What is the meaning of water?
That question sounds silly because it has no context. To state a meaning is to state a relationship in a context. To a thirsty man, water can mean salvation. In a religious context, water can mean purification. In a flood, water can mean danger. Only when you state the context can you state the relationship that gives meaning to water.
Would that method work with the musty old question, "What is the meaning of life?" To find out, we need to set a context and find a relationship. Since human life is a conscious experience, the meaning would have to be in the relationship between the experience and the consciousness.
Can one think of lives from the past that had meaning? Of course: Jefferson's life was all about establishing individual rights. Edison's life was about inventing our modern world. Jefferson's life had that meaning because he designed it that way. He knew what he wanted to do, and did it. Edison's life had his meaning because he designed it that way. He knew what he wanted to do, and did it.
If by the meaning of life, I mean the relation between my mind and my experience, then the meaning of life is fulfillment. My mind sets a goal—survival or something more—and I aim for the goal. Since I have free will, I can decide what my life will be about. I can choose a purpose.
People with a purpose have chosen to give meaning to life. They have a standard. They can compare actions to the standard. Would doing that fit with my purpose in life? If so, do it. If not, skip it. Endless possibilities are narrowed down to a manageable number. Doubt is replaced with certainty.
You wonder about the meaning of life when you experience yours as random and arbitrary. You look for a meaning from outside. It can be found by looking inside, and using reason. Does music make you vividly alive, as if it above all gives life meaning? Then use music to energize your life. Be a musician. Does making a new discovery satisfy your soul above all else? Then make your life thrilling by organizing it around discovery. Be a researcher.
Every purpose gives meaning to your life. A lofty purpose means great effort and great reward. A normal purpose means organized effort and regular reward. An irrational purpose means pointless effort and illusory reward. The most common irrational purpose is power. To make control of others the purpose of your life would be to make frustration the meaning of life, since those others have free will.
If you have already lived half a lifetime without choosing a purpose, what can you do? You can ask yourself, "Have I lived at random, or not? Have I done worthwhile things, or not?" If life has not been all random, then it has partly followed an unstated purpose. Tell yourself what you were up to when you were most alive and least random. Admit to yourself the meaning of your life. Then decide to make it consistent, or change it to something better.
A life lived without any purpose goes in all directions and gets nowhere. It is a life without meaning. But most lives are not like that. Most lives wander around on the back roads while advancing bit by bit in some main direction. That direction is the central purpose and meaning of that life. The advantage of identifying the purpose is that you can get off the back roads and onto the freeway.
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