The Meaning of Life 
By Walter Sorochan Emeritus Professor San Diego State University

Posted: September 28, 2921; update October 3, 2021.

Rich man or poor man! Which are you? How did you get that way? What kind of life do you live?

People are different and have had different experiences and upbringing. So it would be logical to assume that they would have different views on the meaning of life. But what is life all about? There should be some common denominator to hint what life should be in general! This article attempts to search for a common life denominator and explore life.

The obvious perception about life is that different countries and races have their own beliefs about what life is all about, how to life and what life means. Even those of the same race will perceive of life differently. So how do we sort out life?  We need to start out from the beginning when babies are born and follow babies starting at birth.

Life begins when a baby is born. The newborn's brain reacts to the surrounding environment. Mother's milk nurtures the baby. Life in the first month of life for the baby is one of satisfying it's hunger, feeling good after urinating and defecating and feeling mother's touches and love. It is mother's feeding, touches and love that sustains the baby's life. Although the baby's brain on day one is empty, the baby is eager to explore and learn new things all the time, even later as a teenager, adult and as a senior. The mental-mind-brain is a sponge! It absorbs everything the child can hear, see and feel. This is the science of plasticity.  1

So let us start from the beginning of the birth of a child and briefly follow how the mental-mind-brain develops throughout life. [Plasticity   1   ] The premise is that we learn all sorts of things, usually from parents, good and bad, from early childhood into adulthood. Babies are born with an empty 'nothing' brain'. There is no information, there are no habits and no values in the brain of the newborn. From day one, the brain acquires everything, except the natural instincts of survival ---- breathing, movement of limbs, hunger and elimination. It is the baby's mental-mind-brain that becomes a memory storage for everything that happens in the life of a baby, and as the baby grows into a child, a teenager, an adult and eventually a senior. Without realizing, parents begin acculturating the new born child on the day the baby is born. A big part of acculturation in babies is imprinting or bonding to their mother by responding to human touch, love, sight, sound and breast feeding. Babies thrive and grow with human touch and attention or can die without it. One could hypothesize that human touch is a form of maternal love that somehow becomes an essential part of the human mind throughout life. All humans need it and touch-love experience is part of what seniors need as well. Babies are born into an exciting new environment of air, physical surroundings and strangers, who become mama and daddy, and later significant others. New experiences are frightening to the baby. Its' only way to communicate how it feels is to cry when the baby feels uncomfortable. By one year most babies can walk, then experience the thrill of running and jumping and starting to talk. This sends them on an enthusiastic journey of exploring their new world. They store thousands of images as information and memories in their brain. Learning to talk and communicate is a fresh new mental-mind-brain experience that conditions the mind for more learning.

Science tells us that there is an appropriate time for learning new skills. The appropriate time makes it easy to learn new languages early in childhood, whereas doing so later on makes it much more difficult. The same appropriate timing seems to also work for learning other skills, such as music and the 3Rs. But if the proper learning time is missed, then it is difficult if not impossible to catch up later on. New science tells us that children's first years set the stage for all future learning, especially personality development. Children's brains explode with learning new things as they grow from two to five years. It is during this stage of a child's life that parents unwittingly inculcate their children with values and ideas that lay the foundation for life. These values can be morality, simple virtues, developing a taste for food, and ideas such as good /bad, happy/sad, right/wrong, hate/love and sick/healthy. Many have observed that 6 to 10 year olds may have better morality than parents, politicians and older persons. It is as though morality has been programmed into the human RNA. Most parents are unaware that they are planting important ideas, values and morality into the minds of their children. Change the environment and you change life in every child, teen and adult.

The mind-brain has a built-in programmed morality that most persons are unaware of. The mind-brain seeks excellence, perfection, optimal wellbeing and the truth. In so doing, the mind-brain also seeks meaning and purpose in all endeavors of life.

It is in the early stages of life that parents, teachers and significant others have timely opportunistic moments as 'guidance' to expose children to the meaning and purpose of life. Many children become adults lacking a purpose in life and drift aimlessly while others are fortunate to receive guidance. A Pew survey   2   revealed a large group of Americans with low income and dead end jobs also suffer from economic scarcity, social scarcity and spiritual scarcity all at the same time. Less educated people were less likely to say that friendship was a source of meaning in their lives. They were less likely to say hobbies were a source of meaning, nor was learning, nor good health nor stability.

So .... can a person, regardless of age, find a purpose in life?  Yes they can, even depressed and those on drugs. People can find meaning in life by identifying their talent, potential skills, fulfill dreams, learn to become knowledgeable; go to college; have meaningful experiences; evolve wisdom; do the right thing; have a passion for what they do and belief in what they do.

A person's life has meaning [for themselves, others] as the life events result from their achievements, legacy, family, etc.. Many seek religion, institutions of higher learning, law or medicine, as a way of finding work that gives them a meaning of life. You must always have a purpose to keep you going. Having a purpose in life is what gives you a reason to get out of bed in the morning. It gives you the energy and motivation to believe that today will be better than yesterday. It gives your life the meaning it needs to make everything worthwhile. There are few things as important in mental health and personal growth as having a purpose in life and living a meaningful life.

Having meaning in our lives, as Viktor Frankl   3    would say, directly affects our mental health. Viktor Frankl is one of the first modern day scientists to write extensively about purpose in life. Based on his profound survival experiences in Nazi concentration camps [starving and eating green grass], Frankl created several theories on why a greater purpose in life might help people live longer. In one theory, he hypothesized that people with higher purpose are able to live longer because they have a greater will to live. Echoing a sentiment spoken by Nietzsche, Frankl said, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’” In the context of this study, people with higher purpose may act in healthier ways and take more preventive steps because they have a greater will to live, which gives them more incentive to take preventive measures that may seem time consuming, costly, fear-inducing experiences, or even pain.

