Richard T. Kinnier et The Meaning of Life al. 10.



RICHARD T. KINNIER is a professor of counseling psychology at Arizona State University (ASU). His research interests include topics related to values and the meaning of life. He recently wrote a book titled The Point of It All. In it the meaning of life is finally revealed. JERRY L. KERNES is a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at ASU and is currently an intern at California State University at Long Beach. His interests include values and meaning-in-life issues. NANCY E. TRIBBENSEE is a doctoral student in counseling psychology at ASU. Her research interests include topics related to values, the meaning of life, and the relationship between physical and psychological concerns. She is currently serving as deputy general counsel for ASU. CHRISTINA M. VAN PUYMBROECK is a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at ASU. She is currently completing her predoctoral internship at the University of Maryland Counseling Center. Christina’s research interests include social justice issues and feminist and existential approaches to therapy. She recently published a chapter exploring factors influencing initiation and maintenance of drug use by Mexican American and European American women in a textbook on social influence in multiple cultures.

Two-hundred and thirty-eight quotations from 195 eminent people regarding their beliefs about the meaning of life were content analyzed. The main themes (in order of their frequency) are as follows: “Life is to be enjoyed,” “We are here to love and help others,” “It is a mystery,” “There is no cosmic meaning,” “We are here to serve or worship God,” “Life is a struggle,” “We must make a contribution to society,” “Our mission in life is to seek wisdom/truth, and to become selfactualized,” “We must create meaning for ourselves,” and “Life is
Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 43 No. 1, Winter 2003 DOI: 10.1177/0022167802238816 © 2003 Sage Publications 105-118



The Meaning of Life

absurd or a joke.” Discussion focuses on the meaning of the results and implications for practice.

Albert Camus (1955), Viktor Frankl (1992), and Leo Tolstoy (1980) all believed that whether life had meaning was the most important question in life. For them all human endeavors hinge on the issue of meaning—without meaning, nothing matters. Frankl (1978) viewed meaninglessness as the “primary neurosis of our time” (p. 2), and Carl Jung (1933) claimed that all of his clients over 35 years old had problems that were related to the question of meaning. In empirical studies, the subjective experience of meaninglessness has been linked to depression (Beck, 1967; Seligman, 1990) and substance abuse and suicide (Harlow, Newcomb, & Bentler, 1986), as well as to other psychopathologies (Yalom, 1980). Although satirical approaches to the meaning of life elicit laughter (see, e.g., Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life), the personal quest for meaning is mostly not a laughing matter. Yalom (1980) distinguished between two types of meaning: cosmic and terrestrial. Cosmic meaning refers to meaning that transcends the individual. Cosmic meaning is usually viewed as divinely inspired. Terrestrial meaning refers to that which is deemed by any individual to be personally meaningful in his or her life. Among the best known positions on the meaning of life are the following: (a) Life has no cosmic meaning and humans are doomed to insignificance and inevitable extinction. This pessimistic position was held by philosophers and writers such as Clarence Darrow (1932), Bertrand Russell (1981), and Arthur Schopenhauer (1964). A popular corollary to this position is that the question about the meaning of life itself is meaningless. Especially known for his pessimism on this topic, Schopenhauer even extolled the act of suicide and cursed romantic love because it was responsible for the continuance of the pitiful human race (Durant, 1927). (b) Life has no cosmic meaning but humans can create their own meaning(s). Nietzsche (1957) was a pioneer of this perspective. Existentialist philosophers like Camus (1955), deBeauvoir (1948), and Sartre (1956) and the psychiatrist Erich Fromm (1947) followed his lead. They believed that humans must find the courage

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to face the meaningless abyss and take responsibility for creating meaning out of the chaos. (c) Life may have cosmic meaning. Through honest and intensive search humans can discover truths in life. This is the perspective advocated by Frankl (1992). He believed that it was part of human nature to search for the meaning of one’s existence. In contrast to existentialists such as Camus and Sartre, Frankl believed that transcendent meaning is not something that can be arbitrarily created by a person. It can only be discovered. (d) Life has a cosmic meaning but humans are incapable of comprehending the complexities of it. This is the perspective of most religions. Advocates include the theologians Martin Buber (1970) and Reinhold Neibuhr (1981), the psychologist William James (1956), and writer Leo Tolstoy (1980). Faith and divine revelation are the means by which humans can connect with (though not fully comprehend) the meaning of life.

