Any attempt at discussing a topic as magnanimous as the purpose of life simple must begin with the following quote:
“Alright,” said Deep Thought. “The Answer to the Great Question…”
“Of Life, the Universe and Everything…” said Deep Thought.
“Is…” said Deep Thought, and paused.
“Forty-two,” said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm…
“Forty-two!” yelled Loonquawl. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”
“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”-Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Joking aside, I think Douglas Adams was on to something here when he said “you’ve never actually known what the question is.” I think that many of us don’t understand the questions we are asking. We wander through life looking for something, not really knowing exactly what it is.
And that something, I believe, is purpose.
Purpose is at the root of all that we do and need in life. There is a reason why purpose is the cornerstone of my coaching business, the first thing I work on with clients. Because if you want to improve your life in any area, you have to have a reason for it. Without purpose, what’s the point?
For most of us, purpose is not intentional. We are driven about by our baser instincts, our lizard-brain impulses, and that is no way to live.
In a study conducted by the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, they found that finding meaning in life is absolutely crucial for our health and well-being. We are literally healthier when we have meaning and purpose in life.
Which begs the question…
What Is the Meaning of Life?
The meaning of life is to become the best version of ourselves.
What, you thought I would give a more vague answer, tell you that there is no one definition of the meaning of life or some such nonsense?
While it is true that scholars, philosophers, and scientists have long debated this question, and have seemingly come up with a variety of different answers, it is my personal opinion that all of it boils down to this one idea: you are here on this earth to be the best version of yourself.
Now there are some differing opinions, some of which I will highlight below, but you will find as you study this topic that there is surprising agreement between ancient wisdom and modern science. The biggest thing that changes is how life’s meaning is expressed in words.
Becoming the best version of yourself is a profound purpose. Notice that this form of purpose is both the same for everyone, and different for everyone. The best version of yourself and the best version of myself are two completely different people.
Remember, we’re not trying to be a perfect version of ourselves. That would imply that we are perfect in every skill, can speak every language, have zero moral or ethical faults, never gets anything less than a hole in one at golf, you get the idea. Instead, each of us has been shaped and molded by the life experiences we have had so far. We all have interests, a history, and a personality that is unique to us. Therefore being the best version of ourselves begins by taking those experiences and personality traits and turning them into our best qualities.
Now, I’m certain that a lot of people will doubt me when I say unequivocally that being the best version of yourself is the purpose of life. So let’s unpack this idea a little bit and talk about its evolution.
We Are All Asking the Same Question
Just like the Deep Thought computer in Douglas Adams sci-fi comedy, we need to know what the question is before we have the answer.
And yet I have found that most of the questions we have on the subject are actually very similar. Questions like:
- Why are we here?
- What are we here for?
- What is the nature of reality?
- What is the purpose of life?
- What is the significance of life?
- What is the point?
- What is the value of life?
- What are we living for? Or, what is the reason to live?
All of these questions essentially boil down to the same thing: we are all looking for some reason that we are here, some purpose for existence.
We’ve all done it, I doubt there is a single person reading this book that hasn’t looked up at the stars one night and wondered, why does any of this exist? And because it does exist, what is the point?
And just because most of us are asking the same questions, you may be surprised to learn that almost everyone is giving the same answer, even if they don’t know it…
The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything
The answer to life, the universe, and everything is not 42 but to be the best version of yourself, as I have stated before. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the evidence given to us by philosophers, scientists, and the religions of the world.
The Philosophical Approach
Philosophers have dealt with this question practically since written language began, and probably earlier. So what do they have to say on the subject?
In Western philosophy, championed by ancient Greek philosophy, we get some of the following thoughts:
- Plato tells us that the meaning of life is to find the highest form of knowledge.
- Aristotle tells us that we seek the highest good, involving the achievement of eudaemonia, which is usually translated as “happiness”, but actually means something closer to “flourishing” or “excellence”.
- Cicero introduced the idea of the Latin phrase “summum bonum”, meaning the “highest or ultimate good”.
- In Stoic philosophy, the purpose of life is to develop personal self-control, and live virtuously in order to overcome one’s baser emotions such as anger, envy, and jealousy.
I’ll bet that you can already see how each of these lines up with the idea of being the best version of yourself. From Plato’s highest form of knowledge, to Cicero’s ultimate good, all have to do with this idea of seeking excellence in one area or another.
