What exactly is a life of purpose and meaning

Most of my understanding of human behavior is lifted from evolutionary psychology. So I figure in that field there must be an exploration of this aspect of human behavior, but I am not sure what it is.

So what is a life of purpose and meaning, preferably from an evolutionary psychology point of view?

The concept itself seems to be service to other sentient creatures to help them achieve their goals (physical goals, psychological goals, social goals, personal goals, etc). Basically helping to maintain the mental, physical and social integrity of other sentient creatures that are part of your social unit.

So helping poor people obtain food, or helping the sick recover, or helping reunite families, helping to cure disease are all laudable goals that many people would find would give them purpose or meaning. If you can look back and see that if you had not been on this earth, then the integrity of other sentient creatures would be diminished then I guess you’ve lived a meaningful life.

Integrity is just a way to say staving off decay of order. Since biological creatures require huge amounts of energy input to maintain their sense of order and are extremely vulnerable, our social, biological and personal sense of self (as a healthy individual, a contributing member of society with status, an independent individual with an internal locus of control, someone with a healthy cognitive framework) can break down easily due to disease, trauma, setbacks, etc. Its like the movie Hellraiser said, Hell must be a place of pure chaos. Maintaining order in the chaos is hard. And getting a sense of meaning from helping other people maintain order seems to be the goal.

And from an evolutionary perspective, a tribe of 100 people where individuals obtained a sense of fulfillment from helping the other 99 members maintain their physical, social and psychological integrity against threats and entropy would have survival advantages over one where there was no sense of meaning. Just as long as people reciprocated the efforts. If not, people would feel cheap.

So what is a meaningless life? Is it a life where the only goal is to serve yourself? Or is there something else? Is a life meaningless if you life in a studio apartment, have no friends, no goals beyond yourself and only have your job and your hobbies?

An excellent OP. I too, have heard the phrase “A life of purpose and meaning,” and wondered at what a rigorous examination and definition would yield. It seems like a cop out, part of the problem being is that one man’s purpose and meaning would do little for another therefore it is up to each of us to solve it on our own. Sounds good, but not a very satisfying answer.

I once heard a psychiatrist say that he could solve most of his patients’ problems simply by dropping them into the middle of the woods a la Bear Grylls and letting them struggle their way out.

Thinking about that, I believe there’s some truth, but more to it than that. Two excellent books Deep Survival and The Unthinkable both cite an interesting fact of life threatening crisis situations: The single greatest indicator for your survival in a crisis situation is whether or not you have someone dependent upon you. A man, lost in the woods is more likely to die than a man, lost in the woods, who needs to drag out his wounded and helpless friend. I think that’s the big “It.” Being needed, having others reliant upon you.

That term sounds like someone else wanting you to fit their agenda. " Try to live a life of purpose and meaning" translated “Here’s what’s important to me, make it important to you”.

Reminds me of " If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything" Meaning-“If you don’t stand for what I espouse, you’ll fall for something I don’t”.

I’ve heard this in response to my agnosticism.

Let’s say you have a solitary individual who lives as a recluse in the mountains away from society. He doesn’t donate money to charity or volunteer in the town soup kitchen. A misanthrope.

What he does do in his isolation is work on mathematical puzzles and theories. But he doesn’t share any of this with anyone else because it’s just something his mind likes to work on. He has no motivation for academic recognition or exploring how his theories may or may not make society better. He just doesn’t care. Total apathy.

After he dies, people discover his notes and it turns out his mathematics eventually help society invent technology to make life better.

So, did he live a meaningless life? Judging by your biased criteria in the OP, he did.

I don’t know for sure what constitutes a meaningful or meaningless life, which is why I’m asking.

But it seems to be something humans crave.

What if after the mathematician dies his notes get blown away in the wind and are never found instead of used to make new technologies? Would that make a difference?

We owe it to the rest of mankind to be civil. We shouldn’t be required to be productive. That’s up to the individual.

To some folks, it would not make a difference.

Your OP put a heavy emphasis on “helping others” as a key to the meaning of life. Let me turn that upside down a bit.

