Is Your Life Worth Living?

We rarely ask this question seriously, afraid there won’t be a satisfying answer. But when faced with a crisis, when life seems bleak and pointless, dealing with this question authentically is of crucial importance.

Albert Camus called the question of suicide the central issue of philosophy:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterward. These are games; one must first answer [the questions of suicide]

While we all believe that life in general is valuable, and even precious, that doesn’t mean that we believe that ours (or anyone else’s) life is really worth living. So how should we start thinking about this problem, and what could serve as a basis for an authenticΒ  conviction that it’s all worth it?


Most people would point out that the basis for our will to live lies in the biological instinct, common to all living creatures. And that’s certainly true – when faced with danger our limbic system takes control, and makes us run faster to avoid it. But how relevant is it for our question?

Viktor Frankl, a renowned psychotherapist that survived encampment in Auschwitz, in his powerful “Man’s Search for Meaning” talks about people in the camp that concentrated solely on surviving. Reduced to animal state, they were driven by instinctual will to live, and did anything to prolong their life, including stealing and betraying their fellow inmates. Paradoxically, these people were usually the first to give up and die. The reason lies in the fact that our instinctual drive to live is good in helping us avoid danger, but evolutionary, it’s not suited to help us endure prolonged suffering. In some point, it’s just easier to give up than to fight on. People lacking a deep, conscious motivation, a personal meaning which would justify the struggle were the first to go. So while our self-preservational nature suffices to make us go through our normal life, it may fail to sustain us through suffering or crisis.


Hedonists might say that “having fun” is a good enough reason to live. And this certainly may ring true to some people, especially teenagers. But our lives are finite, and as we become older it becomes increasingly difficult for us to justify a life preoccupied with a meaningless diversion. This is because with age it becomes important for us to make sense of our life, of it’s purpose, direction and legacy. And unfortunately, abundance of video-games, parties, sexual partners and alcohol don’t seem to help with that at all.

So what can sustain us through our life, even when faced with pain, suffering and the prospect of imminent death?


Meaning is about having a strong connection to an object or an idea outside of ourselves. This may be a worthy cause, a work we enjoy, a love to a person or a religious faith. Meaning is the decisive answer to the question of life. When two of Viktor Frankl’s inmates told him they don’t see the point in struggling anymore, he asked them what they would have done if they were freed. One said he would reunite with his loved wife and the second mentioned a project he left unfinished and very much wishes to complete. Each of them had something in the outside world that waited for them, that depended on them. Helping them see this, he unveiled meaning to their suffering, and helped them find powers to keep on struggling.

Finding some life configuration which produces meaning is not easy, but even when it’s achieved, it’s endurance is fragile. Meaning isn’t a holy grail, which once found can be hold unto. It’s a blast of wind that one minute carries us and the next blows in our face. Our kids grow (and don’t depend on us anymore), our projects fail (or complete), our loved ones leave us. And when that happens, when meaning dissolves and life loses it’s previous purpose, the dreaded question surfaces: what’s now?


When we are lonely, lost, and naked before the universe in our pain and misery, there is one belief that may redeem us: that sometime, somewhere, for somebody we may still be needed, be significant, be crucial.

Amidst despair and depression it’s hard to believe that life will be happy or easy ever again, and indeed we may never regain our older, happier selves. But seeing ourselves beyond the current crisis, beyond the transformations that we are about to undergo, it’s crucial that we realize that we are more than our past projects, past performances, past relationships. Despite our failures, disappointments and regrets, we are still unique human beings capable of loving, of acting with compassion, of creating meaning.

No one has ever lived a life similar to ours. Our parents, our childhood, our friends, our illnesses, our relationships, our achievements – they formed us into a unique mixture of perspectives, knowledge, experience. And after all, stripped of all our regalia, that’s all we have. But isn’t that enough? Isn’t that enough to be able to find a a renewed application for ourselves, a renewed meaning, a renewed life?

Living through changes is always difficult, and nothing is more difficult than changes to our perception of ourselves. If you thought of yourself as a a successful TV presenter, than being fired from your job might feel like it’s the end. If you regarded yourself as a dutiful parent, than failing your children is catastrophic for your self-image. If you are a good person, how can you live with the wrong that you did?

But are we just that? Must our successes limit our life’s scope? Must our failures define our heart’s reach? Must our wrongdoings prevent us from doing good? In the void of the lost meaning, what we need is sustaining the belief in our ability to broaden the definition of who we are and what we can do.

The question whether life is worth living is ultimately a personal one. Sometimes the suffering may be so unbearable that putting an end to it may be the only sensible choice (and consciously realizing that this as an option may not be such a bad thing, after all it reaffirms our ultimate freedom). But nothing worthy is ever gained without a struggle. And that includes life.

16 Replies

  • Great to read you again, you’ve perfected you writing skills once more, and brought a very interesting article, but the question that nags me most after reading this is: “What made you write this?”

    We know each other on a personal level, not just as reader/writer, and although I love discussing any topic with you, in this case the origin of the question interests me more then the question (or answer) itself.

    So, what brought it up?

    • The idea for the post came to me on the train from Tel-Aviv to Haifa (and
      also the first draft). I guess it’s an attempt to give a humanistic response
      to a religious dogma (“your life is god’s gift, so be thankful for it”) and
      nihilistic pessimism (“life is meaningless anyway, so just try to enjoy

      There is really nothing clinical in my interest in this question – it’s
      actually very practical. It’s easy to ignore it when life is easy, after all
      life’s worth seems self-evident. But when life strikes back at us, and
      suddenly we are stripped of all our insulation, we might be unprepared for
      the blow.

      George Costanza, when asked by Kramer “why do you live at all” replied,
      after some hesitation “I like to read the morning newspaper”. I’m afraid
      that it might be not enough, in the long run.

  • In my opinion, it is counter productive to try and find meaning to our life, because it does not objectively exist. Just as there is no “meaning” to the existence of planets, or laws of physics.
    We just exist – and that’s the only sure thing we can say.
    Not only life has no inherent meaning –
    But the thoughts about meaning of life also have no meaning.

    It does not really matter if people find subjective meaning, or not.
    If they party hard, or live modestly troubling themselves with meaning.
    In the bottom line, all of us are biological machines – animals in essence, who are doomed to die eventually, and the meaning of our life (which in fact is an abstract model) will die with us.

    By the way, regarding suicide –
    The perceived heroism of “ending it all” is just false.
    There is zero heroism or justice in stopping to exist.
    The 16 year old girl that jumped from the top Azrieli floor, and passed me on her way down, was not a brave martyr escaping from unanswered existential questions –
    she was just a dumb little girl, who if given the proper amount of Prozac would have suddenly found meaning again.

    The best strategy in my opinion, is to consciously suppress these thoughts, since their only real result, is depression resulting from the realization that our life is objectively meaningless, and to use the time allocated for us to live, to drink, to lay girls, to have fun.

    Hedonism is not a teenage rebellion – it is a way of life.
    What is classically teenage is to ponder over things that cannot be answered.

    • @Mitya – it seems that we rarely meet in person anymore πŸ™‚

      Anyway, although your statement is logical on the “physical level”, it seems that “choosing a way of life” by contemplating upon the meaning of life is not futile, and not everyone concludes that depression is the only result.

      It’s interesting since it is such a “dangerous” matter. Some might take the downfall, and some would see this subjective meaning and a leap-board to greatness in their own eyes or maybe even by others.

      I wouldn’t like to categorize anyone as being stuck in a “teenage rebellion”, but facing yourself from within and attempting to create meaning by living with purpose is a mature act, of someone who took the time and acknowledged their life’s body of work.

      A child brainwashed to obey a cultural narrative (be it religious, or academic, political or philosophic), although they have a “sense of purpose” they have not yet confronted the meaning of their life, and are acting on automated scripts provided by society.
      While a person who contemplates all the ins-and-outs of living, looks at past experiences, and concludes to himself the purpose of life (in your case “to live, to drink, to lay girls, to have fun”) has made a mature choice (even if unorthodox, or maybe even taboo).

      So the maturity is not in the choice but in the act of contemplating and analyzing and maybe ultimately answering to yourself these questions of meaning and purpose.

      • Hey:)
        I think it has to do with the fact that I’ve diminished my online presence to having an email address, and occasionally posting comments in this blog.

        However it can be easily fixed, with a meeting over cold beer.

      • Wow man, what a great reply – it’s a full-blown blog post in it’s own right. Maybe you can repost it on your blog πŸ™‚

        Great insight on the distinction between “passed-over”, unexamined meaning and self-attained, examined one. The first, while temporary serving the purpose of giving a person a sense of direction and place in life, will usually blow into a personal crisis, if not examined and corrected with time. (That’s the essence of midlife crisis, I believe).

    • Thank you for this great reply πŸ™‚

      Love, respect, dignity, belonging, faith – do they “objectively exist”? And if not, are they “made up”, not real? Many of the things we look for in our life exist only in our collective mind, what we could call in the human realm, not in the objective, material world. But that of course doesn’t mean that they are not real, or that their pursuit is meaningless. And just as we need love, appreciation and belonging, we need meaning.

      Basically we are meaning-seeking creatures. Our brain always looks for patterns, for connections, for structure – this is our way of making sense of what’s happening. We look for meaning in words (“what did he mean by that?”), in art (“what was the artist trying to say?”), in relationships (“Is our relationship going anywhere?”). Finding meaning gives us a sense of control – if I understand what’s happening, I can decide how to react, and ultimately it makes me feel safer. And what could be more natural for us then to look for meaning in the most important thing – in our lives.

      When talking about meaning of life, we may start thinking about some grandiose plan, some cosmic scheme of things, into which our lives can be integrated. And in this sense I agree with you that such meaning doesn’t exist. But that doesn’t mean that we should write off our lives as inherently meaningless.

