Many prominent figures have attempted to answer the question of what, if anything, makes life meaningful, although they typically have not put it in these terms. Consider, for example, Aristotle on the human function, Aquinas on the beatific vision, and Kant on the highest good.
But what does it mean to live a meaningful life? This question has been posed by philosophers since ancient times. In his book On the Happiness of Man (c. 450 BCE), Plato asks whether there is any way we can be happy without achieving certain goals or desires. And in his dialogue Phaedo (c. 380 BCE) Socrates asks whether the pursuit of pleasure is always desirable; he concludes that it isn’t, and that happiness lies elsewhere. In the early modern period, William Godwin’s essay What Is Art? (1793) provides a classic formulation of this problem. More recently, existentialist thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus have explored this issue through their writings about existence.
However, most contemporary philosophers do not address the question directly. Why is it that so few people seem to find life meaningful? To answer this question, I will focus on two main issues: (1) what makes something meaningful; and (2) how can we know what is important in our lives? My aim here is not to provide a comprehensive account of the nature of meaning. Rather, my goal is simply to identify those aspects of life that make us feel alive and happy.
Meaning in life can be thought of as the goal-directed behavior that we engage in as a result of making conscious choices. This concept has been debated by many philosophers, especially those in the existentialist tradition. However, the general idea is fairly intuitive: we all have a sense that our choices matter and that we can affect the world around us. Indeed, this idea is so intuitive that it is practically a tautology. So, what exactly is it about conscious choice that makes life meaningful?
One aspect of meaning in life is its ethical component. This follows from the fact that morality provides us with reasons for action. These reasons can be either moral or amoral, but either way they are the foundations upon which our actions and choices rest. There are three components to these reasons: facts, values, and obligation.
Our lives are governed by facts, and this is what gives rise to the distinction between the objective and subjective. For instance, it is a fact that it is currently Monday. This fact is objective since it is independent of human opinion; in other words, it would remain true whether or not anyone believed it to be true. It is also a fact that I am currently typing on my keyboard. However, facts can be divided into two categories: brute facts and institutional facts. Institutional facts are grounded in brute facts, but they also depend upon human agreement or consent for their veracity.
For instance, the fact that it is illegal to drive on the sidewalk is an institutional fact; this is made true by human agreement, but it would not be true unless people agreed or consented to this rule. By contrast, the fact that I have five fingers on my right hand is a brute fact; it is true whether or not humans believe it to be true. The distinction between brute facts and institutional facts is an important one, because many of our facts are institutional in nature. It is for this reason that we can question the meaning of our lives.
The meaning of life can be seen as a function of the facts that govern it. Some facts give meaning to our lives by giving it a purpose or goal; these facts are value-laden, and as such, they provide reasons for action. For instance, I might value health because I want to live a long and happy life. Other facts give meaning to our lives by imposing obligations upon us; for instance, I have a duty to pay my taxes because it is the law.
Meaning arises from the relationship between facts and values. Consider an example: many people value wealth, but the acquisition of wealth does not in itself give life meaning. Rather, it is the value that one places on wealth that imbues it with meaning. This value could be the result of an objective fact; for instance, one might acquire wealth in order to give to those who are poorer than themselves. In this case, acquiring wealth would be the means to an end, and that end would be the satisfaction of helping others. By contrast, one might acquire wealth without any intention of helping others; in this case, the value that one places on wealth would be the result of a subjective fact. It is important to note that this subjective fact need not be an opinion or a matter of preference; it could just as easily be something that one “just feels.”
Whatever the source, values provide reasons for action. These reasons are given validity by our choices and decisions. We can make choices and decisions based on facts alone, but this would not give meaning to our lives; it is the incorporation of values that gives meaning to our lives. In this way, we make meaning out of the world around us. Without values, life would be nothing more than a series of random and disconnected events. With values, life becomes a journey with a purpose.
In short, the meaning of life is found in the relationships between facts and values. If you wish to find your own meaning in life, then you must first determine what makes up your values. Then, you must determine how those facts relate to each other and ultimately to yourself. Once you have done so, you will know what it is that makes up your sense of self and thus what it is that defines your worth as a person.