Suppose you had a person that did not have any desire at all to help others. He’s not evil – he just doesn’t have any inborn desire to go out of his way to help people. His true preference is to just sit all day alone reading books and working on scientific theories. However, through peer pressure, or society expectations, he volunteers at the Red Cross, donates blood, mentors children, works 2 jobs to put his brothers through college, etc, etc. But all these activities take away from his “true passion.” One could argue that the diversion from pursuing his (selfish?) goals is an example of a living out a meaningless life even though he helped others.

The “meaning of life” is often a social construct disguised as some type of absolute morality. Similar to what jimpatro wrote in post #3.

[Jack Palance as Curly in City Slickers]{holding up one finger}“It’s this…”[/JPaCiCS]

Not really meant as a joke. It’s something that you have to figure out because what a life of purpose and meaning is to me may or may not be what it is to you. Generally I think the Ethic of Reciprocityis the best principal to live by and if it doesn’t lead you there directly I’m pretty sure it’ll take you to a place where you can ask directions from someone who knows the area.

The question is the answer. The purpose and meaning of life is to discover the purpose and meaning of life. It requires deep thought, continuing education and an amalgamation of many disciplines. We seek truths and want to distill the complexities of life into simple answers. It may not be possible but the effort is elevating . Our knowledge base gets wider and deeper and we learn more about ourselves and our abilities as the search goes on. Hopefully it is species elevating and we can become better residents of the world through the process.

And what if there is no “meaning of life” ? Why does there have to be? I get along just fine without one as do others.

There is no more “meaning” to human lives than the lives of birds and bees. We just do what comes naturally, mate if lucky, and die.

The purpose and meaning of life is survival on one level or another since all species that didn’t behave in ways that encourage survival went extinct already. Since that is what we have been engineered to do by natural selection, you’d assume our major psychological outlets and constructs are designed to help us do this in one way or another. So I’m trying to figure out, from an evolutionary psychology point of view, what people mean by ‘a life of meaning and purpose’. I’m not really looking for a religious explanation or philosophical.

Again, it seems most people get purpose and meaning out of service to other sentient creatures in their social unit. Which would make you more valuable to the society (and increase the investment society puts back into you), increase reciprocation towards you and help the group you are dependent on survive. So so far, that seems to be where the desire for a meaningful, purposeful life comes from. You have to do that and do it in such a way that you know you are personally responsible for the benefits that were caused.

So if you personally invent a drug that will save 100,000 people from horrible suffering, you have lived a meaningful life by many people’s standards.

But what if you invent a drug and you never bother bring it to market? Is that meaningful?

What if you invent the drug but your worst enemy gets credit for it and nobody knows you really did it?

What if you are part of a team of 10,000 scientists who invent the drug and you were just a cog, replaceable and minor?

Does it still have meaning in those situations?

If someone gets a sense of meaning out of that, then good for them. I’m not talking about forcing everyone into a life of service.

However it seems when most people talk about lives of meaning and purpose, it usually has to do with service for many people.

And wouldn’t scientific theories be a form of service since you are contributing to the world’s knowledge base? Would it matter if someone preferred to spend all their time and energy collecting stamps or watching youtube videos rather than creating scientific theories?

Or another scenario:

You personally invent a drug (you are 100% responsible for its creation) that will save 100,000 people from deep, severe suffering. However all 100,000 of those people are serial sex offenders who have no interest in rehabilitation (and the drug has nothing to do with their crimes). Is that still meaningful?

What if you are an American, and the drug helps people in China instead of Americans? Would that make a difference? I know people will probably say ‘no, of course not’, but the reality is the suffering of those who are different from us generally isn’t as important as our own. We spend 2.5 trillion on healthcare in the US, but a tiny, tiny fraction providing health care to impoverished people in foreign nations.

What if the benefits of the drug are never recognized in your lifetime, and are only noticed 50 years after you die? Is that still meaningful?

It seems certain traits of meaning involve:

being personally responsible for something constructive that helps with biological survival on some level
Getting credit
being of service to others who are part of and useful to your social unit

I think your OP has started off with a flawed framework – helping people vs not helping people. It looks like you’ve taken a goal that’s important to you (such as reducing human suffering) and worked backwards from that to define The Meaning of Life.

There are plenty of thinkers that do not work backward from that endpoint (a contribution to society) such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche.

You mention evolutionary psychology. From what I’ve read, much of that theory has a mechanistic/deterministic flavor so it makes no sense to retrofit Meaning of Life on top of it.

