The Meaning of Life

For all the sages, gurus, life-coaches, sociologists and preachers who claim to possess the truth, the answers seem conspicuously unsatisfying. Praise God, make money, be happy, aggrandise the self; these, we are told, will provide meaning in life. No doubt, they are certainly answers, but, these answers don’t seem to sound quite right. They sound more like very specific answers for specific groups in reply to what is an existential question afflicting all people. These answers, judging by the fact we continue to ask the same question, do not provide the cathartic release that one would hope to gain from the truth.

When all the answers to a question prove to be unsatisfactory, there are two possible courses of action. The first is to reconsider the answers. After all, it is quite possible that the answers are just failing to answer correctly. The second is to reconsider the question. After all, if the question itself is flawed, then it only follows that one will receive flawed answers.

The question itself: what is the meaning of life, is worthy of investigation. What implies a thing, and because this ‘what’ is of life, the question splices the two and indicates that meaning and life are two separate things as if meaning itself cannot simply be attained through living and that be the end of it.

Most interesting is what is implied in the word meaning. Something meaningful has value, that is, there is something to be gained from it, in terms either material or spiritual. This approach, of gaining something is an integral aspect of what I would call our ideology of usefulness.


The commanding ideology informs us that we must educate ourselves for the exclusive purpose to get a job. Education itself, originally centred on the creative flourishing of the individual, is reduced to its most degraded form of the instrumentalisation of the intellect. According to the dominant orthodoxy, time spent contemplating philosophy is time wasted, and one must put their mental faculties to work. Here, useful means economically productive, and only the economically productive is worth one’s time.

Likewise, we are told that we can no longer afford to fund the creative arts, musicians, galleries, libraries and archives. In the face of economic hardship, we are told, money must be reallocated to that which is useful. Again, ‘useful’ in a reductively economic sense. While an art gallery might enrich/uplift/elate and for one moment allow the individual to transcend the everyday existence of working life, this art gallery, unfortunately, simply does not provide any use and therefore, is a necessary victim in the quest for ever-increasing use-value.

These two examples are two among a plethora. This type of thinking, of course, has its place. I take Panadol, not because I enjoy Panadol, but because it does something useful, it removes a headache. I drink water, not because I enjoy the water in of itself but because in drinking it, I get something I want, namely, removal of thirst. I work my job, not out of some devotion and inherent satisfaction of serving the system, but because I earn money which in turn allows me to purchase things which I find useful, like Panadol.

This particular way of thinking is focused on means and ends. It is premised on doing something to get something else out of it. Ultimately, the goal lies outside of the thing itself, like taking Panadol for a headache. Certainly, this thinking has its place and its benefits. However, its expression in Man’s reason and its dominance through capitalist utilitarianism has led to the diminishment if not total deletion of other ways of being in the world.

We have become increasingly unable to think of anything in life except in terms of its use. Even our [1] days off and [2] our feelings, and [3] our relationships are being drawn into this nexus of usefulness. [1] We think that on our days off we need to do all the things we can so we can feel like we have had a productive day. A day spent enjoying the sun is a day thought of as ‘wasted’. One must do the chores, run errands and effectively ‘work’ on their day off. [2] Feelings such as sadness, anger, grief or embarrassment are thought of us interferences/roadblocks/drawbacks of human expression. That is, they get in the way of you expressing yourself. They cannot be used – according to most thinking – to get where you want to be, therefore, they should be tossed aside or repressed. [3] We are encouraged to meet people and connect with those who will help us get further in our careers while dating apps such as Tinder are primarily about using people as objects of sexual gratification. Both revolve around the use of the other person to serve one’s own ends.

The thinking of means and ends, a pathology myopically focused on usefulness is not only the main vehicle for man’s reason. It is increasingly the only one. Wherever we look, more and more of life is being represented in terms of how it is useful; from our environment and our relationships to our feelings.

What is so bad about this you may ask? To treat usefulness as the absolute standard by which to judge everything in life we reduce the human experience to that which can be productive or helpful in some quantifiable way. It mistakes what can be measured as all there is to measure, entirely missing the immeasurable.

The immeasurable would be painting, sculpture, music, poetry, a serene landscape; these are things which transport us to another realm. Even if only for a split second, these allow us to transcend the humdrum of everyday life and experience a state of bliss. They are supremely useless[1], yet, they are an integral part of the human experience. To think about life exclusively in terms of usefulness is to deny those things which attempt to reach above and beyond the every day, and ultimately, it is to limit and deny our humanity.

We can now properly speak about the initial question, what is the meaning of life? The question assumes that life, the very experience of existence, is something which is meant to have a use value. The underlying assumption is there is something we get out of life, and in that lies the meaning.

Perhaps, we can think about the experience of existence as something useless. The idea is that life is not something you get things out of, but rather, something you enjoy.

Think of drinking water or taking Panadol. You do not care about the journey, what you want is the destination. You do not care about the water or Panadol, just the thing that you get at the end. You want water and Panadol only insofar as they satisfy some other goal you have. If you could have that end goal via a different means, you would do it and have no problem with it.

The immeasurable is not like that. Consider music. Music is not about getting something at the end. If it was, you would listen to everything on x2 speed, or just always skip to the final second. Music is something meant to be enjoyed, it doesn’t really offer much else. It is utterly useless, but also utterly fantastic for that very reason.

My suggestion is that rather than thinking of life as something with a meaning we should derive from it, the same way we derive relief from Panadol; we should think of life like a piece of music, useless, but very much to be enjoyed. Perhaps all the angst we experience is because we have been conditioned to think about life in entirely the wrong way. We spend all our time chasing/searching/striving for meaning, and in the process, we are too distracted to actually enjoy life.

In this light, the question what is the meaning to life is, ironically, a meaningless question. There is no meaning. But, this should not get us down. The fun in dancing is to dance for no particular reason and to just enjoy and feel the movements. In that, there is transcendence and freedom. We should treat life, less like a problem of finding meaning and instead, like a dance. The Hindu’s understood this. Shiva, the Hindu god of life, is also the god of dance.

[1] The word does not need to be interpreted negatively, that it is says much about how we think.

%d bloggers like this: