Is there a difference between the purpose of life and the meaning of life? I am asking because most of the time when people ask the classic philosophical question, "What is the meaning of life?", they mean the purpose of life. But perhaps there is a distinction between the two. I would love to read what philosophers have written about this topic.

  • 5
    "The Meaning of Life" was a dreadful movie, so I hope the purpose is quite different. No one has made a movie of it, that I know of.
    – Scott Rowe
    Nov 8, 2023 at 23:56
  • In this case they're synonymous, the only difference being one word has a Latin origin and the other a Germanic one
    – Mutoh
    Nov 9, 2023 at 13:05
  • good answers to this question, thanks
    – user67675
    Nov 10, 2023 at 4:19
  • To me, both meaning and purpose are caught in the trap of utilitarianism. Searching for value of life makes more sense to me, where suffering isn't rejected.
    – Teson
    Nov 10, 2023 at 14:30
  • @ScottRowe: Do you mean Monty Python's The Meaning of Life was a dreadful movie???? Nov 10, 2023 at 21:02

10 Answers 10


One of the long-standing answers from European philosophy is due to Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle speaks about the highest good at which humans should aim as the purpose of their life. Herefore he coins the term eudaimonia = well-being. This means to live in a state of happiness while practizing a certain set of virtues identified in this book.

Concerning the meaning of life I am not quite sure what you mean by that term. Considered from an external viewpoint, life does not have a meaning at all like a text or an information has a meaning. Only in a restricted and relative sense the life of person A may be meaningful for person B. In this sense the life of a my relatives, friends or some other persons does have a meaning for myself. But from the most comprehensive perspective I do not see that life has a meaning for the cosmos.

  • ...it's the internal one, we are searching for. Nov 9, 2023 at 0:19
  • @IoannisPaizis "Happiness is an Inside Job" - that is a good book.
    – Scott Rowe
    Nov 9, 2023 at 22:53

The purpose of life is to find the meaning of it. (personal opinion).


The moment a man questions the meaning and value of life, he is sick.

Sigmund Freud.

  • Philosophy was in fact born from this quest, for the meaning of life; everything in about this. Nov 8, 2023 at 23:40

He's not really a philosopher in the sense that you'd read his works in classes, but Pablo Picasso has a unique stance on this question.

The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.

An old teacher of mine used to say her gift was for teaching, and thus she was living life to the fullest. This is just another way of thinking about it.

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    – Meanach
    Nov 10, 2023 at 12:08

OP: "What is the meaning of life?"

What does 'life' mean? In a specific sense this is the same as asking What does 'being' mean? which has an extensive literature. "Beings come from Being" is the familiar phrase, so in this analogy the living come from Life.

In line with the principle of non-contradiction, for beings to come from being, being must not have the characteristics of beings. If Being is the foundation of beings it cannot itself be like a being, otherwise the thing founded would be in its own foundation.

Being, as the basic theme of philosophy, is no class or genus of entities; yet it pertains to every entity. Its 'universality' is to be sought higher up. Being and the structure of Being lie beyond every entity and every possible character which an entity may possess. Being is the transcendens pure and simple.

Das Sein als Grundthema der Philosophie ist keine Gattung eines Seienden, und doch betrifft es jedes Seiende. Seine »Universalität« ist höher zu suchen. Sein und Seinsstruktur liegen über jedes Seiende und jede mögliche seiende Bestimmtheit eines Seienden hinaus. Sein ist das transcendens schlechthin.

Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, page 38

There is a difficulty in focusing on Being and a tendency to turn it into a being.

We can never grasp beings by explaining and deriving them on the basis of other beings. They can be known only out of their grounding in the truth of beyng.

Yet how very seldom do humans advance into this truth. How easily and quickly they make do with beings and thus remain disappropriated of being.

Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy, §118

Note 'beyng' is an expressive translation of Heidegger's archaism 'Seyn'.

As soon as one starts thinking about being one starts turning it into a being as an object of thought. But being is what makes thoughts possible in the first place. By disengaging with objectifying thought one can approach the presence of being, but the nearer one gets the less can be apprehended to the point where nothing is apprehended. Hence...

Beyng is nothing "in itself" and nothing "for" a "subject." Only beingness can appear as this sort of an "in itself" and can do so only in the form of an effete φύσις [phusis/Nature], i.e., as ίδἐα, the καθ' αὐτό ["for itself"], something represented, an object. An extreme confinement in objectivity befalls all attempts to find "being" and its "determinations" (categories) in the manner of something objectively present.

Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy, §270

This is how Heidegger approaches the meaning of being.

  • 1
    A bit convoluted, but it addresses the issues, I think. An approach to Nonduality from the Philosophy side of the mountain.
    – Scott Rowe
    Nov 9, 2023 at 22:58

Words like meaning and purpose are open to interpretation, so your question could be approached in quite a few ways, but if we aim straight down the fairway, as it were, I would say that the purpose of life for eons has been blind procreation (especially if by life you mean life generally and not just the life of humans and their ancestors). Every organism seems to have been adapted to maximise the chance that their genes will be passed on, and every other of their attributes seems subservient to that purpose. Humans are less subject to that type of selection pressure than they used to be, so arguably we have the luxury now to behave in ways that mean we are no longer slaves to procreation. The meaning of life, I would say, is whatever you read into it as an individual- an inherently personal matter.

  • I wouldn't really say procreation is the purpose of non-human life, but rather that it's merely how life kept being alive, kind of like how breathing isn't the purpose of organisms that breathe (if you consider 1 organism instead of all life) or how train tracks aren't the purpose of trains.
    – NotThatGuy
    Nov 9, 2023 at 23:20
  • @NotThatGuy sure-you can view the question from different perspectives and your answer might vary accordingly. From the perspective I adopted, breathing is a subsidiary enabler of the purpose of reproduction, just as tracks are a subsidiary enabler of the purpose of moving things around in trains. Nov 10, 2023 at 7:07


The meaning of life does not need to have any obvious purpose to reach. It is possible to attempt staying happy with what you have right now, and do not expect anything you do to change your life in any significant way. This may obviously require to get into certain mindset. Life is good as it is.

This is called laying flat in China. These views come when seeking any specific goals (regardless if to realise yourself or to improve the world) only offer very diminishing returns.

  • this is an interesting answer, but seems to suggest that the key to real happiness is economic failure?
    – user67675
    Nov 10, 2023 at 15:45
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    Nothing new to say that the popularity of various philosophical views between general public depends on the conditions the society lives. If hard work brings valuable reward (money, education, social status), this unlikely to be very popular. If not a lot, another story.
    – h22
    Nov 10, 2023 at 16:02
  • maybe popular answers aren't everything?
    – user67675
    Nov 10, 2023 at 16:13
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    @prof_ghost Chinese is hard to render in to English. I think h22 is saying that people will not be interested in Tang Ping (yes?) if their circumstances allow for conventional success. "Easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to the kingdom of heaven." If you did understand, I apologize for my needless 'splaining. But it sounds close to Nonduality, for me.
    – Scott Rowe
    Nov 11, 2023 at 1:06

There are three aspects:

  1. Self-assigned purpose to your own life.
  2. Externally (God, society, universal truth) assigned purpose to your life.
  3. Effect that your life has on surroundings.

Typically both "meaning of life" and "purpose of life" are used to mean either 1 or 2. They are easily confused, often people search for purpose of life without knowing whether they are looking for an internal or an external answer.

The phrase "meaning of life" can also mean 3: for example in "my life is meaningful to my family".

As a thought experiment, you can consider famous people and your relatives and consider what would be the answer to each point for them. The differences between the viewpoints can be huge.


Do you mean personal meaning and purpose or universal meaning and purpose? I would like to deal with the idea of universal meaning. Firstly, purpose is covered in the field of teleology. That is worth a read. As to universal meaning, it may develop with the universe. This makes sense in the context of panpsychism. Again, worth the study. As to your question, purpose implies intention. Meaning does not.


For a better comprehension or to understand the steps clearly, I would like to treat this as three – purpose of life, aim of life and meaning of life. Otherwise you are likely to understand that those who have achieved the purpose of life undoubtedly know the meaning of life.

Purpose of life is the purpose of a particular life. It differs according to one’s vasanas. If one belives there is aim of life, IMHO, it actually indicates not of one life but if one believes that there are births and rebirths, then they should also be considered. That is, it is self-realization.

And the meaning of life is realized when one realizes that there is no second thing or person to ask and/or answer even this question (It may be even “What is the meaning of life?”).

Since the last one is about the meaning of longest-term experience of each individual, I leave a space to fill in your answer also so that you may find a better answer than mine :)

  • Me, myself and I... second and third thing ... Nov 9, 2023 at 16:01
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    @IoannisPaizis: That's why I also say there is a difference. Those who achieved (or those who haven't achieved) only the purpose of life may say as you said. But those who achieved the aim of life will never say this, because they know the meaning of life. Nov 10, 2023 at 15:37

Meaning can be stolen, forged, and generally exchanged for other goods (I chose the happier but less meaningful career). The purpose of life is something more human, and less easily corrupted by oneself.

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