The only major difference is the words they use to describe it.
Like the west, the eastern philosophers also had a lot to say on this subject, and it’s generally along similar lines:
- In Mohism, philosophers believed that universal love was the source of true purpose, that the more you could serve and love others impartially, the more you are expressing the meaning of life.
- Confucianism values discipline and education. Similar to the Stoics, they believe that the goal of life was to achieve virtue and control the negative aspects of our lives.
- Legalism was a little different in that it thought searching for purpose in life is meaningless, but that seeking knowledge was the most valuable thing they could do.
Excelling in service to others, achieving self-control and discipline, and seeking after knowledge, can you see how each of these is part of the journey toward your best self?
The Religious Approach
Nowhere do we see the purpose of life talked about more than in the world’s religions. Let’s break these down one by one.
- In Judaism, the worship of a single, perfect God is of paramount concern. Practitioners value growing closer to God through adherence to the divine law, and through study. Certainly growing closer to a perfect God is one way to achieve your best self.
- In Christianity, a religion that grew out of the practices of Judaism, the purpose is to return to live with God in heaven one day, something achieved by the grace of God through repentance. Repentance is the turning away from evil in order to embrace the good. Like Judaism, this type of perfection comes through study and adherence to certain laws.
- In Islam, the central purpose is to worship the creator, Allah, through love and devotion to his law, as revealed in the Qur’an. Once again we see this theme of perfecting oneself in order to be closer to God.
- In Hinduism, we get the concept of reincarnation, and the idea that our actions in this life will affect those that come in the hereafter. We get the concept of yogas (practices) and dharma (the correct way to live) which are two tools that will help practitioners to have better reincarnations. Once again, we have the concept of achieving excellence.
- In Jainism, self-discipline is one of the most important concepts. The more you can achieve self-control and free yourself from attachment to the non-living, the more you grow closer to the meaning of life. Self-control is, of course, a big part of being the best version of yourself.
- In Buddhism, the goal is to end suffering. This is done, largely, through embracing mindfulness. It’s about becoming conscious of our wants and desires, and embracing them as a part of life so that we might free ourselves from attachment. Once again, a form of mastery.
- In Taoism, the goal is to return to the “Oneness of the Universe” which is a concept that can only be achieved through self-control and self-actualization.
- In Shintoism, the goal is to overcome death by seeking self-development and relieving human suffering as much as possible. It imagines a world where the divine spirit craves purification in order to truly live.
- In Zoroastrianism, practitioners believe in two forces of good and evil, with the good represented by Ahura Mazda, a being that represents truth and order. Ahura Mazda fights against his antithesis, a representative of lies and disorder. By following Ahura Mazda, practitioners set their lives in order.
As you can see, almost all of these agree on certain points, that the purpose of life involves seeking for excellence in some way. Everything from the 10 Commandments to the concept of dharma backs this up.
But that’s the religious approach. What about a more modern, scientific mindset? Do scientists have anything to say about the purpose of life, and does it line up with anything we’ve seen in philosophy or religion? Answer: absolutely.
The Scientific Approach
When it comes to modern science, there are two main approaches that I want to highlight here: evolution and positive psychology.
In a modern sense, we think of “evolution” as what led our ancestors who lived in trees to learn, adapt, and grow to be more efficient in their environment. We survived and evolved because over time those who were best suited for our environment are the ones that pass on genetic material.
Therefore, the evolutionary approach to purpose states that we feel a need for purpose because it means that we are fulfilling our evolutionary mandate of learning, growing, and thereby giving our species the best chance for survival.
As humans evolved, we became social creatures. Survival of the fittest became not only our own individual survival, but that of the tribe.
Therefore, survival of the fittest is literally being your best in action. By being your best self, you have a much better chance of contributing to society in a positive way, thereby increasing your chances for survival. And while we don’t tend to think of it these days, especially in first-world countries where most of our survivalist impulses are readily satisfied, our evolutionary drive for excellence still remains.
On a biological level, learning and growing rewards certain systems in our brain so that we will continue to learn and grow. We evolved to learn and grow, so we feel happiness when we do so.
Positive psychology is essentially the study of happiness. I mentioned before that purpose has been scientifically proven to increase our happiness, and this comes largely from things like being engaged in challenging tasks, or being a part of something larger than oneself, both of which are checkmarks in the to do list of being your best self.
