The Meaning of Life

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

The year is 2078, and I am in a haze of morphine, barely conscious. In the next few hours, my brain activity will cease and my heart will stop—I will die.


When I imagine my own death, it puts my life in perspective. Most of what I do and think about—including some of my writing here—becomes unimportant. The best music for a summer bbq? My experience in a sensory deprivation float tank? Worrying about taxes or stressing about buying a home? Dumb and pointless (well, the summer bbq music list is kind of important).

While the reality of mortality helps me dismiss the more frivolous aspects of my life, it also brings that which is important into clearer focus.

Many would have us believe that the pursuit of happiness is paramount. But I’ve come to think this approach is incomplete at best, and completely wrong at worst. As my children grow, my parents wrinkle, and I approach the big 4-0, I contemplate the big questions more and more, and no question is bigger than “What is the meaning of life?”

Of course, there is no “right” or universal answer, but here are a few candidates I’m considering at the moment.


The Buddha infamously said that life is suffering. What he meant by this simple phrase is not so straightforward, but real suffering nonetheless permeates our world. Whether it is the physical anguish of starvation or psychological anguish of depression, the amount of suffering in this world is endless.

If you are reading this, you almost certainly have the time and the means to alleviate suffering in someone. You could do it directly via donating time and energy, or indirectly via donating money. It might be as simple as comforting a friend or family member in physical or psychological pain, or as complex as running a charitable organization. Our professions can relieve suffering too; as a radiologist, I play a role by diagnosing conditions that cause suffering in patients.

If there can be a silver lining to endless suffering, it is that the opportunities to relieve it are also endless.


dog with stick

Life is not all suffering; in fact, it can be pretty freakin’ fantastic sometimes.

The potential for joy and beauty in the world is, like suffering, endless. The first time another’s lips touched your own. Laughing so hard that you cry. Driving through the desert at night, singing John Denver at the top of your lungs. Watching the sun set over the Mekong River. The smell of fall leaves. Sharing a beer and a conversation with an old friend. A taco with a Dorito shell.

You get the idea.

Those closest to us can bring the greatest joys in our lives. My wife, children and I undoubtedly create joy in each other. If my life ever flashes before my eyes, I suspect that montage will include my wife on our wedding day, my infant daughter’s giggle as I kiss her wiggling feet, and my son’s smile as I push him on the swing in the sun.


The lives of most humans in the last 200,000 years of our species (about 110 billion people) are unknowable to us. Those who were born and died thousands of years ago are forever lost to history, but even today—with the extensive digital footprint we each create—precious little will be known about our lives centuries from now.

But our friends and family—with whom we share our hopes, fears, dreams, ideas and lives—can carry a part of us with them after we die. To bear witness to the living and remember the dead is a simple yet profound gift we can give to those closest to us.

woman and dog

My brothers and cousins carry with us the last living memories of our late grandmothers. Born in the years between WWI and the Great Depression, they were both baptized with the solid Irish Catholic names of Mary. From an outside perspective, their lives were not very remarkable, but long and full of life nonetheless. I wish I had known them better when they were alive, especially their inner lives. I crave even the smallest window into what they were thinking and feeling. 

I recently viewed a long-lost super 8 video of my teenage mother. Before this tape surfaced, the oldest known video of my mother was taken in her late 30s. In this newly discovered, soundless clip, she sat and laughed on a couch with her father, who died before I was born.

I was absolutely captivated. Her face and mannerisms were familiar, yet she was a complete stranger. I found myself wondering what it would be like to meet her and know her when she was a young woman.

Even today, my parents’ inner lives are largely a mystery. I realize I could simply ask them what they are thinking and feeling—and I do sometimes—but they can’t share everything, and those thoughts and feelings can change over time. They have lived whole lives that are unknown to me.

I’m starting to ramble, but my point is this: Years from now, I want my children to know who I was when they were young—my curiosities and obsessions, my concerns about the world and about them.

One of the driving forces behind this website is to get some of my thoughts on “paper,” so that my children can get a sense of their wacky dad in the years when they were tiny tots. They may not care to read them until decades from now, but I’m convinced by my experience with my own parents and grandparents that, one day, they will want to know more about me.


Many people find solace in the promise of eternal life after death. Not me, because I don’t believe it.

When the lights go out for old Dr. Curious many years from now, I don’t expect to see any pearly gates or old relatives. One minute I will be there, and the next gone.

But rather than depress me, these thoughts give me energy. If one does not believe in an afterlife, then anything and everything that matters occurs during our time here on Earth. I plan to make the most of it.

The search

falling in love rocks sign

If you think you know the meaning of life—no offense—but you are probably wrong, and you will probably change your mind with time. Humans have struggled to find meaning in existence since we slept under the stars and were snacks for saber-toothed tigers. I won’t pretend to find the answers in a 1200-word blog post.

What I will do, however, is continue to search.

What gives meaning to your life? Has it changed over time?

11 Replies to “The Meaning of Life”

  1. Great introspective essay on such a complex subject.

    You are right. Happiness and suffering is not really the meaning of life. They are fleeting emotions that are relative and subjective in nature.

    And I think you are spot on in alluding to the idea that perhaps the meaning of life has something to do with the meaningful relationships that we make with our loved ones. Without meaningful relationships, we have no life or anything to live for.