BELIEFS ABOUT THE MEANING OF LIFE Religions of the world vary in many of their rules for conduct and rituals but their stated or implied views on the meaning of life are strikingly similar (see Chalmers & Irving, 1965). The gist of it is that God has given humans the gift of life. That gift comes with a test. We must worship and obey God in order to pass the test. We cannot hope to understand all of the complexities and mystery of life. Instead, we must have faith and trust in God. As an atheist, Freud (1964) viewed faith and trust in God as an act of regression: We can avoid facing the depressing fact of cosmic meaninglessness by believing in the existence of the supreme parent, God. From a Freudian perspective, the continuing search for meaning can serve to protect individuals from the depressing conclusion that life has no cosmic meaning. In contrast, humanistic scholars like Buber (1970), Frankl (1992), and May (1953) believed that the search for meaning, though often fraught with anxiety, was one of the most noble and healthy of human endeavors.


The Meaning of Life

Klinger (1977) and Baumeister (1991) also noted that many people do experience meaningfulness from the process of their search. Where should one search for meaning? Humanistic psychologists agree that individuals ultimately must look within themselves, but part of that search should involve an open-minded consideration of what others, especially mentorlike figures, have to say on the topic. In their search for meaning, individuals naturally turn to highly respected spiritual leaders, authority figures, or those who are believed to be wise or self-actualized (Ebersole & DeVogler-Ebersole, 1985). In that spirit, Will Durant (1932) asked over 100 eminent people living during the early part of the 20th century to state their beliefs about the meaning of life. The list included Bertrand Russell, Mohandas Gandhi, and George Bernard Shaw. More recently, the staff at Life magazine (Friend et al., 1991) solicited responses from over 650 (mostly famous) people on their beliefs on the meaning of life. One purpose of this line of research is to provide individuals who are searching for meaning (which includes many counselors and clients) with ideas that may inspire them to clarify their values (Kinnier, 1995). In this study we extend the research of Durant and others by gathering quotes from a larger pool of eminent people. The eminent people include political and spiritual leaders, writers and philosophers, scientists and inventors, actors, and artists, past and present. All of their quotes were screened and then content analyzed.

METHOD The Eminent People The target population was eminent people. We are not suggesting that eminent people have all the answers; they are just one (rather unique) population who tend to be well respected by the general population. Obviously, there are many individual differences within the population. This study is designed to tap their collective wisdom. In identifying eminent people we sought individuals who were generally well known and well respected by a large number of people at least inside, and preferably also outside, their professions.

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We wanted to exclude unknown people as well as well-known celebrities who are mostly viewed as shallow or flashy. For example, we wanted to include people like Albert Einstein, Jean Paul Sartre, and Thomas Jefferson, but not people like Jerry Springer, Larry Flint, and Monica Lewinsky. For a person to be included in the analyses all four of us had to agree that the person was well known and respected. In some cases, we postponed our group vote until more information could be acquired about the person, either through literature or from experts in their fields. Although we attempted to minimize our biases through cross-checking and rigorous challenges to each other’s judgments, as well as through outside consultation, we recognize that the selection process obviously was not bias-proof. We wanted to insure a good representation of eminent minority persons and women in our sample. To that end, we purposely searched for such representatives and also consulted with people who were especially knowledgeable about those particular groups of people. For example, we consulted directors of academic programs in women’s studies and African American studies at a large southwestern university. The Quotes Quotes about the meaning of life were gathered from many sources. One source was Durant’s (1932) study. He sent letters to more than 100 eminent people asking them an open-ended question about their beliefs regarding the meaning of life (26 responses were published). Another source was the book titled The Meaning of Life, which was published by Life magazine (Friend et al., 1991). That book contains the verbatim responses of 173 eminent and noneminent people to a similar question. Additionally, we searched any relevant literature we could find, including several of the wellknown books of quotations such as Bartlett’s (1968) Famous Quotations, Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations (1988), and online sources such as Gale’s Quotations (1995). We also invited colleagues and others to add to our growing collection by providing us with quotes they had found. Our initial collection of quotes totaled several hundred. Each quote was reviewed by the four coauthors in group meetings. Only those quotes that all four of us agreed explicitly or implicitly