      So we have this need to feel that our lives are meaningful, but what can we do about it? People that have faith in God believe that meaning is something that passed to us from above, and even if don’t know or see it, our lives inherently have purpose, irrespectively of us. But what about the rest of us, poor atheists, are we condemned to feel that our lives are meaningless?

      Well it seems that some things in life have more “meaning-producing” potential than others. Deep relationships (people that loves us, that depend on us), work that we believe is important, cause that is bigger than us – these things can fill our lives with meaning. But I guess this is a territory for another post πŸ™‚

      Here is an interesting post on this issue:
      What people mean when they talk about meaning of life? – Modern philosophers’ approach:

      • Perhaps I was misunderstood.

        Love, respect, dignity, belonging, faith – are indeed all real.
        Although they are symbolic abstractions – they represent ideas which physically change the chemical state of your body and mind,
        and your brain finds this enjoyable and comforting.
        Thus, these concepts – PHYSICALLY cause us to live a happier life.
        Even concepts such as Hate, Evil, and Loneliness are useful – because they chemically define states which our brain tries to avoid.

        However, meaning of life – is not an abstraction of this category.
        It does not put our brain in either a positive or a negative state…it just confuses it.
        Since it is a question without an answer, it puts our mind in an endless loop of search and introspection, which leads nowhere – thus only reassuring us that our lives are futile.

        It is very easy to confuse these two types, precisely because they are both abstract.

        It is normal and positive to search for love, respect, and faith –
        But it is very selfish to think that all these chemical states are somehow related to the grand plan (if such exists) of the universe, of life on earth, or to that matter to the meaning of our life.

      • Well, if the question of meaning stirs confusion in our minds, maybe it’s not so useless after all. Usually, when we are confused, we look for ways to clear the confusion – in this case that might be concrete actions that can help us with our quest for meaning – going to India, reading a book, thinking about how distant we became from our parents – and maybe give them a call.

        And while this probably won’t bring some grandiose, eternal answer to the question of meaning, this quest itself, this internal journey that we undertake may substantially increase our happiness, peace of mind and self-acceptance. And that should count for something πŸ™‚

        “We shall not cease from exploration
        And the end of all our exploring
        Will be to arrive where we started
        And know the place for the first time.”
        – T.S. Elliot

  • I believe it’s in our human nature to seek meaning in things and life itself (expressed on the basic level in search for patterns etc). So i’d say we’re not quite ‘animals’ but another level of existence. Our search for meaning cannot come from physical world we evolved from because it’s not possible that the seed doesn’t contain something which we find in a fruit of that seed. We’re got animal instincts but to be happy we do also need those (quoting Mitya – ‘ideas which physically change the chemical state of your body and mind, and your brain finds this enjoyable and comforting’). It’s just that each person finds his own meanings for himself. And when people lose it they suffer and even might commit suicide (be it a stupid teenager or a sophisticated ‘accomplished’ rich man). The meaning they lost one day stopped ‘working’ and they lost the ground. Of course it’s possible to prevent the impulse with the chemicals but it’s not working for many people. Avoiding thoughts about it doesn’t help them! And of course it’s a kind of ‘extreme’ cases in life but i think it’s natural and even healthy to reflect on our own ‘crutches’ we walk with (called ‘my meaning of life’). I loved the article, Mike!

    • My dear, your wisdom has always something to surprise and make me wonder. Thank you for these words.

      Our search for meaning cannot come from physical world we evolved from because it’s not possible that the seed doesn’t contain something which we find in a fruit of that seed

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  • As a psychologist and existential psychotherapist, I work with clients who come to me with a range of symptoms and problems. Underlying all of this would seem to arise questions of meaning and purpose, particularly after loss or crisis. It would seem that a time comes in the individual’s life when they must choose whether the meaning they have created and may re-create is sufficient to enable them to see life as a meaningful pursuit. Living ‘on purpose’ takes courage.

    Camus indicates that perhaps we shouldn’t ask ‘Why do people commitment suicide? Instead ask why don’t they?’ I think he highlights the angst of living inherent in the human condition – that we alone are responsible for our life and our choices and once we see that there is no external objective yardstick against which to judge the rightness of our choices, we can experience angst.

    My experience working with hundreds of clients over the years reveals that i couldn’t predict from the circumstances of a person’s life who will move forward after crisis and who won’t. Having meaningful connections with others is an important component but even with this, a person may still feel life is not worth living after a specific loss or crisis.

    Clare Mann
    Sydney Psychologist

  • Thank you Clare for your insightful comment.
    I guess many factors play a role in person’s ability to return to productive life after a crisis. Their childhood experiences, their natural tenacity, the mental concepts they believe in, etc.

    I am curios to know tough – in your experience, what is the most effective method for helping people finding a renewed meaning? Is it looking at person’s life and finding in it unattended projects / relationships? Or maybe it is uncovering something inside the person himself – some forgotten talent, ambition, interest, etc. Or maybe something else entirely?

    Your website is an amazing source of insight on the question of human existence. I expect a good deal of reading πŸ™‚

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