While positive psychology has yet to really understand why we search for meaning at all, it is pretty obvious that we flourish when we have it, and suffer when we don’t.
The study of meaning in the terms of positive psychology was really started in the mid 20th century by Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and psychotherapist. Given the atrocities that he suffered through, and watched as others lost their sense of purpose and gave up on life, he is certainly an authority on the subject.
That’s why I love his quote, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, agreed with Aristotle that the meaning of life was to achieve our highest good through excellence in all areas of life.
Abraham Maslow, creator of the often-cited hierarchy of needs, has his theory of self-actualization, which states that the meaning of life is to grow toward your highest needs.
In short, many positive psychologists agree with the idea that achieving your highest self is, at least in part, the purpose of life.
The Pop-culture Approach
Lastly, I have to mention pop-culture, as some of the answers are just too good.
I’ve already referred to Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which gives us the answer to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything as “42”. While this obviously does not support the idea of living in excellent life, it certainly does bring a smile to my face.
But another popular culture interpretation comes from, surprisingly, Monty Python and their film, The Meaning of Life. In it, the main character, played by Michael Palin, is handed an envelope that says “the meaning of life”. When opened, the letter says: “Well, it’s nothing very special. Uh, try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”
I can’t think of a more hilarious way to think of our journey to be the best versions of ourselves.
Popular Answers to the Meaning of Life
If you do a quick Google search and look up the Wikipedia entry for “meaning of life”, you will find (at least at the time of this writing), a list of popular answers, all of which are divided into certain categories. I maintain that all of these, with two exceptions, are in line with being the best version of yourself. Let’s take a look at them:
- To realize one’s potential and ideals: this one is obvious. Clearly being your best self is a fulfillment of your ultimate potential and ideals.
- To achieve biological perfection: this goes back to the evolutionary theory, but ultimately the result is the same. Achieving biological perfection is part of becoming your best self.
- To seek wisdom and knowledge: you can’t become your highest self without an abundance of wisdom and knowledge, so this is also included in our definition of purpose.
- To do good or to do the right thing: this is the idea that we need to benefit the world around us in some way. This is another aspect that comes up over and over again. We cannot become our highest self without service to others.
- To love, to feel, to enjoy the act of living: finding happiness and joy in life is indisputably a sign that you are living life to its fullest. Additionally, by loving others, you are taking part in that service that is part of the journey of excellence.
- To have power, to be better: now while some could interpret this in a negative way, ultimately the concept of mastery is central to the idea of being your best self. The true power here is power over oneself.
Now, there are two concepts that are the exceptions that prove the rule. I include these because I know people come after me if I don’t, but also because I want to make it clear that I fundamentally disagree with them.
I realize that I do have to draw the line somewhere and stand up for what I personally believe, though in some cases I think we might not disagree as much as it seems on paper.
- Life has no meaning: this is a concept often referred to as Nihilism, and made popular by Friedrich Nietzsche. It is the concept that there is no meaning in life because human existence is a result of random chance, and that we as humans try to associate meaning only to justify our existence and for nothing else. However, if you believe that human existence is the result of random chance, then you probably believe in evolution, in which case our purpose is to achieve our best self for the purpose of the collective and passing on our genes, so we might not disagree as much as we think.
- One should not seek to know and understand the meaning of life: this is another one that I disagree with on a fundamental level. I do believe that we should seek after the meaning of life, but those who follow this philosophy believe that the meaning of life is either too profound, or that seeking after it can distract you from actually living. As I’ve already made clear, I do not believe that the meaning of life is too profound, I believe it is exactly what I have said it is: to achieve our highest self, but I do believe that obsessing so much over finding the meaning of life can distract you from actually living, so we agree on something there. Excess, as with everything, is never a good thing.
With these two schools of thought as the exception, I believe that virtually every attempt at explaining the purpose of life has centered around the concept of excellence, of achieving our highest self. Whether people agree with me or not is their prerogative, but this is one area where I have planted my flag. It serves as the number one motivational force in my life, and I truly believe that the pursuit of this ideal is the first step towards a healthy and happy life. I further believe that the more people seek after their highest self, the more our civilization will benefit.
Everything that I write from here on out is centered around this one concept. If you have a problem with it, I recommend that you get out now. Chances are we are not going to agree about other things in the future. Everything on this site hinges on the idea that life’s purpose is to seek after our individual excellence. So let’s start today to make each area of our life a little better.