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addressed the meaning-of-life question were included in the analysis. Extraction of the Themes We used grounded theory and discovery-oriented procedures for extracting the themes and then identifying them within the quotes. Following suggestions of qualitative researchers such as Colaizzi (1978), Glaser, (1978), LeCompte and Goetz, (1982), Miles and Huberman (1984), Polkinghorne (1994), and Strauss (1987), the following procedures were employed:
1. The four coauthors each independently read all of the quotes. We each summarized themes we found. Themes were revised and quotes were reviewed as needed. 2. The coauthors then met as a group and discussed the themes. Quotes were reviewed in the group forum to understand and resolve discrepancies. The final list of 11 themes was revised and approved by consensus. 3. The coauthors then independently reviewed all of the quotes and identified which, if any, theme captured the quote. A quote could be categorized under one or more themes. 4. The coauthors again met as a group. A quote was “validated” as fitting under a theme if at least three of the coauthors agreed that it belonged there and the fourth coauthor did not strongly protest (i.e., each coauthor had the power to veto any vote). 5. Finally, validated quotes within each theme category were counted.

RESULTS A total of 238 quotations was approved at the initial screening. These published quotes were either publicly stated or written by 195 eminent people (144 men and 51 women). Nine people were identified as having an African heritage, the rest were White. Most had lived during the 20th century, but 27 lived mostly during the 19th century and 23 had lived prior to the 19th century. Many of the eminent people had more than one professional identification (e.g., spiritual leader and writer). The most frequently identified profession was writer and/or philosopher (n = 126). Other professional identities included artist/musician/actor (n = 23), scientist/ inventor (n = 20), political or business leader (n = 17), and spiritual leader (n = 11). Two were prominent in the sports world.

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The Top 10 Themes Although 11 themes were consensually validated, 1 theme, “Life is a test,” had only one quote that was consensually validated. The remaining 10 themes had at least seven quotes that were consensually validated. Table 1 displays the 10 themes and the number of eminent people who “endorsed” each theme. As can be seen, the number of endorsements ranged from 7 for “Life is absurd or a joke” to 33 for “To enjoy or experience life.” Descriptions of the major themes, percentages, and (some of) the names of the eminent people who endorsed each theme, as well as illustrative quotes, are summarized as follows.
1. To enjoy or experience life. Enjoy the “moment,” the “journey.” This was the most frequently endorsed theme (by 17% of the sample). Among the endorsers were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Malcolm Forbes, Cary Grant, Janis Joplin, Thomas Jefferson, Helen Keller, Sinclair Lewis, and Eleanor Roosevelt. For example, Emerson encouraged his readers “to laugh often and much” and “to appreciate beauty” (Neuhaus, 1956, p. 90). Malcolm Forbes observed that life “is a very short trip—while alive, live!” (Jones, 1997, p. 66). And the lyric that Janis Joplin is best known for is “You got to get it while you can” (Partnow, 1977, p. 455). Sinclair Lewis nicely captured the idea that life can be enjoyed even if that is all there is. He wrote: If I go to a play I do not enjoy it less because I do not believe that it is divinely created or divinely conducted, that it will last forever instead of stopping at eleven, that many details of it will remain in my memory after a few months, or that it will have any particular moral effect on me. And I enjoy life as I enjoy that play. (Durant, 1932, p. 38) 2. To love, help, or serve others. To show or experience compassion. This theme was endorsed by 13% of the sample, including Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Clarence Darrow, Albert Einstein, Mohandas Gandhi, Theodore Hesburg, the Dalai Lama, Albert Schweitzer, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. For example, Einstein stated that “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile” (Bartlett, 1968, p. 950). Viktor Frankl (1992, p. 115) believed that “love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man [sic] can aspire. The salvation of man is through love and in love”. One of the greatest models for service to humanity was Mohandas Gandhi. He said, “My consolation and my happiness are to be found in service of all that lives, because the Divine essence is the sum total of all life” (Durant, 1932, p. 84). 3. Life is a mystery. This theme was also endorsed by 13% of the sample, including Albert Camus, Bob Dylan, Albert Einstein, Betty


The Meaning of Life

TABLE 1: The Top 10 Themes on the Meaning of Life, According to 195 Eminent People No. of Eminent People Who Endorsed the Theme

Rank 1 2.5 2.5 4.5 4.5 6 7.5 7.5

Theme To enjoy or experience life; enjoy the “moment,” the “journey” To love, help, or serve others; to show or experience compassion Life is a mystery Life is meaningless To serve or worship God and/or prepare for the next (or after-) life Life is a struggle To contribute to something that is greater than ourselves To become self-actualized; to develop or “evolve” as a person or as a species; to pursue truth(s), wisdom, or a higher level of being To create your own meaning Life is absurd or a joke

% of Sample

33 25 25 21 21 16 11

17 13 13 11 11 8 6

9 10

11 10 7

6 5 4

Friedan, Søren Kierkegaard, Napoleon, Stephen Hawking, and Martin Buber. For example, Camus (1955, p. 51) said, “I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me to know.” More recently, Stephen Hawking (1992, p. 175) exclaimed that “If we find an answer to that (why we and the universe exist), it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.” 4. Life is meaningless. This (most pessimistic) but rather popular theme was endorsed by 11% of the sample, including Joseph Conrad, Clarence Darrow, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, H. L. Mencken, Henry Miller, Bertrand Russell, Jean Paul Sartre, Arthur Schopenhauer, and George Bernard Shaw. For example, Joseph Conrad referred to life as “that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose” (Gale’s Quotations, 1995). Sartre (1956, p. 547) proclaimed that “it is meaningless that we are born; it is meaningless that we die.” George Bernard Shaw once likened life to a disease, “and the only difference between one man [sic] and another is the stage of the disease at which he lives” (Gale’s Quotations, 1995). The pessimism implied by this theme was poetically captured by Clarence Darrow (1932, p. 43) when he compared life to a ship that is “tossed by every wave and by every wind; a ship

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headed to no port and no harbor, with no rudder, no compass, no pilot, simply floating for a time, then lost in the waves.” To serve or worship God and/or prepare for the next (or after-) life. Not surprisingly, this theme was endorsed by spiritual leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, and the Dalai Lama. It was also endorsed by more secular eminent people such as Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Thomas Paine, and General William Westmoreland. In total, 11% of the sample endorsed the theme. For example, Muhammad Ali referred to life as “only a preparation for the eternal home, which is far more important than the short pleasures that seduce us here” (Gale’s Quotations, 1995). Desmond Tutu said that in life we should “give God glory by reflecting His beauty and His love. That is why we are here and that is the purpose of our lives” (Friend et al., p. 13). Martin Luther King, Jr., said it most succinctly—“I just want to do God’s will” (Simpson, 1988, p. 231). Life is a struggle. This theme was endorsed by 8% of the sample, including Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Edna St. Vincent Millay, George Bernard Shaw, and Jonathan Swift. For example, in his book Nicholas Nickelby, Charles Dickens referred to life as “one damned horrid grind” (Gale’s Quotations, 1995). Jonathan Swift described life as “a tragedy wherein we sit as spectators for awhile and then act our part in it” (Gale’s Quotations, 1995). And Disraeli reflected that “youth is a blunder, manhood a struggle, old age a regret” (Bartlett, 1968, p. 612). To contribute to something that is greater than ourselves. This theme was endorsed by 6% of the sample, including Will Durant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Faulkner, Benjamin Franklin, Horace Mann, Margaret Mead, Richard Nixon, and Mohandas Gandhi. For example, the philosopher Will Durant (1932, pp. 128129) believed that the meaning of life “lies in the chance it gives us to produce or contribute to something greater than ourselves.” Emerson believed that our task was to “leave the world a bit better” (Neuhaus, 1956, p. 90), and Horace Mann said that “you should be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity” (Bartlett, 1968, p. 586). George Bernard Shaw eloquently reflected that “the true joy in life is being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one” (Simpson, 1988, p. 240). To become self-actualized. To develop or “evolve” as a person or as a species. To pursue truth(s), wisdom, or a higher level of being. This theme was endorsed by 6% of the sample, including Marie Curie, Erich Fromm, Frederick Nietzsche, Plato, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Henry David Thoreau. For Fromm (1947, p. 237), “man’s [sic] main task in life is to give birth to himself, to become what he potentially is.” Similarly, Robert Louis Stevenson argued that “to become what we are capable of becoming is the only end of life” (Bartlett, 1968, p. 822). And recall why Thoreau went to the woods. He said, “I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what


The Meaning of Life it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived” (Bartlett, 1968, p. 683). 9. To create your own meaning. This theme was endorsed by 5% of the sample, including Sidney Hook, Grandma Moses, Carl Sagan, Simone deBeauvoir, John Dewey, Viktor Frankl, and Carl Jung. For example, Grandma Moses stated “Life is what we make it, always has been, always will be” (Warner, 1992, p. 133). Carl Sagan described what he saw as the “hard truth”: We live in a vast and awesome universe in which, daily, suns are made and worlds destroyed, where humanity clings to an obscure clod of rock. The significance of our lives and our fragile realm derives from our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning” (Friend et al., 1991, p. 73).

