Great philosophers have pondered the meaning of life and written comprehensive discourses articulating ways to harmoniously exist. Aristotle laid out a broad interpretation, saying the ultimate goal is eudaimonia (happiness). French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre claimed there is no objective meaning or purpose in life outside the freedom each individual creates. Douglas Adams clearly articulates in his work, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” that “The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is . . . 42.” That being said, these are 5 different approaches to the meaning of life everyday people may find illuminating.
1: The Pursuit of Pure Pleasure
Some people take Aristotle’s idea about happiness as the goal to an extraordinary sensory level. Hedonism is the relentless pursuit of pleasure primarily through the physical world. It involves experiencing fine foods, wines, music, art, and eroticism. Although hedonists are often remembered for their sometimes excessive sexual leanings, hedonism can include anything that provides pleasure.
2: Embracing the Struggle
The ancient Greeks laid the foundation for wide-reaching ways to approach the meaning of life, and the Spartans set an iconic example. Virtue for the soldier-class involved adapting and overcoming hardships in an effort to acquire self-discipline and wage war.
The notion that life is but a struggle is reflected across music, films, theater, and literature. Perhaps the most iconic tale involves Sisyphus. In punishment for escaping the underworld, he is tasked with forever pushing a boulder up a hill only to see it roll down the other side. His meaning is derived from labor and toil. Hedonists find such scenarios bleak.
3: Fill Your Life with Purpose
The existentialism of Sartre can fill some people with dread. The idea we live without objective meaning leaves people thinking life is not worth living. But the existentialists offer a viable solution that revolves around choosing a purpose.
By considering your values, it’s possible to bring about positive change by exercising your freedom. Joining the Peace Corps, becoming a doctor, fighting for civil rights, and protecting the environment are all ways seemingly ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things. These actions are a purposeful way to approach the meaning of life.
4: Follow a Higher Power
Religious doctrine teaches that the precise opposite of existentialism holds true. Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and polytheistic religions point to a higher being or beings who created life and expect humans to practice an ethical code of conduct. By following laws such as the Ten Commandments, people live a more meaningful existence and will be rewarded in the afterlife. Essentially, this approach to the meaning of life involves building a relationship with a higher power.
5: Modern Day Mindfulness and Buddhism
Early Buddhism taught that life is suffering, and we can overcome this condition through mindful mediations and right actions, among others. During the Fifth Century, Indian prince Siddhartha Gautama renounced his life of wealth and entitlement to become a beggar while searching for the meaning of life. He discovered that extremes were not necessarily the best way to become enlightened.
Developing a “Middle Way,” he taught that deep meditation, increased mindfulness, and a thoughtful approach to everyday life can end human suffering. Today, Buddhism has evolved into different branches, Therevada primarily teaching that either the purpose of spiritual practice is to develop ones own inner enlightenment, and Mahayana Buddhism teaching us that we are inseparable from others and our environment. On this latter view, the purpose of life is to help others as well as oneself, gradually develop a society based on compassion and respect for the dignity of life, and ultimately achieve enlightenment together through concrete actions in daily life.