What is your purpose in life?
Every January for the past 20 years, I have taken a few moments to ponder the answer to the big question, “What is the meaning of life?”
It’s one of those enormous questions that are so important—philosophically and practically in terms of how we live our lives—and yet we never stop to really think about the answer. Given that you might be able to formulate your response in less than a minute, the wisdom-to-effort ratio for this philosophical exercise could not be more advantageous. I tend to ponder such things as the creator of the Wisdom Project, a collection of writings about the wisdom in everyday life experiences.
Doing this simple exercise might even help you live longer. According to two separate studies published in 2014—one with 9,000 participants around age 65 and another with 6,000 people between 20 and 75—those who could articulate the meaning and purpose of their lives died later than those who saw their lives as aimless. It didn’t seem to matter what meaning participants ascribed to their lives, whether it was personal (such as happiness), creative (such as making art), or altruistic (such as making the world a better place). It was having an answer to the question that mattered. (Check out these 30 simple acts of kindness you can do in two minutes or less.)
The connection to longevity could be causal—having purpose may help one cope with daily stress, as other research has shown. But it could also be that those who think about life’s meaning are more likely to do other activities that promote good health. (Here are 13 things you need to know about optimism.)
The reason I ask this question year after year is that my answer changes over time, which I find interesting and insightful. There is no objectively correct answer, I believe—only answers that are right for you at any given time.
Great thinkers have given the question thought, so you can look to the words attributed to them for inspiration. Plato, the Greek philosopher who lived more than 2,300 years ago, concluded that only “love can light that beacon which a man must steer by when he sets out to live the better life.” Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote, “The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity.” Albert Einstein put it this way: “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.” Martin Luther King Jr. framed the sentiment as a question: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” And the Dalai Lama added, “If we find we cannot help others, the least we can do is desist from harming them.”
Others came to the same conclusion, in their own words. For instance, Scottish rugby legend Nelson Henderson put the notion poetically when he said, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” And actress Whoopi Goldberg’s meaning-of-life metaphor was to “throw little torches out to lead people through the dark.”
My favorite answer, though, is the Zen-like circular reasoning attributed to writer Robert Byrne, who put it, “The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” (These 16 quotes from Stephen Hawking might lead you to the meaning of life.)
Some have concluded that life’s meaning is subjective. “There is not one big cosmic meaning for all,” author Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary. “There is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.”
I agree, which is why I recommend formulating your own answer. Taking a few moments to record your response to the question “What is the meaning of life?” is the kind of simple exercise that effectively adds meaning to your life.
And then I suggest answering it every year. Looking back at how your thinking has evolved and been influenced by experience tells you something more about yourself. Cumulatively, it gets you closer to a deeper self-understanding.
In 1997, my answer was “the discovery, pursuit, and attainment of one’s bliss,” inspired by myth expert Joseph Campbell. A year later, it was to make “the world a better place.”
In 2002, the year I got engaged, it was simply “love.” And the year we conceived our oldest daughter, it was the less romantic “continuation of one’s DNA to the next generation.” But most years, my answer is some combination of love, legacy, happiness, experience, and helping others.
If you do the annual “meaning” exercise, I suggest not looking at past answers before answering anew. I write them down on the same now-yellowing piece of paper and keep it someplace safe.
The last use of this experiment is to try to turn your answer into action. If you conclude, as Tolstoy and Einstein did, that the meaning of life is helping others, that should help motivate you to do more of it. If “love” is the answer, then love more. If it’s “find your bliss,” then get searching for it.
This is not a theoretical exercise. Whatever small step you take toward finding the meaning of life is a step toward a more meaningful, and longer, life.