We know what it is for a word to have a meaning, or a gesture, or even a look. But what is it for a life to have a meaning -- or for life itself to have one? We speaking of the meaning of life, but exactly what are we referring to?
Certainly, each of us is free to decide what shape our lives will take, in terms of our values and decisions, our aims and our actions. We can say, or think, such things as: The meaning of my life is to serve others. Or: The meaning of my life is to pursue pleasure. Or: The meaning of my life is to gain as much money and power and status as I can. We can choose goals and purposes. But what, if anything, can make those choices and purposes themselves meaningful? Are all such choices equal? Or are some such choices in better alignment with something objective, some contour of reality that our lives are best lived by, some principle that should guide us if we want truly meaningful lives?
When I was writing the book If Aristotle Ran General Motors, which, despite its business title, is just as much about personal happiness and fulfillment as it is about organizational excellence, I wanted to include a chapter on "Business and the Meaning of Life." To do so helpfully, I had to answer the question for myself as to whether there is an overall meaning of life, and if so, what exactly it is. In the sense of meaning I was pursuing, it would have to be something that would give purpose and sense to our choices at the deepest possible level. It would have to be congruent with some noble aim, or intent, that might have been recognized by the deepest philosophies and spiritual literatures throughout history, however obliquely. After monumental reading and thinking, analysis and imagination, I hit on what I thought, and still think, distills all the world's best wisdom on the issue.
The meaning of life is creative love, or loving creativity. A life that is organized in disregard of this objective requirement will, to the extent that it departs from this, lack full and proper meaning of the deepest and most positive sort. A life that aligns with it will be, to that extent, a meaningful and fulfilling existence.
There's a deep sense in which the phrase "creative love" is a redundancy, because I believe that all genuine love is essentially creative. But it's a useful redundancy, reminding us of something crucial. The phrase "loving creativity" is not redundant in this way, since it is certainly possible to be creative in unloving, cruel, and even sadistic ways. The creativity that is at the core of life's meaning is a type of activity that expresses love.
So. In my view, the meaning of life is creative love, or loving creativity. When we live in harmony with this eternal value, we live great, meaningful, and fulfilling lives. When we don't, we don't. Our chief challenge, day to day, is to be loving in creative ways, and creative in loving ways. And when we do that, everything else can fall into place.
For a further elaboration of this and what it means, you can consult the book, available in many libraries, or my more recent book, Philosophy for Dummies, available at almost every large bookstore.