10. Life is absurd or a joke. This theme was endorsed by 4% of the sample, including Albert Camus, Charlie Chaplin, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and Oscar Wilde. Perhaps the person best known for seeing life as absurd was Albert Camus, who said, “The absurd is the essential concept and the first truth” (Bartlett, 1968, p. 1068). Charlie Chaplin once described life as “a tragedy when seen in close-up but a comedy in the long shot” (cited in Gale’s Quotations, 1995). The rock star Lou Reed (1992) likened our ability to understand life to reading “Sanskrit to a pony.” Finally, Bob Dylan (1968) observed that “there are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke” (from “All Along the Watchtower”).

DISCUSSION To reiterate, we are not suggesting that eminent people are necessarily wiser than the rest of us and thus have all the answers. They are, however, a unique population. Generally, the population is well respected and their ideas may have a particular merit worth considering. Those individuals who are searching for the meaning of life may benefit from contemplating what others have concluded as they formulate their own ideas. It is also important to note that our sample is not a random sample of eminent people. Our original pool consisted of every eminent person we could find who had said something that was published about the meaning of life. Obviously, the biggest weakness of this study was our biases—we selected the people and the quotes, and we formulated the themes. Although the results admittedly may have been affected by our values, we did follow procedures designed to minimize our individual biases. We also believe that as a group we have no significant systematic

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biases in regard to who should be considered eminent, which quotes are about the meaning of life, and which themes are represented. It was not our purpose to classify the eminent people according to their beliefs about the meaning of life. Many of the eminent people expressed many, sometimes even contradictory, beliefs about the meaning of life at different times in their lives. This is certainly understandable, as life events, age, maturity, and moods can influence how any of us view meaning at any particular point in time. A wonderful example of this comes from Sartre. He is perhaps the most famous atheist of the 20th century. Yet just before his death, he apparently converted to theism. At that time he stated,
I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here, and this idea of a creating hand refers to God (Schwarz, 1984, p. 122).

Thus, it was not our intention to classify where eminent people are on the issue of meaning. Rather we were interested in the themes that would emerge from the group of eminent people. The unit of study was therefore the group, not particular individuals. One more comment on the meaning of the results—the percentage that each theme was cited might be seen as small—the highest percentage was just 17%. In our view, these percentages are underestimates because of the stringent requirement for inclusion, that is, consensus or near consensus of four judges. We decided to err on the side of conservatism—a higher percentage of the group may well endorse each of those themes. From another perspective, however, it does make sense that any heterogeneous group of individuals would present a variety of responses to such a general and complicated question regarding the meaning of life. The “group answer” is complex and contradictory. No unitary consensual theme emerged. Implications for Counseling Most individuals seek meaning in their lives. The search typically involves introspection and consultation—consultation with friends, family members, and mentors, as well as with literature, poetry, and song lyrics. We view the results of this study as just


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another source of amalgamated wisdom. The themes and illustrative quotes can serve as a stimulus for thought and discussion. Conclusion We conclude this article with what we believe is the central message from our eminent (involuntary) persons. Admittedly, this summary is our subjective portrait of the main ideas expressed. We wrote it as if all of these unique and special people had to speak in one (group) voice. Based on our sense of the data, here is what we guess such a group voice might say about the meaning of life: The point of it all—if there is one—remains a mystery. Perhaps the human mind is simply incapable of grasping such a profound idea as the meaning of life. The ever-present, lurking possibility is that there is no cosmic meaning at all. Life certainly can be a struggle, unfair, and cruel. At times it all seems absurd or even a joke. On the other hand, there also seems to be at least some hope that life has meaning. It may be what we make it to be, but the meaning may also transcend us. We at least sometimes sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We are all connected in some mysterious way. Life is a gift, an opportunity. While alive we should live fully, savor the experience, enjoy the journey. But we also have responsibilities. We are here to evolve into better and wiser people so that humanity may also evolve spiritually. We are here to pursue truths and knowledge. If we find truths we must stand up for them. We are here to serve and love others. Finally, our task is to contribute something positive to society and to the spiritual evolution of humankind. We should leave the world a better place than we found it. Only then will we deserve to “rest in peace.”

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Reprint requests: Richard Kinnier, College of Education, Arizona State University, P. O. Box 870611, Tempe, AZ 85287; e-mail:

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