    I am not going to claim to know the meaning of life either. However I have a better idea of my purpose in life— creating a better world for my children.

    Thanks for a great read, doc!

    1. My perspective on life has certainly changed since the little ones live in my house. Suddenly, I not only have to care about the fate of the world for the next 50 years, but the next 100 (or 150)!

      You are right: without conscious beings (e.g. humans) to observe and interact with the world and each other, the planet becomes a much less interesting and arguably meaningless place.

      Thanks for reading!
      Dr. C

  2. Great read, Dr. C! One of the most interesting things about travel is seeing how differently (and similarly) cultures have pursued this very question for the past 200,000+ years. The best people I have known share your thoughts on an afterlife. People who believe this time is all we have tend to have the perspective that makes them value relationships and experiences.

    1. I’m fascinated by the historical connection between morality and religion, and why they remain so intertwined to this day. The belief in an afterlife certainly guides many people’s earthly actions, mostly for the better. But, as you say, I don’t think that belief is necessary to live a full and meaningful life.

      Dr. C

  3. Excellent introspective post as always!

    I just finished reading The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh and he talked about suffering.

    I agree memories and experiences and alleviating suffering is what life is about. I certainly know that life is not about acquiring things (for me at least).

    1. The Buddhist concept of suffering—that we have cravings and desires, but we suffer in pursuing them because everything is impermanent—is a useful perspective on life, but one that is easier to conceptualize than implement. Some spend their whole lives contemplating these concepts, but I’m doing my best in my free time 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by!
      Dr. C

  4. Why question why the ice cream tastes good? Just eat it!

    I agree with you that happiness is not the end all of pursuits. But i do think it is worthy. Happiness as defined in the subjective well being literature includes “feelings of joy”. You mention Joy as a major meaning of life. I think you should define Happiness and how it differs from joy. It doesn’t in the eyes of those PhDs who study the subject.

    Happiness also includes and can possibly be improved by having meaningful relationships and making memories. Again, if you define happiness as excluding these things, your definition might not make much sense.

    I also disagree on an afterlife. I was raised Catholic but didn’t really practice after update high school. When thinking about my own mortality and how we wanted to raise our children I started reading Christian writings starting with CS Lewis who also wrote the Chronicles of Narnia.

    Lewis was a devout atheist and friends with several Christian thinkers and writers including JRR Tolkien. Lewis was also a philosopher and came to embrace Christianity eventually. He wrote several books on the subject.

    Suffering in not a concept unique to Buddhism, Christians believe it’s part of living also.

    The meaning of life? No, I don’t have it either, but I try to see it sometimes. Sometimes though, I just eat the ice cream.

    1. I remember you saying that you have read a lot about happiness, and it shows 🙂

      Maybe I didn’t express it so well here, but I view happiness as an internal, selfish pursuit whereas joy is something we can create and share in each other. I agree they are closely linked, and certainly increased happiness can make life better for you and those around you. I’d love to read your recommended books on this subject!

      I am an atheist, for lack of a better word (I’m not sure what a “devout atheist” is :)). I admit that I can’t prove there is no afterlife, just as you can’t prove that there is. Care to try a “Flatliners” type experiment with me to test it out?

      I do believe there are great mysteries about life and existence that we have yet to discover, but that the answers will be found in science rather than spirituality. And I do eat ice cream, but I’m trying to cut back on added sugar!

      Take care,
      Dr. C

      1. I try to read about happiness without obsessing over it, then it wouldnt make me very happy…

        Anything by Sonya Lymbomirsky is good for a book. However, I prefer the papers themselves from the literature….pubmed works and some are free from google. They arent that hard to interpret. There are plenty good authors out there, here are some:

        Pew Research center at
        Elizabeth Dunn
        Timothy Wilson
        Robert Emmons
        Michael McCollogh
        Daniel Kahnneman
        Erzo Luttmer
        Richard Ryan
        Edward Deci
        Leaf Van Boven
        Thomas Gilovich

        If you want some papers I can email you, just let me know.

        You Happiness definition is interesting especially the selfish part of it. I agree that it can be seen and is often interpreted like this, in a Hedonistic sort of way. That isn’t how I see it though. The literature uses the term “subjective well-being” as synonymous with happiness. A frequent definition is frequent positive affect, high life satisfaction and infrequent negative affect. These are nebulous and subjective (by definition) terms, but they can apparently be objectively measured and thus tested.

        I guess a devout atheist, like pre-Christian C.S. Lewis, is just totally committed to atheism. Some people might waver a bit, like I did with Christianity in college and medschool, I wasn’t devout. Not sure devout has to be religious, its root is devoted.

        Are Flatliner experiments real? My IRB might no go for it : )

        This is a soul bearing post, I’m not criticizing, just commenting so please don’t take it that way. If you didn’t want comments I figured you just write a journal.

        1. Thanks for the list, I’ve go some readin’ to do!

          I relish any and all comments I get here, and you have certainly been gracious with the time and thought you put into your words here. It is much appreciated. I love hearing from people with different points of view. The world would be a better place if we could get out of our echo chambers every once in a while, or not get in the in the first place!

          Interestingly, I think a belief in an afterlife would make me happier (or at least more at peace), but I can’t will myself to believe in it.

          1. I just posted a timely one on Happiness. Was working on it for a few weeks, kids been delaying posts : )

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