is silence. We are alone. When we leave, we are forgotten. It will be as if every friendship, every joy, every project, every pleasure never happened.
In mundane everyday life, we don’t need to think about this. Life is not devoid of everyday significance. Things matter now.
But ultimately, if we step back, we can see that they don’t matter at all.
III. Epic / Narrative / Megalomania
We live like we’re protagonists in a grand narrative.
And in a sense, we are. We craft the shape and story of our lives.
Lives are as varied as stories.
Like narratives, they are meaningful. Some more than others.
Lives are like any other art. Open to interpretation.
And we are like artists – capable of making what we wish from the canvas of the world.
IV. Devotion / Obsession / Hyperopia
Pleasure is ephemeral. It stays in one’s hand for a moment and then dissolves. Leaving stains. Stories are just that – stories.
Who comes to mind when one thinks of meaningful lives? Heroes. Near-mythical characters. From political activists to philanthropists to saints to warriors – these are people who lived.
Some of them are saints. Others are more ambiguous. None of them lived ordinary lives.
This is no time for mediocrity.
Instead, become obsessed. Bind oneself to a project.
When we do this, we overcome our limits. We transcend the present mundane moment. We lose ourselves in something more.
Whether through art, companies, relationships, inquiry, activism, war – be devoted.
V. Ordinariness / Mediocrity / Myopia
There are dangers with devotion. For many, it’s more about appearance, than devotion. And if you are devoted, how can you know whether you are a zealous villain or a saintly hero?
In the best case, you will have sacrificed for a good cause, but for what? Impact? Honor?
Heroes are the stuff of myth. For every candidate, there is a litany of failures behind hagiography.
Proximity kills our heroes.
You are not important. You will not make much of a difference.
But you can live now.
It’s the ordinary things that are meaningful: family, work, nature, love.
The sight of leaves falling from a tree. Taking a respite from a party, hearing nothing but laughter, and seeing nothing but smiles.
One doesn’t worry about meaning when one is in love.
Stories of heroism and sainthood should not distract you, live now.
VI. Nihilism II / Pessimism / Depression
Nothing matters at all.
VII. Enlightenment / Mindfulness / Nothingness
Meaning is easy.
Rats, pigs, and dogs live meaningful lives.
Each action they take is for some reason or other. They scavenge for food, eat for pleasure, and mate for children.
The same is true for most of our choices.
Each has a purpose, a reason behind it. And through these reasons and purposes, there is meaning.
This is not interesting.
The challenge is to see things as they are.
To pay attention to the blades of grass, the sound of a humidifier, the creaking of the floor for no reason at all.
The ability to pay attention with no purpose or reason in mind is what makes us human.
If you pay attention, you'll learn that the meaning of life resides in things that are not meaningful at all.
VIII. Divinity / Virtue / Elitism
We can rise to the status of the Gods.
Study nature. Be virtuous. Take care of your soul.
If you did these things, you would become divine.
With complete self-discipline and reason, nothing can ever compel you. You would fully align your desires with reality. You would love fate.
You would willingly accept every part of your life over and over for eternity.
You would be free.
You would be a God.
IX. Holiness / Religion / Dogmatism
The pursuit of meaning in life is idolatrous.
To seek anything other than God is to seek a distraction.
Cast aside meaning. Throw away the desire for some grand narrative to your life.
X. The End / Eudaimonia / Obscurantism
One cannot understand what a story means until one has finished.
You cannot know the worth of your life until the end.