When you ask yourself what is meaningful in your life, you should start with asking to whom it is meaningful. Is it meaningful for yourself, meaningful for other people, meaningful for some kind of higher power, or meaningful for life itself? Or perhaps a balance between these different levels of meaning?
Meaningful for yourself
Your life is your own, and it is full of whatever you fill it with. If you find something meaningful, then this something is meaningful. So develop your interests and desires, make your life emotionally rich. However, please remember that the live of any other person is his or her own, just like your is yours.
Meaningful for other people
You can find meaning in other people. Either directly, or through what they create. Likewise, others can find meaning in you, through emotional relationships with you or through what you create. Being good to other people and create emotional bonds with them makes your life more meaningful. So does creating art, science or whatever that other people can appreciate.
It is very easy to find meaning in other individuals close to us. However, we can also embrace a greater unity, by realizing that every person who can think and feel is meaningful in themselves and that their thoughts and feelings matter. We are all one family of mind. A family currently consisting of all humans, in the future perhaps also including artificial intelligences or aliens from other worlds. To some extent we could also include pure emotion without advanced thought, thus including all mammals and perhaps some other animals as well.
Meaningful for a higher power
Many believe that at some level of reality, there exists a higher power that cares about them and assign meaning and value to their existence. While there are many different ideas about the identity and preferences of such a power, certain moral principles are almost universally attributed to it.
Meaningful for life itself
One could also say that life as such has it’s own meaning and goal, regardless of humans and also regardless of any kind of higher power. Throughout billions of years of evolution, the biosphere of planet Earth has continuously expanded in two directions: Upwards, towards more and more complex forms of life, and outwards towards new horizons.
Mankind is in a unique position to push both these developments forward. Upwards, we have added cultural and intellectual evolution to the purely genetic one. And through genetic engineering, we can take the genetic development itself to new heights. Outwards, we are the only species that ever managed to leave the planet. We have visited the moon, and our machines have visited Mars. Step by step, we are getting ready to plant the seeds of life on other worlds. To boldly grow where no plant has grown before. One might say that the humans are the acorns of the tree of life.
To fully embrace the meaningfulness for life itself, we must understand that we are not separate from nature. We share our genes not only with the monkeys, but also with all other forms of life in this biosphere. Even mushrooms. All life originating from this world is one big family of life. A family that is currently stuck on one single planet.
The concept of human behavior being “unnatural” is a nonsense concepts. The cities of humans are as natural as the anthills of ants. In fact, there has never been a human that id not use technology: Primates used tools long before they evolved into something that could be called human. Our civilization is a part of this biosphere. The most important part, in a good way, since it is the biosphere’s only chance to expand beyond this planet. And also the most important part in a bad way, given that mankind is the only species with the power to destroy itself and to destroy all other life along with it.
To embrace the meaningfulness in yourself, the meaningfulness in the family of mind and the meaningfulness in the family of life gives you a solid base to stand on.
With meaningfulness only in other people or in life itself, you risk losing yourself. With meaningfulness only in yourself, you risk losing your connection with other people and with life itself. Such egocentrism is ever at risk of becoming destructive. Even when it stays benign, it is weak. What if you lose faith in yourself, like most people sometimes do?
I therefore strongly recommend developing meaning both in yourself and in at least one of the three other anchors of meaningfulness: Other people, a higher power, or life itself. Preferably two. Or all three, although believing separately both in God and in life itself might be redundant for some people, since these concepts are so often used as metaphors for each other.
One good thing about life itself is that we know for a fact that it exists. We know that it expands upwards and outwards whenever it gets the chance, and we know that we are it’s only chance to expand beyond this planet. Whether or not we see this as meaningful or not is up to each one of us, but to deny it’s reality would be pointless. Meanwhile, most people deny most versions of God. This is gradually changing, as the religious people of the world are coming together in interfaith dialogue. But in the meantime, the typical Muslim, Hindu and Atheist agree with each other that the typical Christian is flat out wrong about God. While the typical Christian, Hindu and Atheist agree with each other that the typical Muslim is equally wrong, and so on.
If your sense of meaning in life relies on your version of God being the right one and everyone else in the world being wrong, then this makes your faith more fragile and prone to violence. You are more likely to be easily insulted, viewing any disagreement with your views as a “blasphemy” or “heresy”. Hating other people for being wrong, while trying to tell yourself that there is no doubt: That you don’t have any reason to fear that you might be the one who is wrong. Yet, when people make mutually exclusive claims, they can’t all be right. Either they are all wrong, or all but one of them are wrong.
With so many different religious groups believing in different things, chance is not on your side that yours happens to be the one and only true faith. Without statistics or evidence on your side, you are left with pure egocentrism: The belief that you are right and everyone else is wrong, because you are you and they are not you. Please note that “you” can be plural just as well as singular: The egocentrism of an individual, or the egocentrism of a group. “This is the truth and the only truth, because it is what my daddy told me when I was a child.”
If your meaning in life depends on such egocentrism, the risk of spiritual backlash is imminent. You need to find a more stable ground to stand on. You may find this in yourself, in other people, or in life itself. Some people leave their old faith. Other develop it into something more enlightened and inclusive than it was before. Finding meaning not only in their own traditions, but in all visions of the divine. Either for themselves, or simply by recognizing the valid meaning they hold for other people. Unity in diversity.
We individuals are all one family of mind.
We Earthlings are all one family of life.