For example, we evolved from primates a few million years ago. Did those primates contemplate “meaning of life”? And those primates apparently evolved from primordial soup of single-celled organisms 3 billion years ago. Do those single-celled organisms have a meaning of life? And then those single-cell organisms originated from matter created at the center of stars – hydrogen, carbon, atoms, protons, quarks, etc. Does a subatomic particle such as a proton contemplate a meaning of life?

Its been a decade since I’ve read either Nietzsche or Schopenhauer, so I really don’t recall their stances. I’ll have to look them up.

I think you are misinterpreting what I mean by ‘meaning of life’. I do not mean some ethereal, divine reason for living that has nothing to do with simple biological survival. I mean that there are certain behaviors that enhance our biological survival that we are designed to feel give us meaning. If bacteria had advanced nervous systems and certain behavior greatly improved not only their individual genetic fitness, but the survival of the social unit they were dependent on, I wouldn’t be surprised if bacteria found lives lived in accordance with those goals to be very purposeful, meaningful and fulfilling.
I really do not know of many people who find meaningful, fulfilling lives that do not in some way involve service in one form or another. They may be out there, but the reason I made that assumption is that I haven’t seen many that were not.

And like I said, a social group where individuals got meaning out of service would have survival advantages over one where they were all self interested. At the same time, due to reciprocation a person who lives a ‘meaningful life’ of service is going to get far more protection, resources and attention directed at them than a person who lives a life that is either considering meaningless or openly destructive.

But its good to get a different perspective. While trying to research Nietzsche and Schopenhauer I found this list of philosophers on the meaning of life.


Service is listed by several (service to a higher power, service to other people, service to causes and ideas). But several popular theories involve reaching self actualization or just enjoying life.

So I guess in the eyes of many people you can become self actualized and still lead a meaningful, purposeful life even if you live in a cave and rarely have human contact. Some buddhist monks would fit this description.

So yes, maybe my framework is flawed and not complete.

Very simple. The purpose of life is to reproduce successfully. Any meaning beside this, or in spite of this, is a human construct. This isn’t to dismiss such philosophies, just that they don’t have a definitive basis, beyond their role in influencing reproductive success.

I know. The central purpose and meaning of life is biological survival and all it entails (your biological survival, survival of progeny, maintaining social status, maintaining of the social unit you are with, etc).

However many people seem to feel there is a life of higher purpose, so how does that relate to the evolutionary purpose of life?

Well you’ve partly answered your own question. The perception of a higher purpose has played a significant role in the social dynamics of the human species throughout recorded history, and likely pre-history. Arguably, it has generally functioned as an evolutionary advantage to individuals and groups subscribing to it. Contrast the reproductive success of religious believers mandated to ‘go forth and multiply’, with educated liberal atheists. Demographic war puts your genes ahead of the game, regardless of the veracity of such a philosophy.

I’ve made my opinions about evolutionary psychology known. You, obviously, feel differently, but even acknowledging the different angles that we come from I think you’re assumptions need some review. Ever since people started explaining human behavior in this way, there’s been a split, with one group saying that we’re evolved to be nice, helpful, and supportive, while the other group insists that we’re programmed to look out for number one and disregard all others. Neither group, however, can actually find the genes that make us do these things. It’s been fifty years since the discovery of DNA and ten years since we sequenced the human genome. We’ve poured money, time, and effort into matching up genes with traits. Yet we’ve yet to find any gene that governs social behavior, whether pro- or anti-cooperation.

Plus, service to others isn’t programmed into us. Babies don’t come into the world are start crawling towards the Salvation Army to make a donation. We have to teach young children to behave decently. We make them share their toys and not snatch things from other kids. Later we teach them the rules of politeness, manners, and civility. Later still, ethics and morality. If no one teaches a kid these things, the kid never learns them. Research shows that the experiences a child has determine the eventual structure of the brain; it is not determined by genes.

And evidence of this can be seen just by looking around. Young people today care less about helping others and more about advancing themselves than any previous generation. 80% list “making lots of money” as a life goal, up from 45% fifty years ago. 51% list becoming famous. Meanwhile the percentages of those wanting to contribute to their community, serve others, or take on leadership roles has gone down. (All according to this book.)