The meaning of life – a psychologist’s view

Summary: Study investigates suffering-induced transformational experiences to help reveal what the meaning of life could actually be.

Source: The Conversation

The search for meaning in life is a familiar challenge to many of us. Some materialist scientists and philosophers consider it a futile search. Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins, for example, claims that human beings are just “throwaway survival machines” whose only purpose is to survive and replicate genes.

Otherwise, the theory goes, there is very little point to our lives. We may attempt to create other kinds of meaning, through religion or attempts at altruism for example, but all we’re really doing is following our genetic and neurological programming. Even our consciousness, the feeling of having experience inside our own heads, may not really exist, or may exist only as a kind of shadow of our brain activity.

But I take the rather unfashionable view that there is meaning to life. As I suggest in my book Spiritual Science, it is absurd to reduce human life and behaviour to purely genetic factors.

We are not just ghostly entities living inside machine-like bodies in an indifferent world. Human life is not a meaningless space between birth and death, spent trying to enjoy ourselves and forget about our predicament.

I believe that human life and the world mean much more than that. And this is not because I am religious – I am not.

Instead, my perspective is informed by my scientific research over the past ten years with people who have undergone what I call “suffering-induced transformational experiences”.

These experiences include being diagnosed with terminal cancer, or suffering bereavements, or becoming seriously disabled, or losing everything through addiction or having close encounters with death during combat.

What all these people had in common is after undergoing intense suffering, they felt they had “woken up”. They stopped taking life, the world and other people for granted and gained a massive sense of appreciation for everything.

They spoke of a sense of the preciousness of life, their own bodies, the other people in their lives and the beauty and wonder of nature. They felt a new sense of connection with other people, the natural world and the universe.

They became less materialistic and more altruistic. Possessions and career advancement became trivial, while love, creativity and altruism became much more important. They felt intensely alive.

One woman whose cancer was in remission said: “I’m just so, so fortunate to be alive on this planet. I just feel so privileged to be on this Earth and to have been given this awareness.”

A recovering alcoholic told me of feeling comforted and empowered, “knowing that you are a part of something far more wonderful, far more mysterious”.

A person who had nearly drowned described acquiring “a great sense of appreciation for the little things, not just the spectacular beauty of a flowering tree, but the beauty of even the most insignificant objects”.

A man who experienced a transformation due to bereavement addressed the topic of meaning specifically, describing how his “goals changed from wanting to have as much money as possible to wishing to be the best person possible”. He added: “Before I would say I didn’t really have any sense of a meaning of life. However, [now] I feel the meaning of life is to learn, grow, and experience.”


It’s important to point out that none of these people were (or became) religious. They didn’t have the kind of “born-again” experience some Christians talk about, although many people did feel as if they had a new kind of identity, even to the point of feeling like they were, as one person put it, a different person living in the same body.

Also, the changes weren’t merely temporary, and in most cases, remained stable over many years. Overall, the transformation can be described in terms of finding new meaning in life.

Fortunately, we don’t just have to go through intense suffering to experience these effects. There are also certain temporary states of being when we can sense meaning. I call these “awakening experiences”.

This shows a little girl in a field of flowers
There are also certain temporary states of being when we can sense meaning. I call these “awakening experiences”. Image is in the public domain.

Usually these experiences occur when our minds are fairly quiet and we feel at ease with ourselves. When we’re walking in the countryside, swimming in the ocean, or after we’ve meditated or had sex.

At such times there is a sense of “rightness” about things. We can look above us at the sky and sense something benevolent in it, a harmonious atmosphere. We can feel a kind of radiance filling the landscape around us, emanating from the trees and fields. We can sense it flowing between us and other people – as a radiant connection, a sense of warmth and love. We feel glad to be alive and feel a wide-ranging sense of appreciation and gratitude.

In other words, we find the meaning of life when we “wake up” and experience life and the world more fully. In these terms, the sense that life is meaningless is a distorted and limited view that comes when we are slightly “asleep”.

In our highest and clearest states of being, we perceive a meaning that we sense is always there and that somehow we previously missed. When our awareness intensifies and our senses open up there’s a sense of returning home – to meaning. So what is the meaning of life? Put simply, the meaning of life is life itself.

About this psychology article

The Conversation
Media Contacts:
Steve Taylor – The Conversation
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

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  1. “meaning of life , life itself ” is not something meaningful perspective ! …. infact life , death and life hereafter is a complete and meaningful perspective …. Islam gives meaning to life , meaning to death and meaning to life hereafter …. wow … what a continuity of life …..⚘⚘⚘

  2. Beautiful words, well written and completely on point, my awakening started last year after experiencing an NDE, I am still me but a very different version from the person I was before. Everything now has colour whereas before there was a severe lacking. I feel the universe around me. I have new talents, knowledge and wisdom that I didn’t previously possess and a completely different outlook on life. I could talk about this for hours but just wanted to confirm your scientific report as I know of many people at this point who are experiencing the same awakening all over the world. Thank you for writing such an informative and if I may say so, imperatively important, article. Word needs to get out about this quickly because something is changing in the universe and most people as of yet, are not ready for it. Please continue to enlighten the masses and thank you once again.

  3. The purpose of life is to live in harmony with the cosmos and to proliferate and then go away permanently. Earth is not the permanent abode for any creature.

  4. Richard Dawkins actually says very similar things to what you’re saying. Google Dawkins Anesthetic of Familiarity, Queer Universe, and where he talks of being privileged to be born.

  5. After 70 years of abuse, misery, TBI, PTSD, and constant, consistent refusal by qualified medical professionals to improve anything, I think your attitude is naive at best, BUT TRULY worthless. In fact, it is demeaning to those of us who suffer daily for a lifetime. II makes you feel worthy but you you are not. What you and others could and should be doing, you ARE NOT YOU WANT TO SEE GOOD COME FROM THE MISERY YOU CAUSE SO YOU WON’T HAVE TO FACE YOUR OWN GUILT AND SHAME.

  6. Interesting insight. There is meaning to life if you believe there is meaning. If your thoughts don’t reach there you end up wasting your life like the animals or other girls who have life. Man alone has shown the ultimate desired to find meaning beyond ones mere existence. Thanks for sharing your thoughts

  7. I had a near death experience during combat. On the street I was stabbed 10 times by 2 guys I had to fight off to live. I had a “severed aorta” among other things. I don’t know if you if know how serious that is? It’s nearly unsurviveable. Soldiers are not exclusively suffering PTSD fyi. Anyway the point of our lives is enjoyment. All good things done In life produce enjoyment. Above that this world is indifferent but that doesn’t change anything. This universe is way above every humans understanding right now. Enjoyment will have to do for now.

  8. I believe we are deeply spiritual.
    Body, Soul, Spirit, tightly woven with each have a dependancy on the other.
    How can hope or trust or feelings ever be explained by a single physical dimension.
    Feelings were evoked in me at 33 when my daughter was born that still exist today.
    Old sayings speak that hope is an anchor for a soul. My physical body carries around the inner me.
    Yes environment and culture have formed biases, but my choices have determined values and decisions that lie within.
    Great points for discussion, a meaning and a purpose for it all is a human quest for all mankind.

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