Summary: 18th Gentle Thinkers Debate (Creating meaning in life)

“Humans have a short physical existence on a planet that will eventually cease to support life at all. In this context, what strategies should humans use to impart meaning to their own lives? Some possibilities are listed. Which of these have you used, and how effective have they been? Are different approaches appropriate to different stages of life?

A. Compete with other humans (e.g. for status)
B. Care for other humans (e.g. as a humanitarian)
C. Maximize close connections with other humans (e.g. with a love partner)
D. Maximize positive subjective experiences (e.g. “be happy”)
E. Align yourself with what you believe to be a higher purpose (e.g. politics)
F. Adhere to a set of rules/standards (e.g. moral precepts)
G. Attempt to create something that will outlive you (e.g. art)
H. Invest in the next generation of humans (e.g. your biological offspring)
I. Mastery / Growth / Self-Improvement
J. Other approaches?”

Note: This summary is based and interpreted from notes taken during the debate and may contain errors. If you wish to correct, be attributed to or contribute content, please contact me or post a comment.

Update 3/12/2013: Included extra strategy (Mastery / Growth / Self-Improvement) to the list and an incomplete tally of what members said gave their life meaning.

More summaries are available via the Summary Index.


  • Reading list and introductory essay by Thor May

  • Finding and creating meaning in life is a different pursuit to the question of “what is the meaning of life”.

  • The group agreed that the individual is responsible for determining what makes their life meaningful as this varies from person to person.

  • Humans may need to justify their actions (lives) to themselves to feel complete satisfaction.

  • We may be more likely to seek justification for our lives when we are at emotional lows and facing challenging situations.

  • We may also re-evaluate our choices and priorities depending on what circumstances we find ourselves in.

  • People can learn from various life experiences; stemming from contemplation, suffering, brushes with death, a change in routine, new environments and the spiritual.

  • Some members of the group believe that living in/for the present moment is a good strategy for creating a meaningful existence.

  • With this strategy, one would be focusing on the positives and appreciation of the simple pleasures as you can’t change the past and the future is unknown.

  • One member commented that the “correct” attitude towards life is a state of awe. This was described as perceiving life without the bias of memory and outside influences.

  • We are fortunate that we are able to direct our own lives but most of humanity are unable to do so as they are in circumstances beyond their own control, lack agency and are in environments that require internal or external political, social and economical interventions (perhaps more).

  • Ideally as fellow humans, we’d be able to find ways to help them fight the various forms of oppression and stupidity they are faced with.

  • There is no universal (one size fits all) meaning to life but there may be ones that are common to the human experience.

  • We are able to share our experiences despite the differences in language and culture through various means like the creative arts.

  • Although humans are finite and the universe will keep growing without, impermanence is not a fatal flaw.

  • Temporary improvements will still be valuable experiences to the people who received the benefits.

  • Routine and habits are important on a basic level for some people. The need for structure may be innate but it is taught and enforced by culture.

  • Complex rituals (imagination) may be necessary for those who live very simplistic lives. Eg. tribal cultures, the stereotypical bored housewife.

  • While some of us are content with our lives and others still have several centuries worth of things to do, personal growth was a common aspiration amongst the group.

“Name one thing that makes your life meaningful?”
The group was asked this question and responded with the following:

Living an interesting life: 1
Contributing to civilisation: 1
Mastery / Growth / Self-Improvement: 3
Attempt to make something that will outlive you (eg art): 1
Creating: 1
Living in the present moment: 1
Curiosity: 1
A combination of all of the suggested: 1
Undecided: 1

Interesting questions posed by the group:

If today was your last day, would you be satisfied with the outcomes (for you and others) achieved in that life?

Is a happy life a different thing from a meaningful existence?

Can we be completely happy?

Would we have more meaningful lives if competing to make the lives of others better was a cultural norm?

Additional content covered by the debate:

The poetry of  Omar Khayyám [Wikipedia]


More summaries are available via the Summary Index.

5 thoughts on “Summary: 18th Gentle Thinkers Debate (Creating meaning in life)

  1. Even as in inveterate social outsider, I was struck by the overall focus on self in this particular meetup. Note that there is a moral expectation in some cultures that the self will be subsumed by the greater interests of the group.

    By the mores of many cultures I have encountered, the following values would be expected (however well or poorly met in practice) :

    Life is meaningless without –

    – Contributing to the welfare of contemporary others
    – Providing for future generations, either through having children or some other enduring activity / creation
    – Participating as a loyal member of a family, culture, nation, humanity in general

    • I never got a chance to mention: I find your routine/structure hypothesis interesting, but perhaps instead of providing meaning in life, it makes people so satisfied and happy simply because it provides them with so many things to do other than to contemplate the lack of meaning. Perhaps routine and structure just fill up people’s time with distraction from meaninglessness, and that is why people seek it out and enjoy having it.

      • Chaos, by definition, is not meaningful. It is within degrees of freedom that people cultivate their fields of life meaning. The nature and strictness of bounding required varies hugely with individuals. Those outer bounds may be set by some combination of culture, religion, expectation, habit, and the required routines of daily life. Without sufficient bounds, and lacking the character to generate them, large numbers of people simply fall into dissolution or even die. My sister, a professional social worker, comes across such individuals all the time. It is a multiplying problem in increasingly complex societies, and no one has really found an answer to it. “Education”, whatever that means, is simply not a panacea at the margins of this bell curve.

        If you ever do a philosophy course you will become sick to death of arguments about the meaning of meaning. It is actually one of those words which are mental sticky notes, attached to whatever you fancy. What is “meaningful” is entirely subjective of course. Once you get over sex, it may be a good idea to find a life partner who shares some of what you find to be meaningful. Navigating the wide world is a bit different, since for those with a curious turn of mind, finding what others think is meaningful and why is pretty interesting (even if you don’t agree with them). Sadly, many people have minimal levels of curiosity, and I know some who always play low volume radio chatter to avoid the danger of reflective thoughts creeping in at the edges. Instant gratification is their idea of meaningful. There may be no cure for that, not that they would consider a cure desirable.

  2. Some (myself included) asked the question, “what does ‘meaning’ actually mean here?” I don’t think we got a clear answer. Some said that it was different from happiness, but I disagree. I argued that it could be defined as satisfaction/contentment with one’s life, most likely derived from having achieved a specific self-set purpose/goal. This is a much more precise and less ambiguous definition that makes discussion much easier. But most people seemed unhappy with it. I still don’t know what alternative/s they had in mind. I’m guessing neither do they.

  3. Many people also agreed that while there are many people out there who are willing to classify a lifestyle as meaningless, they are not good people to have as friends, and that is because all meaning is defined internally by each individual: Each person chooses what is meaningful to them.
    I disagree with this idea. It reminds me of moral relativism ( and an unwillingness to intervene when there are problems outside of your personal sphere.
    Most people agree that it is possible to spend a life beneficially as a doctor or a scientist, and that it is possible to spend it detrimentally as a serial killer or scam artist, and that there are varying degrees of benefit and harm depending on how these lives are spent. If there is such a spectrum, then surely as you travel from the positives to the negatives, you will inevitably find the zero point. Therefore, if we accept that you can help or harm with how you spend your life, then we must also logically accept that it is physically possible to waste your life.
    All I’m saying is that it is possible, and that it isn’t helpful to shy away from the question, “how can we avoid wasting our lives?” Answering this question is important, and it does imply value judgements of people’s lives. But I think we have to accept that the world isn’t all nice and fluffy all the time, and sometimes bad things happen for no reason, and people can in fact waste their lives. We need to face the cold, harsh light of reality if we truly want to do some good.

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