It took a couple of years, but I think I figured out a meaning of life, sufficient for my own. It is: live life and then make way for other life. I only started wondering about life’s meaning in earnest a few years ago, and this was how I arrived at what might seem like a tautology, but I think is sufficient to fuel me for the rest of the journey.


Youth was, as Stefan Zweig might have put it, a period of expectation. I wasn’t searching for meaning, because I was learning. And as I learned, I expected to experience, accomplish and learn more. As I got older, expectations narrowed and loss or the fear of further loss, of vitality, of life, arrived. And the “how” started to turn to a “why”.

At first I intensified my search for knowledge, reading about the frontiers of physics, the formation and history of our planet, the evolution of life, etc. “The Vital Question” helped (Nick Lane had been my favorite origin-of-life author for many years) by showing how it could be that complex life is so rare in our corner of the universe. But it was no longer enough. If anything it made it seem weird that I as a sentient being was here to observe the universe.

It takes me back to the question of the Zoom of Life (a blog post from 4 years ago that may very well have kicked off this search), the scale at which one is supposed to think of one’s own life. Since then I had become unanchored at several zoom levels, or at least, many of the anchors were slipping: I had lost a parent, it wasn’t as clear what humanity had left to achieve, at least on its own, AI-unaided (or maybe that was just my “back in my day” reaction to this day).

I figured a lot of people have given this some thought for at least a couple of millenia, and so I might just rip off whatever they figured out about the meaning of it all. I first turned to the thoughts of other doubters, and though their attitudes were heartening, they didn’t seem to have quite the answer I was looking for. Over the period of two years, I listened to the audiobook version of the History of Western Philosophy. It for the most part went in one ear and immediately out the same one.

I experimented with producing something, perhaps life was about what you could make. A couple of self-published children’s books later, the futility of everything seemed only stronger. And then in the middle of listening to the book “Scale,” in the chapter arguing about the futility of life extension, there it was. I heard it as the purpose of life is to be and then make way for other life. That’s not quite what was written, and the quote was by Steve Jobs, but I had missed this (else I may have received it more skeptically). But right then, the miscomprehended version made so much sense. My life is part of a thing much bigger than me, LIFE. Individual life is short by design. I get to experience it, and the marvels of the universe and nature and being human and some of the wonderful things humans have produced like science, and art and music and food; and interact with others and learn a lot. And then I won’t be around to do so any more, but other life will.

A few books later, I read in both “Lost Connections” and “Natural Causes” how people with depression or facing terminal illness, after taking LSD, felt more at peace because they saw themselves as part of the great stream of life. I haven’t tried the stuff myself, but I do think happiness depends on finding the right zoom setting.

  3 Responses to “Life as the meaning of life?”

  1. Lada I am impressed. This is so well written and interesting to read. You also have created life that will continue to enhance humankind.

  2. Lada I am impressed. This is so well written and interesting to read. You also have created life that will continue to enhance humankind.

  3. Ever since I had kids, my meaning of life has been to get them raised, educated, and on their own. Once that is done, then the rest is gravy. I think of it like a relay race. Once you hand off the baton, you can jog around, drink some gatorade, chat up some spectators, anything you want – doesn’t much matter to the outcome of the race. Perhaps that is my version of “make way for other life” – doesn’t mean you need to exit, just you become a background process. The key to this background life is that you want to make the world your kids inhabit a better place – at least incrementally.You know, pick up some trash when you are kayaking around the bay.

    But I think the second issue you discuss, happiness, is orthogonal to meaning. You can have a miserable but meaningful life, think white helmets in Syria. Or, you can be an incredibly happy unproductive parasite, think a surfer traveling the world searching for waves sleeping on other people’s couches. Studies on happiness are notoriously squishy and imprecise. But, best I’ve been able to glean is that you have a happiness set point. Add lottery winnings, or a nobel prize, you get a happiness transient, but you return to your set point soon enough. Probably the best you can do is avoid things that make you unhappy. For instance, unfollow @realDonaldTrump on twitter. While it is sometimes fascinating, being outraged 3-4 times a day is exhausting. Not worth it.

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