This is confirmed by complementary studies such as the one published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2019. a study, led by doctors Ying Chen and Erik Kim,  4   having a purpose has a direct impact on physical health, psychological balance, self-esteem, and emotional processing. These goals, and the meaning that each one gives to one’s existence, act as an internal support which takes away burdens, filters fears, and restores balance and hope. People can find meaning in life by: identifying one's talent and potential; fulfilling dreams; learn to become knowledgeable; evolve wisdom; do the right thing; having a passion and belief in what they do.  5

Pragmatists would argue that meaning of life comes from living and discovering it. But it is helpful to have significant others provide experiences that point one in the right direction.

The answer to the meaning of life is a philosophical one. Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, argued that "life has meaning when everything is done with a goal and that the goal is good. This, in turn, gives living and life a meaning and purpose. Aristotle's solution is the Highest Good, which is desirable for its own sake. It is its own goal. This involves achieving "happiness", "well-being", "flourishing", and "excellence".   6   7 

Aristotle argued that as we mature, we act less aimlessly and more purposefully. We try to develop a plan for living that unites all our various purposes. Without a plan for living, we don’t know what we are trying to do or why we’re trying to do it. Moreover, not just any plan will do—we need the right plan, which is one that aims at the final or ultimate end. But what is the final end of human life, the end that all of us ought to aim at? For Aristotle, the final end of human life is to flourish, to live well, to have a good life.  Thus what is good for one person is good for another; in other words, there is a right plan for living well. The end, goal, purpose (or meaning) of human life is to live well.   8

There is ample scientific evidence, as pointed out by Fotuhi and Mehr, that establishing and pursuing a sense of purpose in life can have powerful beneficial effects on both our brain and our body. Purpose is defined as deriving meaning from daily experiences, having goals that are attainable, and a sense that life is important and worth living.   9  10

Most persons seldom reflect on the meaning of life.  This is especially true when they are too busy enjoying life and having a good time. To them, life is having fun or joy as in getting drunk. But as they get older, they begin to wonder about what is their purpose in life .... why are they living? Brooks  11     and the Pew survey   12   reflect on the meaning of life in the younger generation and that their concern may be different from their elder's views.  

Life without meaning is like a sailboat that has no rudder and no direction.  Meaning in life gives direction and a purpose to life. The meaning of life, or the answer to the question "What is the meaning of life?", pertains to the significance of living or existence in general. Many other related questions include: "Why are we here?" "What is life all about?" or "What is the purpose of existence?"

There have been a large number of proposed answers to these questions from many of different cultural and ideological backgrounds. The search for life's meaning has produced much philosophical, scientific, theological, and metaphysical speculation throughout history. Different people and cultures believe different things for the answer to this question.

The meaning of life as we perceive it is derived from philosophical and religious contemplation of, and scientific inquiries, about existence, social ties, consciousness, and happiness.

So after all this mish-mash, what is life? Life is being born and having many learning experiences that shape who one is.

It is exposure to experiences that evolve meaning. Aristotle's arguments about life make sense. You have to believe in what you do, have a love or passion for what you do. It is what you do that has good for you and others that, in turn, gives you a noble righteous goal and reason to live. Life has meaning when everything is done with a goal and that the goal is excellent,  brings happiness and good. This, in turn, gives living and life meaning and a reason for living.

The mind-brain seeks excellence, perfection, optimal wellbeing and the truth. In so doing, the mind-brain also seeks meaning and purpose in all endeavors of life.


1 Sorochan Walter, "Plasticity,", December 30, 2018.  Sorochan: Plasticity 2018

2  Pew Research center, "Where Americans find meaning in life," Pew Research Center, November 20, 2018.  Pew Research Center: American meaning of life 2018

3 Frankl VE (2006) Man’s Search for Meaning (Beacon Press, Boston)

4 Chen Ying, Eric S Kim, Howard K Koh, A Lindsay Frazier, Tyler J VanderWeele, "Sense of Mission and Subsequent Health and Well-Being Among Young Adults: An Outcome-Wide Analysis," American Journal of Epidemiology, April 12, 2019, Pages 664–673.  Chen: Wellbeing and life purpose 2019

5 McKnight PE, Kashdan TB. Purpose in life as a system that creates and sustains health and well-being: an integrative, testable theory. Rev Gen Psychol. 2009;13(3):242–251.  McKnight: Life purpose sustains wellbeing 2009

6 Wikipedia, "Meaning of life."  Wiki: Meaning of life

7 Messerly John, "Aristotle on the good life," Reason and meaning, December 13, 2013.  Messerly: Aristotle the good life 2013

8 Messerly [2009]

9 Fotuhi Majid and Sara Mehr, "The Science Behind the Powerful Benefits of Having a Purpose," Practical Neurology, September 2015.  Fotuhi: Benefits of purpose 2015

10 Kim Eric S., Ichiro Kawachi, MYing Chen, Laura D. Kubzansky, "Association Between Purpose in Life and Objective Measures of Physical Function in Older Adults," JAMA Psychiatry. October 2017;74(10):1039-1045.  Kim: Purpose of life seniors 2017

11 Brooks David, "Will Gen-Z save the world?" The Register-Guard, July 8, 2019. \Brooks: Meaning of life 2019

12 Pew Research center, [2018].

11 Reker, G.T., & Wong, P.T.P. (1988). Aging as an individual process: Towards a theory of personal meaning. In J.E. Birren, & V.L. Bengston (Eds.), Emergent theories of aging (pp. 214–246). New York: Springer.