Purpose and Meaning in Life
What's the point of it all? It's a question that continues to vex. It's also one that the author Douglas Adams wrote about in his comic science fiction series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: What is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything? In the Hitchhiker’s Guide, a group of super-intelligent beings build a supercomputer that spends over seven million years on the question, which turns out to be 42, but which then fails to understand the ultimate question.
Intriguingly, a whole series of explanations were then proposed as to why Adams had chosen the number 42. Some people thought it related to binary code. Others said light refracts at 42 degrees to create a rainbow, and there were more besides. Adams finally took time off laughing to point out, there was no hidden meaning, it was just a number. Despite this, the number took on a life of its own, and continues to pop up in places where people attribute their own meaning to it. What does this say about us?
At one level it must say something about our need to find purpose and meaning in life, even if it means our creative natures can lead us to strange places. Yet at a more serious level a life without apparent meaning or purpose is a common feature of depression, and this means it’s important. Meaning in life helps to provide us with a necessary anchor and it gives some direction from which we can set goals. Feeling trapped or pointless is certainly a recipe for unhappiness and this is why it’s important to take stock from time to time and ask a few questions.
What do you want from life? It’s the most simple yet the most loaded question of all. At certain points in life you may be content with your lot and at others you feel more restless. You may feel a drive to do something bigger and better, something outside of yourself, but you can’t figure out what. The fact is we are never taught how to uncover our goals, although there are plenty of books out there that are prepared to tell you how, for a price.
I’m not sure I know the answer either, but my guess is that, for most people, it’s not about some single-minded enterprise. For most of us life is about compromise, but we can still endeavor to follow a path that offers both meaning and purpose. First, there’s no rush. Purpose may not reveal itself until some particular event is experienced. This may happen by observing others, or listening to their stories, or simply through your own curiosity or stumbling into new situations. Secondly, your own experiences can be life changing and may compel you to think about things differently. You may decide to take risks or you may take a more measured and thoughtful approach.
Purpose in life is a concept many people don’t wish to consider. This probably means they are getting on with life and can’t be bothered with weird or abstract concepts. That’s fine, but we also know that a belief you are making some difference, and that life has purpose, is the basis of wellbeing. The meaning we get from work, personal relationships, hobbies and interests are all very personal, and while we may accept that not everything can be positive in all these aspects all of the time, the basic balance needs to be positive, if we are to enjoy a stable foundation to life and a sense of direction.