Why do human beings need a meaning of life?
n.2 • OVERCOMING NIHILISM
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” - Friedrich Nietzsche
In the previous chapter of Understanding Life no.1, it was mentioned that Christianity played a great role in reasoning the world until the Enlightenment. “God is dead” became a famous aphorism and this loss of faith brought uncertainty about the meaning of life.
Humans have never been capable of accepting that life is simply how we see it, and this has been true since ancient times. Instead, we have forever been seeking a higher meaning. Although it may sound bizarre, the meaning of life has traditionally been present in a different reality. This other reality, frequently termed the ‘true world’, has regularly been viewed as the source of truth and thought of as a destination with the purpose of life being to gain entry or access to this alternate world either when one dies or, in particular cases, during life. Theories which propose the existence of an alternate world as the source of meaning are known as two-world theories.
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who greatly influenced Nietzsche, suggested that it is the inevitability of suffering, combined with the awareness of the inescapability of death, that creates in human beings the desire for there to be a meaning to life.
Nietzsche agreed. He famously said that if one does not believe in God, one inevitably falls into nihilism. Nihilism arises when a person is lacking belief in intrinsic purpose and meaning of life.
It is interesting that Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God as the source of nihilism, even though he claimed to be an atheist himself. He came to adopt this idea through his first-hand experience of struggles, pain and suffering that he believed occurred due to a godless world that could not answer his questions regarding life and death. He suggested that this situation eventually drives the lives of human beings towards a common end by not having a transcended purpose.
According to the modern Nobel Prize Winner physicist Steven Weinberg, nihilism is also inevitable as long as there is science and its revolutions; he states that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless”.
From a scientific perspective, having a defined purpose is also key factor to happiness, as well as health. According to the New Scientist’s January 2017 cover feature ’Why am I here?’, research suggests that ‘people with a greater sense of purpose live longer, sleep better, while it cuts the risk of stroke and depression’. Today, researchers define purpose as a sense of direction in life — a long-term goal set around one’s core values that makes life worth living and shapes daily behaviour.
“If people with purpose live longer, there must be some biology underpinning that”, said Dr. Steven Cole at the University of California, LA to New Scientist. In 2013, he conducted research to investigate why this might be. His research differentiated wellbeing by two different types: hedonic (how often a person feels happy based on pleasure and rewards) and eudaemonic (having a sense of direction or purpose in life). These two aspects were measured by analysing participants’ moods: how often they were feeling hedonic or/and eudaemonic and whether there was any difference between the influence of these two types on people’s health.
The results were interesting. Although both groups had lower levels of depression, they had opposite effects on gene expression. People with more hedonic wellbeing but who showed lack of purpose in life were found to have far higher heath risks compared to those who had a defined purpose or meaning of life. The doctor added that “The biggest surprise [is] that you can feel similarly happy but the biology looks so notably different”. He suspects that eudaemonia - with its focus on purpose - decreases the nervous system’s reaction to sudden danger that is the reason behind the over-activation of stress, causing harmful inflammation.
As a result, science, philosophy and psychology all seem to agree that, having a purpose in life is the key to happiness because it will help people to overcome their nihilism from Nietzsche’s point of view and therefore decrease depression, which then also improves their health.**
But how do we define our purpose or, in other words, how do we find our meaning of life?
Nietzsche has some advice…
Nietzsche thought that, in order to realise one’s potential, it is important to find a much needed purpose to life by not clinging to a religious creed or mass movement, but instead by looking within. In every single person is a seed of unrealised potential, and one’s purpose in life should be to realise that such potential. However, most people conform and follow the well-trodden path to mediocrity.
“…they fear their higher self”, Nietzsche wrote in Human, All Too Human, “because, when it speaks, it speaks demandingly”.
Nietzsche believes that the task of becoming who you are is the most difficult task there is. Everyone has an inner voice that urges them to accomplish something great and to chase their dream, but most people repress this inner voice because they lack the courage and strength to listen to it.
Secondly, he thought that an individual needs to have an ‘organised idea’ – an ultimate goal that they desire to accomplish. The specifics of the goal are not important; what matters is the difficulty of the task. The more difficult it is, the greater one will have to become in order to accomplish it.
Such a goal could be to construct a great mathematical system, to become a top chef, to make the next medical breakthrough, or to scale the most dangerous mountain peaks in the world.
The next subject of Understanding Life is about how one can find such goal and how art can help to reach one’s higher self.
Do you have a defined purpose in life? Yes or no? Tell us your views!